While the pandemic has destabilized supply chains, reduced scope of work, and stalled — or in some cases completely scrapped — schedules and plans, the outlook remains bright for the contracting field. For example, in the first three months of 2020 (and before COVID-19 hit), the construction industry added over $900 billion to the US economy, which was the highest quarterly increase since the “Great Recession” in 2008. Analysts also predict that despite a sharp decline in 2020, the North American construction industry should resume its pre-pandemic growth trajectory and grow at a healthy 4.2% clip through 2024.

However, despite this positive forecasting, it is also true that competition in the construction space is immense with new players of all sizes entering the marketplace. And on top of this, labor and overhead costs continue to rise, which eat into in some cases already razor-thin profit margins. In fact, research has found that only 61.3% of U.S. construction firms are profitable, which means that about four in ten have sounded the financial alarm bell — or may be circling the drain. The good news is that there is a proven and effective way for construction firms to reduce waste and remain competitive: the 5S’s.

Introduced by Toyota in the 1970s as a visual control and lean manufacturing methodology — but subsequently applied since then to a variety of waste-reducing use cases outside of manufacturing — the 5S’s stand for: Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. Seiri translates as organize, Seiton as orderliness, Seiso as cleanliness, Seiketsu as standardize, and Shitsuke as discipline. And more importantly, they all have an important, if not vital, role to play for firms in the construction field, whether they are brand new on the scene, or have been established for several years such as Easton, MA-based Averill Electric.

“The simplest and best way for firms in the construction field to grasp the 5S methodology is to view it as a viable, practical, responsible and sustainable way to do more with less, which is not just good for the business, but it is also good for employees since a more stable and profitable operation is good for long-term job security,” commented Frank Averill, the CEO and owner of Averill Electric, which provides electrical installations for private, commercial and industrial clients, including the installation of energy-efficient lighting technology and cable bus systems, and complete communications wiring and system installations.

There are a multitude of practical, safe and effective ways that each component in the 5S methodology can be applied by construction firms. For example:

  • Organizing (which is sometimes referred to as sorting to maintain the S-word nomenclature) can mean ensuring that equipment, tools, and other items are consistently allocated and stored in the right places. According to Frank Averill: “This not only boosts efficiency, but it also enhances safety, which is always a top-of-mind priority. Nothing is more important than worker health and safety.”
  • Orderliness (sometimes referred to as straightening, setting in order, or simplifying) can mean ensuring that equipment, tools, and other items are properly arranged for easy and fast access, or parking vehicles in the yard so that those used most often are closest to the gate. Added Frank Averill: “Whatever a construction firm needs to use on a frequent basis should be within easy — but of course safe — reach. If there is stuff lying around that hasn’t been used in months, years, or maybe even decades, then it’s time to store it off-site, sell it, recycle it, or if none of the above apply, dispose of it. Commercial space is expensive and construction firms shouldn’t become a museum of old items that probably nobody remembers getting in the first place.”
  • Cleanliness (sometimes referred to as sweeping or shining) doesn’t just refer to getting rid of dirt, dust, grime, so on. It also means, whenever possible, resetting a space immediately (or as soon as possible) after usage, so that maintaining the second S on the roster — the previously-discussed orderliness — becomes much easier. “Cleanliness in the workplace is a habit, and once it is ingrained it becomes part of the culture.” states Averill. “And while this certainly makes for a more pleasant and nice-looking environment, the goal here is not just to improve the scenery. It is primarily about making the workplace more functional, efficient, and safe.”
  • Standardization means setting — and just as importantly, enforcing — policies, practices, and protocols that support the overall gains available through the 5S approach (and which have been discussed above). Added Frank Averill: “Standardization needs to be reflected in documentation and signage, but it also needs to be part of training and coaching. People do things in different ways, and it is important to respect these preferences. However, everyone needs to be on board with the fundamentals, or else there is no way that organizing, orderliness or cleanliness can take root and deliver ongoing benefits.”
  • Discipline (sometimes referred to as “sustaining”) is arguably the toughest box for all firms — not just those in the construction field — to tick. This is because the 5S approach is not static. It is dynamic, and needs constant refinement and adjustment based on changing circumstances; both internal (e.g. expanding operations) and external (e.g. abiding by new regulations). “At its core, 5S is a commitment that all employees need to make to themselves, and to each other” states Averill. “Because when one employee cuts a corner or shifts the burden to someone else, the organization as-a-whole suffers. Everyone has to be rowing in the same direction. “

The Final Word

Concluded Frank Averill, whose company Averill Electric has completed numerous signature projects, including the installation of all electrical system in Boston’s 100,000 square foot Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center, and the installation of all electrical, communications, fire alarm, intrusion, and A/V systems for Emerson College’s Colonial Building Dormitory: “Nobody should be under the impression that the 5S approach will instantly transform an under-performing firm into a marketplace leader — it is not a magic wand. Rather, it is a long-term commitment that gradually, but significantly, helps firms do more with less. And on today’s hyper-competitive landscape doing more with less is not just a good idea. It is an essential requirement.”