Fabcon Precast

Fabcon Precast picFabcon Precast gets better, stronger and faster by implementing lean initiatives throughout its organization.

By Janice Hoppe-Spiers

Fabcon Precast has uniquely positioned itself in the construction and manufacturing industries over the past 45 years as a complete turnkey operation, specializing in manufacturing and erecting precast concrete. “Fabcon provides unmatched design-to-installation services for the world’s lightest and strongest precast concrete wall panels,” the company says.

Fabcon’s precast concrete wall panels are used across many industries, including data centers, manufacturing, fulfillment, distribution and warehousing, education and community, government, military, retail and entertainment. “Our customers are the ones who tell us what’s more important: speed or cost,” Director of Manufacturing Brian Kopas says. “Customers do have priorities and that dictates what we should be emphasizing in our processes both in the plant and the field.”

Since he came to Fabcon a year-and-a-half ago, Kopas has focused on implementing a lean management system by looking at performance in four facets of the business: safety, quality, delivery and cost. “We are measuring our performance throughout the day and we have a goal to meet,” he explains. “Leadership is expected to own the gap between the goal and actual performance, and every day we are working to get closer to our goal and improve the organization.”

Director of Construction Operations Sam Gray echoes the statement adding, “to have a best-in-class lean culture, we must continually challenge ourselves to be better so that our customers receive innovations that have production gains and our competition can’t catch up to us.” Fabcon Precast box

Over the past few years, Fabcon has been working to develop a lean culture throughout its organization by emphasizing and applying continuous improvement principles. The goal is for everyone – from the top down – to always look for ways to reduce waste and improve productivity, which ultimately leads to greater cost-savings.

“Lean helps us deliver greater value to the customer,” says Jim Houtman, vice president of sales and marketing. “Application of lean principles on a continual basis means our teams are working to identify efficiency gains and quality enhancements. For our part, that behavior drives our internal R&D initiatives, which means we are looking for products that meet not only the current needs of our customers but future needs as well. All of this translates into building performance and functionality that helps our customers be more competitive in their own markets.”

Lean principles are implemented not only on the manufacturing floor, but also out in the field during construction. “Principles of lean are consistent throughout manufacturing and construction,” Sales Engineer Dave Stanton says. “It comes down to eliminating waste and creating balance. Lean practices have been done for decades and are nothing new. What’s changed is that today companies do a better job of documenting and practicing lean principles.”

Gray says that “in the field continual review of work instructions ensures processes are constantly improving – best practices are evolving.”

Team Effort

Fabcon’s four production facilities in Minnesota, Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania hold weeklong cross-functional team events to encourage “change for the good,” Kopas says. Teams consist of those who work on the target process, support it or supervise it, as well as those who have nothing to do with the process but bring a fresh set of eyes. “They see things differently because they don’t know how it’s supposed to be done,” he explains. “They ask, ‘Why is this that way and why do you do it that way?’”

The company strives to hold one event per month at each plant with different teams looking at the same processes. “On Monday, the team gets trained on tools and concepts they need to practice for the rest of the week,” Kopas explains. “Tuesday they will observe the target process and identify problems and issues that don’t add value. Wednesday is implementation day where they rip the process apart and put it back together in an approved fashion. Thursday they fine tune it and Friday morning is the presentation.”

Senior leadership gives the team’s presentation to management and explains what their goals were, what they accomplished and how they plan to follow up. “That’s a proud moment for the team because they are enthusiastic,” Kopas says. “We attack the same process with different teams because each team has a different set of eyes and sees different solutions. We share the results so our other plants can pick what to implement based on what applies to them.”

Decision-Makers

The goal of every team event is for the participants to learn how to identify things that don’t add value and what to do about them. “We run these team events to teach them the process [of eliminating waste] so they keep doing it rather than waiting for a special week,” Kopas says. “We want them to do it every day.”

Fabcon wants to make changes right away during these events, so the saying at the company is, “creativity before capital.” “Spending money takes a long time and we want solutions we can implement right now, this week,” Kopas explains. “We want to make change right away, so it forces them to implement creative and simple solutions on the fly.”  

There is never a shortage of opportunities to improve upon the manufacturing process, Kopas says. “It’s a steady stream of simple little things and the sum total of that ends up being massive,” he adds. “Companies, after they have been doing it for a number of years, become so good at it that they keep seeing more and more opportunities to get better.”

By empowering its employees to constantly make changes for the better, Fabcon has seen an increase in safety and quality, as well as a reduction in the time required to make its products. “One of the goals we have is for every member of the team to identify one safety improvement,” Kopas says. “We had a team that took the time required of one process and cut it in half. It went from 76 minutes to about 38 minutes, and simultaneous to that they found safety improvements and reduced the consumption of raw materials. It’s not uncommon for teams to have those kinds of results.”

Gray, who previously worked for Mortenson Construction, points out that the majority of lean improvements he has seen in his career have come out of safety innovations, as well.

Ever-Evolving Scenarios

Implementing lean principles in construction is more challenging than doing so in manufacturing because the environment is always changing. “In manufacturing, you have a controlled environment,” Stanton says. “When you walk into the building, for the most part, it will look the same as it did before. Construction is ever-evolving because today [when] you walk onto the job site is the last time it will look like that.”

Although the environments differ, the principles remain the same. “Lean in manufacturing is about constantly looking at ways to better a process and it’s the same in construction except no two projects come together the same way,” Stanton says. “You just have to continuously look at ways you are wasting. Capturing those areas to improve creates a balance throughout the process and can carry over to the next project. You start and end a project, then you go to the next one and start all over again.”

Before coming to Fabcon in 2014, Stanton had been practicing lean principles before lean became what it is today. “Until joining Fabcon in late summer 2014, I had worked for Turner Construction since I graduated from Ohio State in 2008,” he adds. “Turner is a leader in the industry when it comes to technology and innovation initiatives. We used Post-It notes and began at the end of the process and worked our way backwards to see how to eliminate waste in our process.”

Today, companies like Fabcon, Turner and Mortenson use much more sophisticated technology to map the lean journey, but Post-It notes remain a practical, flexible and interactive tool used during the initial steps.

Creating a Culture

To keep lean front-of-mind every day on a construction site, Stanton says the most important thing to keep asking is “why.” “Why are we doing it the way we are?” he asks. “’Why’ is the simplest way to get to root cause analysis, which is the basis for improvements across standards.

Once the question of why is asked enough times, a lean culture is born. “You will start to get responses like, ‘That is a good question, why are we doing it this way?’” Stanton says. “The question goes to all employees on the job site. Managers are empowering their employees to ask that same question.”

A lean culture thrives on behaviors that do not dismiss anyone’s thoughts or initiatives as a bad idea. “There will always be a better way because construction is continuously changing,” Stanton says. “Lean is not meant to be overcomplicated. It’s to simplify a process, convey the changes to employees and strengthen the lean culture.”

Gray says that communication is key. “We have 300 field employees. Twenty-seven erection crews as well as caulking, saw cutting and patching crews. We rely on our 70 crew foremen to make sure lean improvements are shared and captured on a day-to-day basis. This is difficult considering our crews are constantly moving to new projects.”

All of that moving around is indicative of Fabcon’s strong lean culture. Setting panels at the average rate of one every 23 minutes is impressive. “It takes us four to six days to erect a 25,000-square-foot building and 20 to 25 days for a 150,000-square-foot building,” says Gray.

Moving forward, Fabcon will continue to look for ways to simplify its processes in manufacturing and construction. “It really works to see a process in its entirety from the first step to the last on paper and build backwards,” Stanton says. “I’ve been a part of those process-mapping sessions and they work. Put notecards on a board and leaders can come in and have an open dialogue, and after three days walk out with a better process than they had. That’s the biggest achievement.” 

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