How to avoid COVID-19-related schedule delays using Lean

If implemented effectively, Lean planning practices can help meet critical production start dates and make up for delays caused by the pandemic

By Brandon Darroch and Brian Arend October 14, 2021
Rather than traditional design/bid/build, alternative delivery methods may be necessary to meet start of production deadlines. Courtesy: SSOE Group

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many manufacturing companies placed their design and construction projects on hold. Many of these projects were critical to meeting production targets and already had aggressive construction schedules before the pandemic began to impact the global economy. As the manufacturing industry begins to ramp up again, owners are looking for creative solutions during design and construction to make up for lost time.

Effectively implementing Lean practices during ini­tial planning can help identify design, procurement and construction strategies for bringing facilities online in a compressed timeframe. Here are several key con­siderations and insights.

Develop an effective plan

Historically, manufacturing leaders have preferred the traditional design/bid/build model, which takes a linear, step-by-step approach to project delivery and uses the critical path method of scheduling. While this model typically provides the most control and the least amount of risk to the owner, the linear nature of this method makes it the longest in terms of schedule duration.

Rather than traditional design/bid/build, alternative delivery methods may be necessary to meet start of production deadlines. Courtesy: SSOE

Rather than traditional design/bid/build, alternative delivery methods may be necessary to meet start of production deadlines. Courtesy: SSOE Group

Based on Lean concepts, pull planning focuses on the desired end state and works backwards to identify activities that can be done in advance or completed simultaneously with the goal of meeting that end state. Pull planning is a collaborative process that requires participation from all project stakeholders, and as a result, helps build trust and consensus — elements critical to a successful project. Done correctly, an effec­tive pull plan will drive the development of an efficient and feasible project delivery method.

Schedule acceleration versus procure­ment protocols

A pull planning session may identify opportunities for significant schedule savings. However, taking full advantage of these opportunities may require owners to approach the procurement process in a less than traditional way.

Consider an open book procurement approach where the general contractor is transparent with the owner’s procurement team on bids received for key trades or project components. This enables owners to maintain competitive bidding protocols while being open to potential schedule savings alternatives. Since open book procurement is a relatively new concept, consider sharing previous project examples or case studies to educate procurement staff on how they can remain involved and retain control over the procure­ment process.

Rethink corporate standards

Many institutional and manufacturing owners have established supplier networks and longstanding purchasing agreements that support operations and maintenance. There is a reason that light fixtures and roof membranes are typically the same across mul­tiple locations. You can streamline maintenance stock, purchase equipment and parts in bulk, reduce cost per unit and simplify overall maintenance programs.

However, constraints such as these can pose challenges when trying to accelerate project schedules. Should speed to market be a priority business driver, owners are encouraged to be open to non-standardization and consider alternative products and equipment that still meet their requirements but might be available at reduced lead times.

For example, following the pandemic, standard switchgear for a manufacturing plant may take 26 weeks or more to be delivered, while a switchboard that provides a similar function can be delivered in half the time. Additionally, a manufacturing plant may require more than 400 light fixtures. Placing an order of this size may take a supplier weeks to produce and deliver to the site.

By dividing the order among multiple suppliers or considering alternate light fixtures that still meet the specification but are a different model, the fixtures may be delivered and installed before the larger order is even shipped. This can apply to HVAC systems and other building components as well. It is important to note that, when considering alternate solutions, careful review is required by the installing contractor, engineer and owner. Electrical and mechanical systems require constant maintenance, so the facility lifecycle risks and rewards must be evaluated by all parties.

In another example, a greenfield automotive assem­bly plant includes heavy-duty cranes that require numerous large columns to support. Traditionally, these columns are steel. However, due to steel short­ages, steel fabricators could not meet the project’s aggressive schedule.

During a planning session to address the issue, the design team proposed using precast concrete columns rather than steel. Although a deviation from the client’s standard, the alternative solution was accepted, and the precast columns were fabricated and installed eight weeks sooner than the steel would have been delivered.

Jumpstart the construction process

An effective pull planning session may also identify opportunities to break up projects into smaller scopes of work. These “pull ahead” packages can enable an owner to start construction activities before the bulk of design is complete, enabling a significantly compressed overall project schedule.

For example, take a greenfield manufacturing plant. By completing the sitework design and awarding an early site/civil package, the project can begin con­struction before other building elements are designed. Foundations and steel can be completed separately, enabling steel mill orders to be placed before the bulk of the mechanical/electrical design is complete.

Large mechanical and electrical equipment can require up to six months lead time, so specifying and ordering substations, switchgear, chillers, air handling units (AHUs) and so on early places them in the manu­facturing queue sooner. Finally, the balance of the architectural, mechanical and electrical systems can be designed after construction has started, allowing the owner additional time to refine their own process equipment design and subsequent utility requirements, giving more time for the engineering details for the production lines to be refined without impacting the overall construction schedule.

By breaking the project up into smaller packages rather than completing the entire project design in a single comprehensive package, owners can achieve significant schedule savings.

The importance of owner involvement

Every project will face challenges as it moves forward. How the project team addresses those challenges can make or break a project schedule. The owner’s project leadership sets the tone from the very beginning and should facilitate collaboration and create an environ­ment of trust and respect of each participant to ensure issues do not become exercises in finger pointing or devolve into blame game scenarios.

By being open to innovative ideas and encouraging all team members to participate and contribute to solutions, the owner establishes an effective project culture. In addition to being open minded, a good owner’s lead (or owner’s representative) should have the ability to actively lis­ten, effectively communicate and most importantly, be empowered and be comfortable making decisions.

Accelerating project execution after COVID-19

Many manufacturing organizations use the same proj­ect delivery method over and over because “that is how it has always been done.” As a result, it is crucial for pro­fessional services consultants and contractors to make clear to manufacturers that the traditional design/bid/ build approach typically comes with the longest dura­tion, and that an alternative delivery method may be necessary to meet start-of-production deadlines.

In many cases, pandemic-related project delays have provided the necessary catalyst for manufacturers to investigate alternative approaches. If implemented effectively, these Lean practices can help manufac­turers meet critical production start dates and make up for delays caused by the pandemic.

Author Bio: Brandon Darroch, PMP, is southeast division manager and senior associate at SSOE Group, a global project delivery firm for architecture, engineering and construction management. He has 15 years of experience leading projects for both general contractors and design firms. Brian Arend, PE, LEED AP is electrical power department manager and senior associate at SSOE Group. He has 17 years of industry experience and has worked across many different manufacturing industries as well as automotive.