It’s logistics, stupid

9th February 2017

By Gerald Morgan, Pre-Constuction Director

It was September 2000, and I had suddenly found myself in the world of construction site logistics working as an understudy to a senior logistics manager for a main contractor. Our project was to construct a 1.7m ft2, 200m high tower in London’s Docklands and I remember clearly, as if it was yesterday, a colleague pointing out to me that “the entire building has to come in on the backs of lorries through that one gate” before adding with a smirk “…there’s your challenge”. I’ll never forget it either, because that was the first time I had really properly considered the enormity of construction logistics and how getting the logistics right, or at least ‘as right as possible’, is vital to achieving success.

For me it was good to learn that lesson early and it has been equally important to keep the same high regard for its importance with me wherever I go. As a result, I am acutely aware of just how critical logistics is to the success of any project. And experience has continually taught me that no matter how small or seemingly straightforward a project might appear to be, even the smallest logistical hiccup can have a dramatic effect on productivity.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson that so many people in our industry have yet to learn and despite thousands of hours of brainpower and reams of paper devoted to management principles such as Lean construction it is still all too common to find that Construction Site Logistics is something of an afterthought or a hot potato in the project office that will likely end up in the lap of the office junior. For me, logistics is way too important to be neglected. Just because it isn’t sexy it doesn’t mean it should be ignored, your productivity quite literally depends on it.

It seems to me that people are only really interested in innovative ways to increase productivity. No less than right now where there appears to be a real appetite for innovation in the industry. Today we’re not only talking about prefabrication and BIM being the way forward for but new innovations such as 3D printing and robotic bricklayers are making headlines. You might therefore justifiably believe that the industry is a thriving hub of innovation that’s just a few steps behind the ever accelerating automotive and tech industries who have long benefited from the 1950s deskilling regime pioneered by Toyota. And it would appear that the time may well be right for these kinds of automations as just about every other industry article I read paints an ominous picture of looming skills shortages bringing the industry to its knees.

Prefabrication is of course a reaction to tackling a number of efficiency issues experienced on-site and very few would argue that an assembly line is a significantly better environment to bring together the vast array of components needed to build a kitchen, bathroom etc. and this shifts a lot of skills from the site environment to an assembly line where a more ‘Toyotist’ approach can be administered.

Now don’t get me wrong I’m all for innovation and the use of technology to work smarter but in my experience, even nowadays, 20 years into a world where construction site logistics is generally accepted as a good idea, there is still a dearth of projects or contractors that can get even the basics right. Ask yourself ‘how many times have you seen companies using skilled tradespeople to manage deliveries? (Erm…has no-one told you there’s a skills shortage?) Or had to wait while people hand-ball loose materials such as pipework or trunking piece by piece into a hoist?

From my perspective, at least part of the answer to our current ‘skills shortage’ and ‘prefabricated world’ are staring us right in the face. The remedy is simply ‘well planned & well executed logistics’. After all, we in the logistics world, are simply trying to achieve the same outcome as a well drilled production line.

It’s now more than 30 years since Ely Goldratt published The Goal, his book in which his ‘Theory of constraints’ outlined the management philosophy of ‘a chain only being as strong as its weakest link’. A principle that holds true today and has as much relevance to the flow of a construction logistics process as it does on an assembly line.

Let’s take a look at a typical chain of events to get say a kitchen unit into a new build apartment block.

Stage 1 – Delivery vehicle enters through a gate.

Stage 2 – Vehicle goes to specified unloading position

Stage 3 – Materials are unloaded (by forklift say) and placed by a hoist.

Stage 4 – Materials transported vertically to the desired level.

Stage 5 – Materials horizontally trafficked into local temporary storage or to the workface

Stage 6 – Units are fixed into position.

Stage 7 (+) – Waste generated removed through following the reverse procedure.

Think of this process as stages in a production line, then look at the stages again and try to remove one… The job simply doesn’t get done or is at least hindered to the point of arrested development.

Now look at the stages again and let’s say in Stage 2 the unloading zone is already in use by an earlier overrun delivery or in Step 3 the forklift is busy on another assignment… Not only is this a hindrance to the kitchen fitter but unless there’s a backup plan to tackle a backlog of deliveries the knock on effect means that the whole job slows down!

Now imagine another scenario where there are two entrance gates, two unloading zones but only one means of vertical transportation. Suddenly our production line has a bottleneck with the potential flow of resources cut in half as soon as it reaches the hoisting stage and the ground floor is overrun with a backlog of materials and gets cluttered.

Obviously this is a simplified and hypothetical chain of events, but one doesn’t have to use their imagination too hard to relate to these, or indeed any number of other headache- inducing scenarios you may have encountered, yet logistics still isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

Can you imagine sending an army into battle without the necessary logistical support? Or a supermarket chain trying to operate without a schedule of the days’ deliveries? No, because they understand that proper logistics is not only essential but critical to their success.

Construction is a vibrant, innovative and exciting industry but it still has a lot to learn from other industries especially in the world of productivity and efficiency.