Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

Getting away from boredom

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Thu, December 01, 2011 19:12:52

Systems building requires learning from repetition. Repetition implies standardisation; at least if we want to keep costs down. Standardisation does not sound like a great concept for innovation or inspiration, now does it? Well. There are the arguments of standardisation allowing us to focus on creating value - the choice of wall thicknesses and the to-do list bullet points are already decided. That's the beauty of standardisation. But it is also the ugly face of standardisation. Risk are high for conformity. Repetitiveness. Boredom alert! This is not a drill.

Well, if a task is that boring, you simply do something different for a while. Easy enough to say but hard to pull off inside the box of standardisation. I even wrote a post about that a couple of weeks back.

It is doable though. In many manufacturing systems (yes, well …factories), this is done by work rotation. Each production cell is overstaffed and the tasks rotated. Let’s say we need four people to assemble a machine part. Task A needs two people, while task Band C need one each. However, we staff the cell with five workers and introduce task D: measure performance, document processes and results, actively look for improvements and discuss performance, problems and improvements with management. On the Monday, task D is my job. As an experienced assembly line person from tasks A, B and C, I do task D well. On Tuesday, I start my five-day rotation with the assembly tasks, while my colleagues one after another do task D. On Monday next week, we start over. When one of us gets sick, we can still perform our core tasks without regrouping the staff.

I personally think this would foster an innovative, creative environment around the production unit. As workers, we see the problems, we suggest the improvements, we implement them and we measure the success. Like the Scania “Hands on the motor” project, where the production units were asked to find ways to keep their hands on the motor, which is where value is created. By introducing prefabrication of a subassembly, a world-class production line (that even impressed the Japanese, they were THAT good) improved productivity with dubble-digit percentages. All thanks to the assembly workers who must have been very proud indeed of their creativity.

Did I hear you whisper that this manufacturing idea is not applicable to construction? I disagree. In a systems building setting, it should be possible for professionals to vary between structural design, BIM modelling, design management and product development. Similarly, it should be possible to vary between purchasing, logistics, site and production planning and production development. Prove me wrong, I dare you.

Arguably, work rotation is a way our of boredom for standarised tasks. Are we up to it?

This is not for today’s typical colleague of ours. We are talking about a pre-modernism breed of engineer, contractor and system-developer: the cross-disciplinary professional. By varying between tasks, we learn the relevant skills of many disciplines in the context of our system. This is a competitive edge for the professional; most colleagues that compete for the best jobs are specialists according to the modernist tradition. But the company that has that type of staff also has a competitive edge in term of employee satisfaction and the opportunity to staff the positions that need it.

Universities would do well to consider revising their curricula. Sooner or later, companies will ask for employees that not only fit inside the traditional silo thinking but also to thrive in a cross-disciplinary function.

Systems building. We can do this.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: think inside the box by nate steiner, spinning attraction at the 2008 Bixby Green Corn Festival by KB35.

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