At B&I Contractors’ job sites, workers aren’t perched on ladders, putting together intricate assemblies high above the ground. There are no tools or materials piled on the floor or stashed in the corner. That kind of work — the assembling, the preparing, the gathering of tools and supplies — has already been taken care of.

B&I, based in Fort Myers, Florida, is one of a growing number of contractors across the country to adopt “lean construction” techniques: a plug-and-play approach to construction that lets workers prefab a project off-site, section by section. Then, at the job site, all that remains is putting the pieces together.

B&I has been in business for 60 years, 30 of them as an employee-owned company. As a full-service mechanical contractor serving southern Florida, its 650 employees do everything from HVAC to piping, sheet metal, service work, plumbing, electrical, and special projects.

Although the term “lean construction” was coined in 1993, the “lean” concept itself can trace its origins several decades earlier to the Toyota Production System and its philosophy of eliminating waste: overproduction, unnecessary motion, and unneeded product transportation. Within the past several years, those same principles have started to gain popularity in the construction industry, with the two major focuses being prefabrication and preassembly (assembling components in a controlled environment, then transporting them to the construction site in “chunks” for assembly).

B&I implemented lean procedures as a strategic initiative two years ago, although Jon Castro, sheet metal department manager, said they’ve been practicing it somewhat loosely for a few years before that.

“It’s part existential, part survival,” he said. “I really got into it because I saw that the culture and the construction world were shifting; I felt like we had to adapt if we wanted to maintain the size and profitability of the company we are, as well as the quality of work we put in. Everything’s getting more competitive.

“The lean approach really structures you to becoming more efficient, taking that leap ahead,” he added. “A lot of folks in the industry are, ‘I’ve always done it this way, and it’s good enough.’ If there’s someone who’s not as good as that guy but getting a little better and a little better, eventually the second one’s going to pass them by, and the first guy is going to stay the same.”

One recent B&I project that used both prefabrication and preassembly was at the six-story Cleveland Clinic Florida. In creating the clinic’s mechanical/engineering/plumbing system, B&I used a nearby off-site facility to design and put together 48 steel racks, each 20 feet long, 4 feet high, and 8 feet wide: the same width as the hospital corridor. This way, multi-trade installation could be performed at ground level, which allowed workers to build quickly, efficiently, and safely. Detailed shop drawings allowed the crew to maintain critical requirements for the location of system parts within the racks themselves.

On installation day, B&I used cranes to lift the racks to their respective floors, then removed the casters on the racks and rolled them to their proper locations.

“The racks were done months in advance, and we were able to build them off-site,” said Phil Murphey, sheet metal shop foreman. “When the structure got to where it needed to be, it was plug-and-play.”

Overall, B&I’s prefabrication and preassembly strategies resulted in minimal waste, reduced cost, and a significantly shortened installation time for the Cleveland Clinic project.

“Some of the guys were sitting in the warehouse putting things together; it’s safer than on a ladder,” Murphey explained. “Our customer and our clients are going to get better product, typically, when it’s prefab, because there’s no chance of products getting messed up in the field.”

It’s not about the company making more money and being more efficient — it’s really about better quality for the customer and the customer’s end user, according to Castro.

“When you’re improving your quality and reducing waste through lean, it’s a better product,” he said.

Racks, bins, and carts are a common sight on B&I job sites, where all the materials required for the job are delivered to the site pre-packed. When it’s time to start the day’s work, everything’s at hand.

“It’s eliminating wasteful movement, wasteful product, wasted energy,” said Matt Davis, plumbing prefab superintendent.

Lean containers come in different sizes for different uses.

“We have a couple styles of baskets,” said Davis. “We have the lean cart and the lean bin, which is 4 feet by 4 feet: you can put copper fittings in there, your sheet metal caps, adjustable elbows … so you’re no longer putting things on the ground and picking them up. Then we have a basket that’s 30 inches wide and 5 feet tall. It’s designed to fit through a standard doorframe, so you can still put a bunch of trim fittings on that cart and get it through the corridor without damaging the work that’s been done.”

Behind the scenes, the same philosophy applies to work like creating project designs.

“The way that I used to get my work into the shop was the old-school way: The department would decide on a design, I would have to sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil, put it back into my computer, and spit it back out for the workers to work on,” said Murphey.

Now, they use software that converts that sketch into a usable design.

“In the past five years, it’s gotten faster and faster,” he said. “It eliminates hours and hours of handwriting, hours and hours of work.”

Going lean is a true team effort because it means anticipating the needs of employees whose jobs are several steps down the line.

“It’s a different approach,” said Murphey. “We’re trying to make it easier for the guys in the field, so I’m always thinking of not just myself but, even though it doesn’t affect me, the best way to ship [ductwork or other materials].”

B&I has complete and utter buy-in from upper management, Castro said. Company executives understand and see the value for the business as well as for customers. But lean is more than a company policy.

“Lean really isn’t done in an office meeting,” he said. “Lean is done by the guys in the field. We ask the guys for feedback all the time — survey, survey, survey… toolbox talks, iPhone surveys — and we implement what they tell us.”

And when someone comes up with a great idea, they’re given a shout-out — like a write-up in the company newsletter.

“Typically, it’s the apprentices, guys who haven’t been doing it forever, who come up with the most creative solutions,” Castro said. “You want to highlight your guys, make them feel proud for coming up with a great idea. And the more people that are involved in it, the more people see how useful it is and jump aboard.”

Lean processing has another side benefit: Less wasted time means technicians have more on-the-clock hours available, a major plus in an industry starved for workers.

“Everyone’s worried about the shortage of manpower,” said Castro. “We’ve been able to meet our scary project schedules with lean processing. Plus, the customer gets it on time and better quality.”

So far, just a handful of companies in Florida have implemented lean processing, but Castro said the business model is pushing forward in other parts of the country and among some of their larger competitors. It’s a trend B&I is excited to see taking hold.

“There’s a real open sharing of information with lean companies,” said Murphey. “Iron sharpens iron. And I want to see the cool thing some other company’s doing that will help push us to the next level.”

Publication date: 7/9/2018

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