Adopting a Digital Lean Solution
The decision to make the switch from paper-based planning to a digital planning tool can be complicated. Teams that are new to Lean construction and the Last Planner® System might worry about piling a technology learning curve on top of a new process, while more experienced teams might be skeptical about the ability to maintain the collaborative, discussion-based nature of their meetings in a digital format.
While these concerns are worth consideration and mitigation to the extent possible, Covid forced everyone’s hand in the past year, and accelerated many companies’ adoption of construction technology. In hindsight, many have found that the concerns that held them back pre-Covid didn’t materialize to the magnitude that they may have expected.
“With the pandemic hitting hard last year, everyone was forced to go from being in person to going online,” says Erin Murphy, project manager at CG Schmidt. “I think a digital solution became necessary—and it took out a step, going from paper and turning that paper into something electronic. It put it where it needed to be already, and it’s an easier way to share that information with clients and subcontractors.”
For many companies, the pandemic merely accelerated a transformation that was already underway.
“We’ve been on a digitization journey. We’ve progressed to become cloud-based, so all the drawings are digitized; it’s a logical progression to plan our work digitally,” explains Jeff Shaw, construction lead at Chick-Fil-A. “And with Covid-19 and travel restrictions, some parts of the team or different stakeholders had limited travel capabilities. We can collaborate, work together, and share knowledge in a digital format, so it just makes sense.”
“When we started with Last Planner, it was pretty obvious that a sticky note was going to end up not a sticky note; it was going to end up in a digital format somewhere,” says Steve Turner, superintendent at FPI Builders. “We were transferring information to a spreadsheet-based program anyway, so the transition was natural for us. Everything I do, it’s all right here on an iPad—it’s my link to everything. I think with AI coming forward, with our industry leaning on technology more and more, it’s just going to explode. We’re all going to be living in a digital format sooner or later; we just decided to jump on it a little quicker.”
Getting Trade Partners on Board
Many project leaders worry about ensuring that their trade partners will be positioned for success using digital tools, and specifically look for solutions designed for ease of use and quick onboarding. While tech adoption on jobsites has increased over the past few years, companies are intent on finding solutions where the time saved on projects is worth the time spent on the learning curve.
“These guys want to do a good job; the trades want to get in there and do good work. If you just give them an environment where they can take advantage of that and work together, everybody’s going to win—and when the superintendent wins, I know my team is going to win,” says Shaw.
“Most of our subs come with an iPad. We already use software for things like drawings, RFIs, and submittals, so it’s not a new concept to have an iPad,” explains Murphy.
While there will always be skeptics, once you reach a critical mass of support the rest of the team usually comes around, explains Troy Moonen, a superintendent at Whiting-Turner “Most people absolutely love it; they want to learn it and get into the technology. You may have a few outliers that just don’t want to put in the effort, but you just let them go and make up for them in your weekly pull planning meetings or trade partner meetings.”
Breaking down the introduction of a new software into different meetings, by trade or by phase, can save time in the long run, as compared to onboarding everyone at the same time. This approach also ensures that there will be people onsite who are already familiar with a solution; they will be able to help those being introduced to it in later phases.
“Smaller groups will be my tactic for my next project. I actually wrote it in the contract terms, that we’ll be using this program, so it’s not a surprise when we start the project. Having them be part of that pull schedule meeting—getting all the parties there, going through each task, and talking about how each affects the others—that would be our step one. If you don’t have all your subs on board in the software, that weekly meeting is a good time,” says Murphy.
The benefits for the trades, says Moonen, speak for themselves. “You take it everywhere. Everywhere you go, you have access—your constraint log is there, your delivery schedule is there, your handoffs are there. Everything is on board, so it’s just a great tool to have.”
Covid created a momentum for innovations in technology that will not slow down, even as the pandemic now fades into our rear view mirror. As more companies realize the benefits these new tools offer, our industry’s digital evolution will continue to gain speed. Some will lead the way forward while others will follow, but it’s clear that a willingness to remain flexible and embrace change is quickly becoming as important a skill as any other in construction—especially when the risk is in being left behind.