Reality in improving efficiency in the construction industry

Its undoubtedly a continuing global challenge that the efficiency in the construction industry has been elusive in spite of all the investments in research, training and technologies to keep the nose above the water. Governments, companies and research institutions have been spending millions in technologies of the future like 3D Virtual Reality, 3D printing and extreme modularization which have limited and non-scalable consequences to the productivity problem.

                                                 Apple HQ and the Berlin Brandenburg Airport in construction..

                                                 Apple HQ and the Berlin Brandenburg Airport in construction..

High profile projects such as the tech firm’s new headquarters in Silicon Valley, or the Berlin Brandenburg airport have experienced serious delays of over 2 years and budget overshot of billions of dollars. (see Economist’s article).

Extract from the Economist article

Extract from the Economist article

Consultants like McKinsey and Boston’s Consulting Group have more than once reiterated the fact that the productivity of construction has performed poorly than manufacturing and agriculture. (see McKinsey’s article and BCG’s article) Though this is a reality and a true fact, but a comparison of construction with other industries especially like manufacturing is not the right way to look at the real picture.

Manufacturing and construction from the outset look similar when looked at from the process perspective. Both have design, production and testing stages. However, there is one critical difference that completely renders this comparison useless. Design in manufacturing results in millions (if not billions) of products being produced from the production and testing stages in comparison to the only one building, a dam or an airport coming out of every design stage in construction. The beauty of mass production comes from the fact that the cost of design is elegantly shared across all the multiple products that are sold to the millions of people worldwide. This beauty is seen in agriculture whether in efficiency in production or storage or distribution. There is no space for such a beauty in construction, and it continues to be the beast.

Labor plays another major factor in construction, most of the site work cannot be or will not be replaced by robots or autonomous systems. Whether it’s a question of cheaper labor or technology being impractical on-site, the lack of adoption and lack of any potential to scale prevents such technologies to have any impact on construction productivity.

It’s a fallacy to compare construction to any other industry as it is a unique beast and needs its own set of correctives and remedies.

Labor plays a critical role in construction productivity

Labor plays a critical role in construction productivity

Labor intensive countries across the developing worlds like China or India have always had this problem of collaboration or the lack of it in its workforce. Promoting a collaborative culture and commitment culture across the workforce has never been more important than now. A workforce that understand the context of the work, a workforce dedicated and committed to the project / organizational objectives and a workforce that supports one another is the long-term answer to this productivity puzzle of the construction industry.

Clinical tests are essential in construction to realize the potential of the change

Clinical tests are essential in construction to realize the potential of the change

In the medical history during the medieval times, the controlled clinical tests allowed the medical researchers to arrive at conclusions based on true evidences. Medical industry prior to this, was heavily dependent on assumptions, gut-feels and best suited answers. In the middle ages, the most common assumption in was that God was punishing mankind for its sins or due to demonic dogs. Some people even accused the Jews of poisoning wells. Scholars attempted a more scientific view, but they were hampered by the fact that the microscope wouldn’t be invented for several centuries which ultimately revealed the true source. (See article on Black Death).

Construction projects need a real-time microscope, it needs a framework for management allowing the dynamic nature of works and inputs from the hundreds of people on the site. It needs a comprehensive planning and analysis system that allows the project managers to get a realistic view of the project and take decisions based on rational and practical conditions. With changing times, the framework needs to be agile and provide for a continual improvement. Lean PlanDo is the answer to the construction productivity puzzle.

                                                                                     Lean PlanDo a planning and control framework for construction productivity.

                                                                                     Lean PlanDo a planning and control framework for construction productivity.

Lean PlanDo is that corrective that allows the managers to control the wastes in processes. It’s a preventive that allows them to tackle and eliminate conflicts and issues. Singapore has been a great place for a controlled clinically test for Lean PlanDo where it has excelled. In many of the complex projects its been involved in. It’s now time to meet the world out there.

                                                                                                               Lean PlanDo

                                                                                                               Lean PlanDo

Lean PlanDo — a real and practical tool for improving construction productivity. 

What does it feel like working in Lean Station?

         There was a sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt as I started my day on May 31st 2017. I stepped into my office knowing this would be my last day here. A lot of questions swirling in my head, how will the environment be in the new company, what if you don’t like it there, you’re comfortable in this company it’s not too late to change your decision. Looking back I could say that those fears were unfounded and had no basis. They were just the human reaction to change. Our built-in inertia to change as I call it. There was no need for me to feel the way I did because I have only experienced positive things until now at Lean Station. Not one moment have I felt like a newcomer or an outsider. From the moment I joined I have been treated like I was a member of an old gang of friends that has recently returned.

Ashwin - Developer, LEAN STATION

Ashwin - Developer, LEAN STATION

You could think of me as a frustrated software engineer (like the one from all the jokes!). Work was to me a mechanical process that one has to go through to get paid. Work was faking your way through all the team meetings and outings like you were with your best buddies. Work was something I had to do to sustain myself. It was not something I enjoyed doing. Hence I started looking for a change. A change that would break this monotonous routine that I had grown accustomed to. A change that would make me feel like a little kid in a candy store with his dad’s credit card.

Since the day started on June 1st 2017 I have been constantly learning, adapting, contributing and innovating at a level of freedom and involvement that I thought could not exist at a conventional company. But you cannot call us a conventional company either in that sense because what we’re doing and the pace at which we’re doing it, would not be facilitated by the rigid corporate infrastructure that is so rampant. Life moves at a faster pace here at Lean Station. Let me list out a few things that are worth mentioning that I noticed in my time here:

Every one contributes, every one is valuable.

Every one contributes, every one is valuable.

  • Team work: During my first month here Sharath (please note I am calling the CEO on a first name basis) sent us a link. It told the story about an intern who screwed up on his first day at work and got fired for the same. That was not the part of the story that appealed to me. The part of the story that appealed to me was that the company did not treat the intern as part of a team. It treated his failure like his own and not as a collective failure. I wondered why Sharath had sent us this story. It was definitely not for our amusement but it was to tell us how to behave as a team. It was to sent to convey a message behind the story, it was to show us that we are watching each other’s backs. This has had a tremendous impact in the way I look at my team and how I react when any issue comes up. I no longer think I did not work on this so I don’t have to fix issues related to that. It has fundamentally changed the way I look at my teammates and this is within the first month of me being here. Now when an issue comes up and I haven’t worked on it but I still work on fixing it, I feel like a superhero inside saying to my teammate in a whisper don’t worry bro I got your back. Not bad right!
one for all, all for one

one for all, all for one

  • Collaboration: Code review and pair programming I thought these were just concepts that existed in software engineering textbooks. I see these two concepts applied to their fullest here. It’s not just an extra step you have to do but it is more a tool that will help you write better code by looking at the problem from different viewpoints. I have been physically sitting a few feet away from my teammates and each would be so absorbed in their own problems that you feel like you are on your own but I have experienced only the contrary here at Lean Station. Even though your teammates are in Singapore, Germany or anywhere else you have the freedom to call them up and ask them to collaborate with you on the problem you are facing and if they’re not currently under heavy artillery fire they will help you out.
Freedom to ask why? to make mistakes and learn and improve..

Freedom to ask why? to make mistakes and learn and improve..

 

 

  • Question : Have you ever worked on something you did not believe in? I know the feeling. You don’t know what you’re doing and why you have to do it and what exactly will be accomplished and what is your contribution to the project. All of these questions loom in our heads when we are asked to do something but we’re afraid to question them because we fear our annual “appraisal” meetings and a million other things. The beauty of working here is that I do not have to work on a feature unless and until I am completely convinced that what I am going to do is going to enhance the customer experience and is a valid request. You can question the validity of the feature proposed and have a discussion of the pros and cons of this and when you’re satisfied about the functional requirements and a solid analysis of the background of the feature, you will be able to work better than when you just blindly do what is asked of you. This I believe is one of the best, if not the best, things about Lean Station.
Celebrating work

Celebrating work

  • Not just a developer: Being a developer at lean station does not mean that you are going to be restricted to your role. Depending on the situation you might have to handle customer support, participate in the hiring process, write blog posts such as this. You will be given opportunities to go above and beyond your job description and only if you are willing to seize those opportunities to explore what your comfort zone is what is not and doing them anyway is how we know that you are a good fit for us.

 

If you are expecting me to say that life is all rainbows and unicorns when you start working here, I’m going to burst your bubble. You will end up working harder than you previously did but the upside is that you will love to work harder. You will end up spending more time in front of the computer than you previously did but you will enjoy it. You will get frustrated when you are in an online meeting and you don’t understand what exactly is going on because your internet sucks but you will learn to listen more intently. You will learn a lot of things but you will also unlearn a lot of other things. You will begin to love the process that is going to take you to your destination more than the destination itself and when you finally get there you might actually miss it. If this sounds like something you will enjoy then you’re at the right place.

 

Continual improvements in Lean PlanDo series- Performance optimization.

Some of the common expectations from a software application as an end user can be broadly classified under functional and nonfunctional requirements. Functional requirements are those which help the user solve their specific problems. Nonfunctional requirements are those requirements which indirectly adds to their experience of using the application. The user’s expectation on both functional and nonfunctional requirements increases if similar applications are in the market. For example, a new email service. The user expectation, will be high on both functional and nonfunctional aspects as the solution to the problem is well known. So here, you would find that the user expectations are ahead and the solution is trying to catch up with them. These solutions are stuck in this race till the solution offered is at least 10x better than the existing one's. That said, if new problems are identified and a befitting solutions are offered or a 10x improvement is offered from existing solutions, solution would lead the users.

 

Solution leads the User Expectation:

A startup which chooses to identify problems and build solutions from scratch has to iterate to validate assumptions and figure out what solutions best fit to solve a problem. At Lean Station, we had to take the exact above approach  because we were the first to address this problem in the market, a disruptive application. We built the functionally working features giving the maximum weightage on the functionality itself and give a reasonable weightage to the non-functional user experiences in our earlier iterations. We take customer feedbacks to iterate and continue till it is operationally suitable and stable.

Now, we have been building Lean PlanDo for over 2 years and have reached a phase where main functionalities and the crux of the methodology are streamlined. We are now beginning to concentrate on the user experience aspects of Lean PlanDo. I am highlighting one of the major improvements out of the many we have added - speed and performance improvement of (Precision Diagram Method) PDM calculations or simply put the backbone algorithm that calculates the effect of complex dependencies in the project and calculates iteratively the new dates for all the downstream activities and recomputes the project end date in real time.

I will have to start to get technical from here on, all the non technical readers, see you at the end.

The old way: For calculating the early start and early end dates for an activity, each of the successor activity is taken in isolation and early dates are calculated based on its predecessor dates. The entire project activities are loaded and early dates are calculated for each activities. It loops till there is no change in the early dates calculated for all the activities. Even if a single activity’s early dates calculated did not match with it’s previous early dates computed before, it looped for the entire project, which means, at least two loops were required to figure out further looping is required.

Because of the way it was designed, it consumed time. To circumvent this issue, we decided not to auto run the PDM on delay or advance of activity, but have an “Update” button using which the user can trigger to run PDM manually.

The new way: It is evident that the above design is not optimal. Also, the manual intervention required by the user is not a desired way to have an updated plan. This functionality underwent sufficient iterations before functional expectation was fixed. It was now time to improve the performance and also remove the undesired “Update” plan. Also, in near future we want to support dependencies between tasks belonging to different activities. By this, the complexity and execution just gets doubled. Keeping all the above requirements, a total revamp was done to improve the performance and reduce the execution time.

Below are the comparison metric and charts which give the insight on the improvement of the execution time.

 

Comparison of Old vs New PDM:

 

As part of the continual improvement, the above graph shows a reduction in response time by approximately half the original time. This gain in performance will only increase with increased number of dependencies and complex dependency network because of the new approach taken. While the value addition on the feature list continues to grow in Lean PlanDo, more such non-functional aspect be delivered in parallel.