Revolutionizing Construction Management

When a striking new residence hall was added to the campus of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s campus as part of the College’s $140M master expansion plan, it added a distinctive building to the Boston skyline. But Suffolk Construction also utilized a revolutionary new building technique that can point the way for more efficient construction projects for colleges and universities everywhere.

Historically, the construction industry has rarely been considered on the cutting edge. In fact, over the last 40 years, the construction trades have experienced a 20 percent decrease in productivity, while every industry, with the exception of agriculture, has increased productivity by 200 percent.

Suffolk Construction, the largest contractor in New England and one of the largest in the country, is reversing this trend with investments in state-of-the-art technologies and management processes. One of our most innovative approaches has been to adopt Lean Construction principles, a productivity-focused scheduling technique based on the revolutionary “just-in-time” manufacturing process developed by Toyota.

For the new residence hall we recently built for the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in Boston, our team effectively applied Lean principles and shaved 13 weeks off the original project schedule. The $61M, 21-story residence hall, which adds 493 beds and 145,000 sq. ft. of residential space to the school campus, became the first Lean Construction project in the City of Boston.

Lean Principles
At the heart of Lean Construction is the idea that all contributors to the building process — the construction manager and all of the subcontractors — come together at the start of construction to collaboratively plan the building schedule. On the MassArt project, Suffolk was no longer the only team looking at the master schedule every day; all the trades were involved in day-to-day planning throughout the entire construction process.

This early buy-in and close collaboration allowed Suffolk to utilize the Last Planner System to eliminate the bottlenecks, wasted time and over-production that are typical of construction projects. The Last Planner System is best defined as trades performing work at the last appropriate moment on a project so that the site is prepared for the next subcontractor to immediately start work as part of an efficient “parade of trades.” Subcontractors plan and work around shorter modules and schedules, allowing them to think about projects on a day-to-day basis and consider how their work impacts the other trades on the project.

In other words, rather than working on multiple floors at once, tradespeople on the MassArt project followed one behind the other to finish just a portion of a floor at a time. They then stopped every few days to determine their work and adjust the schedule as necessary.

The Lean schedule meant that the entire building team was reviewing their progress every two to three days, rather than every two to three weeks. By doing so, they were able to assess right away if they required more manpower to stay on schedule. The process also resulted in increased trust and accountability, leading to a stable network of commitments and reliable hand-offs between all the trades. This increased reliability meant a smaller likelihood of introducing mistakes that needed to be fixed, which naturally reduced the cost of the overall project and shortened the schedule by avoiding errors, poor quality, and the need to repeat work.

The MassArt team utilized four key principles to ensure project schedule reliability throughout the process:
  • Reverse phase scheduling. A schedule was created within the parameters of the master milestone schedule to allow subcontractors to plan the project, starting with the work activity and then working backwards to the start of the schedule. This ensured that all contractors considered the work that must be done prior to any scheduled activity.
  • Rolling six-week look-ahead schedule. Activities that were dropped from the reverse phase schedule were moved to this schedule and expanded upon.
  • Weekly work plans. These were the plans brought to all weekly production meetings by all subcontractors so that the construction manager could ensure the team was on track for that week.
  • Percent complete calculations. These calculations illustrated what each subcontractor actually accomplished against established weekly work plans. This was completed to ensure activities got back on track and identify trends for failure that may be improved in future planning.

Overcoming Resistance
Because Lean is such a new approach to construction management, there were some disbelievers when the process was first introduced. Once a skeptic of the Last Planner System, Jim McCoy, Suffolk’s senior superintendent, now extolls the virtues of the system after its successful implementation on the MassArt project.

“It really works, because every trade is responsible for preparing the site for the trade that follows, to keep the process moving,” says McCoy. “When each trade steps foot on the project site, they already know the work in front of them is complete, and they know ahead of time how much time and manpower will be required to get their own portion of the project done.”

McCoy adds, “It also makes the trades report on their progress to the rest of the team, so there is peer pressure to meet their commitments.”

Future of Construction
Feedback from our MassArt team, as well as other Suffolk teams working on projects nationwide, provide evidence that this new process — and the Last Planner System — are adding significant value. Last planning has increased efficiency and collaboration, enhanced quality, improved safety, and produced less waste. Teams have also reported smoother rides throughout the construction process — they were able to avoid the mad rush at the end of the project that can often lead to extra labor requirements and costly overtime.

Lean Construction is a fundamentally different way to manage construction projects, and one that should be considered by colleges and universities looking to build new buildings more smoothly, more quickly, and more efficiently. In addition to offering tremendous benefits to project stakeholders, it may just be the future of construction. 

James Grossmann is vice president of Operations at Suffolk Construction Company. He is responsible for overseeing the overall performance of his teams, including schedule, budget, quality management, and execution.

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