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Five lean manufacturing techniques that boost shop efficiency

Snips Magazine, December 2017

If you haven’t started applying lean construction techniques to your sheet metal shop, it’s not too late to start and get ahead of your competition. A few years ago, many ductwork fabrication shop owners wondered if lean manufacturing techniques actually could apply to job shops (high mix/low volume).

It does. And now many owners are asking how to start. There is no one single way to start applying lean and no exact equation. Each shop is unique and at different stages of productivity and acceptance of change. Each shop manager must start with what fits his or her shop’s needs and abilities. Some approaches will work better than others. Here are five simple actions one can take to get started.

1. Clean it up

Get rid of the duct pieces you have saved for years just in case you might have a job that will need them. If you haven’t used it within a year, and see no use in the future, get rid of it.

Get rid of the old tools and equipment you are saving and hoping someday to fix them up again. If you have had no time in the last year to fix it, what makes you think you will in the future?

Toss scrap metal sheets piled along the side of your tools or in stacks horizontally throughout your shop. Ask yourself, “When was the last time you used the pieces of metal on the bottom of the horizontal piles or in the back of the vertical stacks? If never, recycle it all and make yourself some room.

2. Determine where things go

Put tools and hardware at its point of use. Make it easy and quick for your workers to reach for and get the tools they need to do the work.

Put tools and hardware used frequently close to the worker, such as on the table, on a shelf in front of the fabrication area, on bungee cords, etc. Apply the 45-degree work area rule and strike zone rules for what is used most often. That means put the items within the 45-degree arc from the center of the body to the left and right arms. The strike zone is the same as playing baseball from shoulders to knees.

Tools and equipment used less often should be located further away from the work zone. One shop had an old 10-foot hand brake machine right in the middle of the shop floor. Workers didn’t use it but maybe once a year as they had a new power machine. When they moved the old one out of the way it opened up the shop flow and improved productivity.

Put tools on mobile carts or on wheels if they are needed at different stations in the shop.

3. Mark it

Make it easy to see where any tool goes or if it’s missing. Organize every tool and instrument needed to fabricate, and mark it with colors, labels, and shadows so anyone can find it, or easily see it is missing.

Apply the 30-second rule. If a worker cannot find what he or she is looking for in the parts storage or tool crib within 30 seconds, it is not organized well. Improve it.

4. Implement systems and standard methods

You will need a system to keep the shop clear of clutter and unused tools. Identify who does what, and when. It is best if these tasks are rotated so everyone including the shop manager and superintendent takes his or her turn to keep things clean and organized.

Assign color codes to different areas of the shop, such as red tools belong to the beader, and blue tools are with the notching machine. With your shop workers, determine the tools to assign to each station, and what color to apply.

You will need a system for auditing the progress or soon after you organize the shop it will fall back into its old disorganized evil ways. Weekly or monthly, have one or two shop workers walk the shop and observe the progress based on an audit check sheet. Review the completed sheet with the shop workers in a daily huddle and identify what still needs work or consistency. When you reach a certain level of maintaining an organized shop, bring in lunch.

You may wonder if all this organizing will really help your shop. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that the mere appearance of neatness and organization improves work performance. The study showed workers demonstrated a 167 percent improvement in persistence and attention span in well-organized work areas. Workers in organized areas improved productivity by 10 percent over cluttered work areas.

Organizing your shop will save workers at least five minutes every hour. That’s an 8 percent productivity improvement. Would that be useful in your shop?

5. Make work flow 

Being organized is a good start on applying lean in your shop, but there is still more to do. Go often to observe — not spy on — the shop operations. We want the work to flow through the shop so it can be delivered to the customer for installation. Specifically look for:

  • Bottlenecks where the work bunches up.
  • “Treasure hunts.” Often, tools used in the workplace are poorly located, and treasure hunting for tools eats up workers’ time.
  • Batches of work being pushed through. It is better to fabricate in small lots so the work can flow and avoid all the picking up and sorting pieces. Moving metal around adds no value and wastes effort.
  • Waiting. You don’t want workers waiting for work or work waiting for workers.

You will need to observe for more than a casual walk through your shop. You need to see how the work goes. A snapshot look will fail; it must be like a video that runs long enough to see the real situation as it unfolds.

When you see a problem, don’t yell at workers. Ask questions in a respectful and an open-to-learning tone. This is not about blame but about finding and removing the barriers to improve flow. You will only be successful at lean in the shop by working with the workers to be organized and to remove barriers. The shop workers see productivity barriers every day; you only see them if you go and study the operations.

Lean is not complicated or expensive. It does work and pays dividends to those forward thinking enough to apply it. It’s not too late for your shop but you may be playing catch-up with your competition. Nothing improves unless something changes, so start trying lean to improve your shop.

Dennis Sowards is a lean consultant and guest writer for Snips. His company is Quality Support Services Inc. He is the author of The Lean Construction Pocket Guide, which has sold more than 7,000 copies. He can be reached at or (480) 835-6048.

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Check out our new video!

Last May I went to Ireland to do a Lean Train-The-Trainer’s course for the Technical, Engineering & Electrical Union (TEEU). Eamon Devoy, now director of Technical Training for, Education, Training, & Organisational Services (ETOS) was the General Secretary for TEEU and worked with me. He is teaching that Lean course. He developed this short video to help teach the Lean training. He has given me permission to share it. The course uses The Lean Construction Pocket Guide as its reference book.  ~ Dennis

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Seeing work with different eyes

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.      ~ Marcel Proust

Years ago I started working for the largest coal mining company in the world. We had many large coal hauling trucks, excavators and other big earth moving vehicles. They all used diesel fuel. The current thinking at that time was that once you started a diesel engine in the morning, you never shut it off until the end of the workday. So our vehicles were keep running during meetings, breaks, lunch, and shift changes.

At that time, costs were rising out of control so I was asked to help reduce energy use. Being new to the industry I questioned energy usage everywhere. When I asked about why engines were left running for long periods, I was told we had to do it to save engine wear.

This seemed so wasteful.

When we took the question to the large diesel engine manufactures of that time, Dart, Caterpillar, Euclid, and Cummings, we were surprised to learn that this was a bad practice. They told us we should shut the engines off if the wait was to be more than 5 to 10 minutes. Long periods of running the diesel engine in idle was actually harmful.

This new understanding allowed us to see the issue with “new eyes” and it changed the way we operated the equipment. That year we reduced diesel consumption by over 1 million gallons!

A good path to innovation and improvement is to see the work through different eyes and ask “why.” 

When Taiichi Ohno started questioning ‘why’, Toyota and all car manufacturers had much inventory in work-in-progress. The question, and the insights it revealed, changed the way people saw inventory: It was waste, not value.

In construction, we need to view our work with different eyes. We need to ask ‘why’ more, and not assume because we’ve always done it that way, it is the best way to do it. You know the old saying, “The more you do of what you’ve already done, the more you’ll get of what you’ve already got.”

We learn by asking questions, especially “why” questions. We also need to encourage others to ask us “why” as well.

Some good questions to start asking are:


  • Why are we always running short of material?
  • Why does the shop send us too much or not enough material?
  • Why do we have so much material left to clean up at the end of a job?


  • Why is the material to be installed not closer to where it is needed?
  • Why does it take so long to get started doing value added work each morning?


  • Why do so many workers spend so much time on treasure hunts all day in the shop or on the job site?
  • Why does it take so long to find the right tools or material?
  • Why don’t we have the submittals approved yet?
  • Why do we still have install collision problems when we used BIM?
  • Why do we keep having the same items appear on every punch list?

What questions should you be asking? Who can tell us the answers or how can we learn the answers? What can we learn to do better today?

“Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”          ~ Albert Einstein

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Happy Lean New Year!

2017 is a year of change in the United States. Time will tell if it is change for the better or not. While you and I have limited control on national policies and programs, we can improve the way we work and the processes we use. If you are not doing your work better this year than how you did it last year, shame on you. Your competition may soon pass you, if they haven’t already.

Much is changing in technology and how it is applied in construction. One small part of that is the use of videos to teach and communicated with each other. Here are a few YouTube videos you may find useful in your Lean initiatives:

5S’s application

SheetmetalShopImprovement SouthlandIndustries
Broom Stations

Last Planner System®

HOAR Construction Last Planner
What Should a Last Planner® Project Feel Like?

Lean Construction

Pankow Lean Culture LCI Video FINAL

Improved jobs site 

Start in the Bathroom

Take a few minutes to watch them (but probably not all at once). If the link doesn’t work, cut and paste the address into your browser.

If you have a good video, feel free to share it with us.

Let’s make 2017 the year we change and improve our work even more.

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Lean Management Course Taught in Thailand by Mormon Volunteer and Expert

Have you ever wondered how you could improve your productivity and lower your operating costs? The use of Lean Management concepts will be helpful. Lean Management is an approach to running an organization that supports the concept of continuous improvement. The course was recently taught by an industry quality leader, Dennis Sowards, who is also the author of the widely used Lean Construction Pocket Guide and author of over 50 published articles on

Lean and quality management in trade magazines. The principles and tools of Lean Management apply to all forms of work from construction to health care, manufacturing, and government.

Dignitaries who attended included the local Governor and President of the University.

Dignitaries who attended included the local Governor and President of the University.

The course was taught at the Rachapat Tepsatree University in Lopburi, Thailand on November 3rd and also at Phranakhon Si Autthaya Rajabhat University in Ayutthaya Thailand on November 15th. The presentations were attended by students, teachers, and industry and business leaders.

Mr. Sowards was invited to teach these courses by Nurak Manosujarittam, National Public Affairs Director of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and successful contractor in Thailand.

Dignitaries in the audience included the Assistant to the President of the University, and Mr. Nurak Manosujarittam, National Public Affairs Director and successful contractor in Thailand.

Dignitaries in the audience included the Assistant to the President of the University, and Mr. Nurak Manosujarittam, National Public Affairs Director and successful contractor in Thailand.

Mr. Sowards served as a young missionary in Thailand in 1970-71 and then again as a senior missionary in 2013 – 2014 illustrating his great love and commitment to the Thai people. He explained many of the concepts in both Thai and English.

He said, “I am volunteering my time to help the Thai people to use these Lean concepts and tools to improve their companies, organization, governments, hospitals and universities.” He continued by saying, “The Thai people are eager to learn and become better in how they do their work. I hope I have provided ideas and tools they can apply and continue to become better.”

The University President presents an award to Mr. and Mrs. Sowards

The University President presents an award to Mr. and Mrs. Sowards

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 Muda Walks Work

In today’s construction world most senior managers occasionally go to the job site and then spend much of the time in the trailer.supervising

The project manager may walk the job weekly, but usually has too much paperwork to leave the office and watch. Superintendents and foremen are too busy managing the details to invest time to see how things do get or don’t get done.

How to improve construction operations? There are thousands of answers to this question and more are developed every day. One simple way to improve is to follow the Lean approach of “Go & See.” Masaaki Imai, a leading expert on Lean techniques, says that in companies especially noted for implementing Lean, such as Toyota and Honda, managers are expected to spend one hour a day in the operations area watching for wasted resources and ways to improve. He calls it a “Muda Walk.” “Muda” in Japanese means waste.

One manager put it this way: “It is very difficult for most construction people to stand still long enough to observe. We waste plenty of time doing non value stuff, but for some reason we can’t spend the time to observe.”

Muda Walk for a Month initiative was started ten years ago to encourage managers and leaders to invest time during the month to go and see. It is held in September to honor Mr. Imai. September is his birth month. This year’s Muda Walk was just completed. Those doing the walk weekly reported finding many opportunities to improve.

Here are some comments from Muda Walk participants:

“Thank you for this program. I found it to be a very good use of time and I think we will implement some very positive procedures because of it.”

“I would like to have done more on the MUDA walks. I did find some interesting items, wasteful items, on the walks that I did do, and there have been some communications opened on those items that will lead to more productive days ahead.”

“The concept is simple but powerful. I liked the structured approach, your way of encouragement and certainly found your principles to be very appropriate. The nature of my business is more of a service type in the construction industry and I initially anticipated your concept to be more applicable to a manufacturing environment. I was wrong and every week could identify Muda without much effort.”

“Absolutely I will recommend this approach. By doing this waste will be identified and taken care of, you cannot see it unless you challenge yourself to see it.”

There are opportunities to remove waste if you watch for them. You won’t see them sitting in your office! Muda Walks are not limited to one month a year. You can do them any time and should do them frequently.

If you are interested in doing a Muda walk, please send me an email to Sowards Dennis <> and I will send you the detailed instructions.

Also if you would like a copy of The Lean Construction Pocket Guide* to share with your fellow employees and trade partners, you can order it at
* Now over 6500 copies sold worldwide.


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Go and See–Do a Muda Walk

September is Muda Walk Month!quote-the-message-of-the-kaizen-strategy-is-that-not-a-day-should-go-by-without-some-kind-masaaki-imai-64-16-39

by Dennis Sowards   •   September 12, 2016  •   Lean Construction Matters eNewsletter

September has always been special to me because because it is Masaaki Imai’s birthday. He taught me the value of Muda (waste) Walks. In years past I have made September the “Muda Walk for a Month.” During that month I would send information about how to do a Muda Walk and weekly themes to those who signed up to participate. Their commitment was to do as many Muda walks as possible during the month and share improvements made.

Since we are already in September, it is not too late to do a Muda walk. (It’s never too late.) The walk may be at a job site, in the shop, office or even a service truck. During the walk, look for ways to eliminate waste and improve operations. The challenge is to do a walk at least one hour a week. It is best if it is done one hour each day. That may sound like a hard commitment to make, but those who invested the time in past years have reaped useful rewards.

I do ask that participants log their observations and improvements and share them with me at the end of the month. If you are interested in doing a Muda walk this month, please send me an email to Sowards Dennis <> and I will send you the detailed instructions. Let’s honor the legacy of Masaaki Imai and improve our operations with a September Muda walk!

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People Build Buildings

by Dennis Sowards   •   July 23, 2016  •   Lean Construction Thoughts eNewsletter

Engagement Meter

Employee engagement matters

IndustryWeek (June 22, 2016) reported the following: “It’s a people thing and clearly a proposition many companies have difficulty with, if a recent Gallup poll tells an accurate tale. According to the organization’s data, a mere 32% of U.S. employees were engaged in 2015, a percentage that has remained fairly static since 2000. It matters. Gallup says its extensive research shows that engagement is strongly connected to business outcomes like productivity and profitability.”

So having engaged employees leads to improved productivity and profit, something every construction company is working on. Even though front line workers know they may not be around when the project is finished, we still need them to be engaged in continuous improvement. The equation I use to gain engaged employees may seem too simple, but try it; it works. It is:


 Engagement = Involvement + Communication

Involvement starts with respect and trust. Respect is shown and gained when we ask a worker for his or her opinion about barriers to doing their work and ways to improve. One contractor asks their employees in daily huddles. “What bugs you?” Asking, then listening and responding shows we want to know what the employees think and value their ideas.

One tip about asking for ideas: Sometimes you might hear what you feel is a crazy or useless idea. Don’t react to that suggestion. First, always say “THANK YOU” and mean it. Then, seek to understand and clarify the idea. Some people are not good at explaining their ideas in a few words so hear them out. If it seems to be a useful idea, move forward to make it happen. If it stills seems impractical or crazy, tell the worker you will get back with them. Do some research and prepare a logical response for why it can’t be done now or in that way. Get back to the employee within a day or sooner with your response. Most people will accept a “no” on a suggestion if they understand “why.”

Much has been written on how to improve communication in the workplace. Too much to cover here, but it starts with telling people what is going on. Let them know the daily work plan and weekly goals. Always connect work to the company’s True North (Lean talk for the company’s vision/purpose). Especially in construction, workers are interested in how they are doing compared to the schedule and in what work is upcoming. Usually when you think you are over-communicating, you are just on target.

Nature hates a vacuum. When we fail to tell people key information, they fill that “understanding” vacuum with worst-case possibilities. When we appear to withhold information, the workers will suspect we are hiding bad news from them. Rarely is that the actual case, but they will often think it is, thus filling their vacuum. Tell them what you can and be open and honest. If you don’t know, say so.

To summarize: we want engaged employees to help our projects succeed. We gain engaged employees by involving them in making improvements and communicating more of the big picture ad their role in it. Simple to explain, harder to do, but worth it.


We are working on a Spanish language version of The Lean Construction Pocket Guide. If you or someone you know understands Lean in Spanish and speaks Spanish fluently, please let us know as we need people to help us proof and refine the Spanish version. If you are interested in purchasing a Spanish version for your team when it is done, do let us know. Contact me at or phone me directly at 480.835.6048.

We still have the English language version of The Lean Construction Pocket Guide, now with over 6500 copies sold. Get your copy now. Or better, get a copy for your entire team!

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BIM and lean construction work best in tandem

by Dennis Sowards   •   May 1, 2015  •   Article in SNIPS eNewsletter

Plans are nothing, planning is everything.  ~ President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Training is needed

As every construction manager knows, there is a growing shortage for skilled labor and project managers in the industry. Companies are looking for ways to replace the retiring workforce. This problem is not unique to construction; all industries are facing the same problem. Some are turning to a 60-year old program called Training Within Industry (TWI) as a solution.Training

TWI is a training program that gives supervisors key skills in becoming effective supervisors and to help them rapidly and consistently train their workers. TWI was developed during WWII to train replacements of an industrial workforce that was fighting a war. TWI provided supervision with leaderships skills and the ability to analyze a job and recommend process improvements. TWI is recognized as part of what helped the U.S. win the WWII. We out-produced the enemy. During the prosperity of post-war America, the TWI program was dropped and it became a faded memory.

TWI was introduced in Japan during post-war rebuilding. The basic framework of TWI exists in Toyota and many other companies to this day. It is seen as foundational to Toyota’s success in continuous improvement, and more importantly, in its ability to sustain those improvements. Today companies are looking to the TWI program as part of their lean initiative to develop the key people and supervisory skills. I feel there is much leading edge contractors can learn from TWI however my efforts to create interest in the established construction training institutes have so far fallen on deaf ears. Like many new or forgotten ideas it will take forward thinking customers (the contractors) to change the established paradigms.

If you can’t argue with your boss, he is not worth working for.
  ~ Captain Leslie Simon

Inspect Your Own Work

286px-Magnifying_glass_icon_mgx2.svgTraditional approaches to quality control/quality assurance is “inspection.’ We typically audit, inspect and/or test at the end of the process. Often we rely on someone else to perform this inspection. Lean does not do away with inspection but changes where, when and who does it. We want self-inspection. The Japanese say about defective product – don’t get, don’t make it, and don’t pass it on. Do the people doing the work know if what they received is right? Do they know when they have done their work right? Do they know how to inspect their work to see if it is right? Are they trained sufficient in these areas? Does each worker know when he/she has installed the work right?  Is he empowered to stop the work if something is not right? We never want to install bad product. Field workers need the knowledge, equipment and time to make sure that the product being installed is working properly. How do you make this happen? How do you know it is happening right?

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What do Employees Want?

Doing more to keep employees doesn’t necessarily mean giving out more money.What Employees Want graph

The IndustryWeek 2007 Salary Survey, asked, “What matters most to you about your job?” and here’s how the answers lined up:

18% – base salary
17% – recognition of one’s importance to the company
16% – job stability
15% – career advancement opportunities
6% – benefits
4% – flexible schedules

While base salary is the biggest draw, it is not by much. There are many other reasons why employees come to and stay with a company. As the challenge to get and keep good employees heats up, consider what you can do besides giving out more money. Giving recognition and providing stability in the work can go a long ways. No one but the employee wins a bidding war. Note that spending more money on benefits and flexible schedules did not score as important in the survey.

Source: David Blanchard, IndustryWeek Forums 2/16/07

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People learn something every day, and a lot of times it’s that what they learned the day before was wrong. ~ Bill Vaughan

Meeting management tip:

If your meetings tend to be dominated by a few people, try passing out five pennies to each meeting attendee. Attendees must “spend” a penny each time they talk. And no borrowing allowed!

Customer Focused – COPIS – starts with C

A very usable and practical approach for process improvement is to try the COPIS method. COPIS stands for Customer – Output – Process – Input – Supplier. Use COPIS in a team situation when looking at how to improve a specific function or process such as material delivery, payroll, tools repair, etc.

COPIS starts with identifying the customer requirements and determining how well the requirements are being fulfilled. There are multiple ways to obtain the customer’s current and future requirements. Customer surveys, focus groups, one on one interviews all provide listening posts. Once the requirements are identified, review the outputs needed to meet the requirements. Does outputs match customer needs? Are priorities aligned? What is missing? Which outputs fail to meet the requirements?

Next examine the process, look at all steps that produce the key outputs. Do the steps add value? Fully review the process steps that fail to meet requirements. Where in the process flow does the failure start?

After examining the processes, examine the inputs. “Garbage in garbage out” is the rule. Failure may be due to bad inputs. Almost in sequence with examining the inputs is a review of the suppliers. The root cause of failure to meet requirements may be a failure in the supplier’s processes.

COPIS works backwards. The process starts with what the customer requires. Working backwards avoids conducting an entire analysis based on misinterpretations of what is most important to the customer. Through this analysis, barriers and problems are uncovered, root causes discovered, and preventive or corrective actions taken. COPIS is very useful and simple to apply.

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Lean Construction News

Dennis Sowards

Dennis Sowards

by dennis sowards                                                             June 2016

I haven’t written an e-newsletter on Lean Construction for several years, have been on sabbatical for almost two years serving a church mission in Thailand. So this is the first of what may be more, if there is interest in sharing thoughts on Lean Construction.

Since I last wrote, there are several major trends in the construction that I have observed happening:

LEAN CONSTRUCTION is gaining traction. More general and subcontractors are embracing and learning Lean. For most of the industry it is no longer a question of “can” Lean work in construction, but “how” to apply it to each contractor’s unique operations.

There are some contractors practicing LLS – Lean Lip Service. They claim to be doing Lean construction, but walk their job sites, check their gang boxes, look for their PPC measures and ask their trade partners and it is obvious that they only claim to do Lean. They use all the buzzwords in their bids and promotions but have no clue or intent to live Lean. They do everyone a disservice.

Blind men perceive an elephant differently

Blind men and the Elephant

Some contractors, in applying Lean, only see part of the elephant. Remember the story of the three blind men in India who encountered an elephant. One, having touched the tail, felt an elephant was like a rope.

One, having encountered the leg, described the elephant as a tree trunk, and one having felt the trunk thought an elephant to be like a snake. While they were all partially right, they were also missing the big picture. Some contractors see Lean only as Pull Planning, some as two-seconds employee ideas and some as Kaizen events. It is all this and more.

Some leading-edge craft unions are embracing Lean as a tool to help the contractors they serve gain market share. They are training their members to think and apply Lean. Lean will never be completely successful without the front line workers being engaged in living Lean.

Last, but of much interest to me, The Lean Construction Pocket Guide has now sold over 6500 copies worldwide. I feel it is probably the most read Lean construction book in the industry. I am always thrilled when someone quotes from it or writes to ask me follow-up questions. I always hope it is useful. If you haven’t read it, maybe it’s time to start.

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