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Mechanical Contractor Sees Benefits of LEAN Practices

A visit to Tweet-Garot Mechanical’s fabrication shop can wear you out. Trailing after Chris Warren as he enthusiastically scurries from one example of Lean practices to the next, you’re thankful for each stop because it gives you a chance to catch your breath.

Chris is the Director of Risk Management and Lean Continuous Improvement for Tweet-Garot and he is obviously proud of what his company has done to reduce waste since beginning its implementation of Lean practices.

Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Tweet-Garot is a leader in the fields of process piping, sheet metal and plate fabrication, industrial ventilation, HVAC and plumbing. The mechanical contracting firm performs this work in the commercial, industrial, and institutional marketplace using approximately 350 mechanical engineers, plumbers, steamfitters, boilermakers, sheet metal workers and service technicians supported by 60 administrative employees. About 85% of its job sites are in Wisconsin with the rest in 16 other states.

 
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Tweet-Garot is one of a growing number of mechanical contractors in the United States that is implementing Lean practices. Until recently, Lean Manufacturing practices were typically embraced by manufacturers but not by the construction industry. In simplest terms, Lean Manufacturing is a systematic way to add value for your customers and reduce waste.

Tweet-Garot Goes Lean

Tweet-Garot began thinking about what it would take to identify and reduce waste throughout its organization. Chris, at that time the company’s Safety Director, was charged with leading the Continuous Improvement and Lean initiative. At the start of the investigative process, Chris says, [they] learned [they] were already doing a lot of stuff that could be considered Lean practices. “We were already a very good, clean, organized company. But like the book Good to Great says, good is the enemy of great. We weren’t really improving. If we would have been struggling, Lean would have been easier to implement.”

Tweet-Garot was about 1-1/2 years into its Lean journey when they started a part of the process known as Value Stream Mapping. “The key take-aways from the Value Stream Mapping were the elimination of duplicate purchase orders, and implementation of better inventory management of consumables through Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI).

Following that first step on the Lean path, the next step was a cleaning and organizing effort known as 6 Sigma (Safety, Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain). “Take this welding station as an example,” says Chris. “The idea came from an employee who said, ‘Every time I go to get a welder it takes me a certain amount of time to set it up.’ And by the time he gets it set up, the power cord plug may be broken because it was allowed to hit the floor, so then there’s down time. And if the plug is cracked, he has to make a decision. Does he plug it into 440 or not? So we were forcing an employee to make a safety decision that he shouldn’t be forced to make.”

View Mechanical Contractor Welding

Before This familiar site illustrates the cluttered environment that made it difficult to find needed equipment.

After Tweet-Garot learned the importance of keeping like equipment in one spot for all employees to use, like these welders.

A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place

Looking at before-and-after photos of the welding stations, the difference is striking. Where there used to be clutter there are now company-standard and labeled storage places for wire, whips, the power cord, and even the bottle cap. “Through our tracking, we found that it costs us 90 cents per minute for our employees to walk around to find a tool, a part or material they need. Instead of walking around, we want them to be productive and involved in changing the state of a fabricated piece,” says Chris. “Instead of having them spend 10 minutes setting up a welder, now they can spend two minutes because that welder is in good shape when they get to it. That leaves them with more productive time and it also makes the workplace safer.”

Chris said his company spent about $3,000 changing and labeling the hooks and other storage areas of 49 of its shop welders, and he estimates ROI in about 14 months. “That doesn’t include non-tangible benefits such as eliminating frustration,” he adds. Tweet-Garot took what it learned from that welder 6S experience and applied it to a 6S project on the hoist fitting racks in the fabrication shop.

“Owners” (employees responsible for managing the rack) are identified by magnetic signs on each rack. These employees also educate their co-workers on the importance of putting things back where they belong. “Now we have a supermarket approach,” says Chris. “Every time you walk up to the rack, you know where to find something and [you can] instantly see whether or not it’s there. If you spend a minute putting it back, you save the next person 10 minutes who otherwise would have to go hunt for it.”

Lean Practice Comes to Construction

“There is a marked increase in contractors implementing Lean practices over the past two years, as well as other service industries, including healthcare and government,” according to Dennis. “They see it as a means to gain competitive advantage of more loyal customers and reduce costs by eliminating waste.”

The New Horizons Foundation, an initiative founded by SMACNA and leading sheet metal contractors, recently funded research on Lean practices in construction. The research included a survey of HVAC and sheet metal contractors. 58% of them said they were familiar with Lean. Of those who were familiar with Lean, about half (48%) said they have implemented some form of Lean in their companies. “Some mechanical contractors are implementing Lean because their customers – general contractors and owners – are now requiring it,” says Dennis.

“Mechanical contractors are part of the supply chain working with a general contractor, so we have lots of in-between customers in addition to the owners,” says Chris. “Some of them have asked us to have Six Sigma tools in place that we could demonstrate to them, so we are educating ourselves to their level of Lean systems.

Tweet-Garot’s Lean experience was an important factor in winning a multi-million dollar contract for a hospital construction project in Wisconsin’s Door County. “It was a requirement that the contractors, subcontractors and all management players have Lean experience,” says Chris. “Without that experience, we would not have qualified to submit a bid. And it came down to only two mechanical contractors that qualified. We view the future and we want to be involved in those types of projects. Even though that’s a smaller market, we want to be invited to the table because of our reputation.”

Sources: Tweet-Garot Mechanical