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Lean principles in action at Escondido hospital project

The Palomar Medical Center West has more than 800 people working on-site, and a budget of close to a $1 billion -- a lot for any contractor to handle.

At a meeting of the San Diego chapter of the Lean Construction Institute last week, members gathered to hear how the project’s general contractor, DPR Construction, is using lean principles to make the massive project run smoothly.

“Often in the construction industry, there’s a fragmented effort,” said DPR Construction’s Jay Leopold. “You’re dealing with, generally speaking, on almost any job, 40 or 50 companies,” and each one has a different task to perform.

Leopold said the idea behind the company’s method is to unite the dozens of different subcontractors on-site toward a common goal.

Stats from the firm underscore the challenges they face; more than 2,800 people have worked on the site in Escondido, which has a budget of $940 million. The company estimates the project, which began in 2007, is 54 percent complete and should finish in the spring of 2012.

Leopold said the project’s success so far as been about building relationships as much as the implementation of lean tools.

Leopold cautioned that he wasn’t talking about trust falls or “kumbaya” team building exercises. Rather, DPR has taken steps to build trust with frequent meetings, and by setting up what he called a “virtual company” -- a board of directors made up of key players, from the owner to the various foremen in the field. The idea is to have stakeholders at every level relating to each other more or less on an equal footing, so that problems can be identified and dealt with as soon as they arise, and so that no issues go unmentioned.

“Often, they’re going to tell you what you want to hear,” said Leopold of the foremen in the field. The trick is to elicit honest feedback about progress, so the areas that need attention can be focused on, he said.

Project Executive Brian Gracz said the lean approach isn’t always immediately embraced amid the culture of a job site.

“Most people are willing to give things a try, but I’ll tell you, there are always skeptics,” said Gracz.

Gracz points to the installation of the electrical systems at the hospital as a time when lean principles were especially helpful. The work of various specialized teams was needed to complete the complex infrastructure required by a medical facility, which meant that close communication was a must. Emphasizing the collaborative effort -- rather than individual components -- was what helped the work get done.

DPR was a late-comer to the project, which began in 2007 under the direction of general contractor Rudolph and Sletten. Palomar Pomerado Health System, the project’s owner, relieved them in 2009, and the two parties are now in court over a billing dispute. The project has been plagued by budget overruns and delays. Leopold said coming into the middle of an ongoing project posed additional challenges.

Lean principles are adapted from the world of manufacturing, and place a strong emphasis on communication up and down the chain of command. The method is derived partly from the manufacturing processes of the Toyota car company, and emphasizes constant evaluation and feedback from workers at all levels.

The management at DPR takes seriously the goal of reaching out for feedback from laborers on site. The company created a custom-designed survey device, known as the Palo-Meter, that allows craftsman to give their opinions on a different question every day. A rugged steel kiosk on the site poses a question like “do you feel that you have what you need to do your job?” Workers are invited to register their answers by punching a button, and that data is then reviewed by higher-ups.

Leopold said for lean techniques to succeed, management must not only gather input and advice from everyone in the field -- they also have to act on that advice.

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