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Shepherd finds its own way

One company is discovering the benefits of a lean construction programme

A programme manager who sits in an office and then hands a schedule to the site manager and subcontractors is a familiar situation. But this can delay a project and waste time when materials don’t turn up or the design isn’t quite right, due to lack of communication.

Being more efficient is something which the industry has been called to think about time and again. While there are moves towards lean building, it is something which still needs to be passed along the supply chain by main contractors.

Shepherd Construction decided some years ago to try to change the way it worked, being inspired by Toyota and its Toyota Way, which focuses on eliminating waste.

Using external consultants it developed the Shepherd Way, which is based on BRE’s construction lean improvement programme and it has now hired a manager to permanently oversee lean construction and to try to apply it to all its sites.

But what was the firm doing before? “It used to be one man who sat in an office and created a programme and the subbies would have to accept it,” says Martin Elms, the firm’s lean champion for the west of England.

Paul Steele, a construction manager at the company adds: “We were doing things but in a less structured way, it wasn’t so precise. We never had anything equivalent to the collaborative planning meetings with the supply chain.”

Motivational tactics

“This is a more realistic programme which subcontractors have input and buy-in into, so it makes them a bit more obliged to get it done,” says Mr Elms.

After deciding to follow the car manufacturer’s principles and running workshops with BRE, the firm appointed several ‘lean champions’ to look after projects in different regions about six months ago.

Mr Elms explains that four stages are applied once a job is won. Programme planning happens before a job gets on site. There is then a forward planning stage about six weeks before the start of the job.

“We discuss what will stop things going to plan – is the design ready? What are the constraints to the project flowing?

The project is then broken down into weekly chunks so it can be micro-managed and then we have a 10-minute daily catchup,” he says.

Key to this way of working is getting subcontractors involved early. Mr Steele looked after the construction of a £14 million laboratory for Cancer Research in South Mimms, which was one of the pilot schemes to use this type of project management.

He says it is vital to get the whole team into key meetings as soon as possible.

“The first thing was getting subcontractors to come to planning meetings and initially the reaction was: ‘who is paying me for this?’ But many thought: ‘yes I’ll have a go’. It was a bit difficult to start with and people were a bit suspicious of it,” he says.

Total involvement

But once people understood what was expected they realised it made their jobs easier.

“We can’t keep them away now. We said to them: ‘look at it as an investment to make sure the job is done well’. Before, they have been a bit beaten over the head with it but they are now involved from day one. You get a happier environment to work in as well,” Mr Steele says.

So is it working? He says: “Yes – we finish jobs on time. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, work areas are ready, it helps logistics planning and we know when vehicles are turning up. We bring up all the issues and solve them as a team.”

However, it does rely on those in the meetings communicating with others. “The problem lately has been that a senior manager comes to the meeting but it hasn’t got fed back to the coalface properly,” says Mr Steele.

On the South Mimms project, which is now complete, he says it made for a calmer atmosphere towards the end. “Noone is running around trying to firefight and it stops everyone running around like headless chickens,” he says.

Luckily the client did not need convincing, already being a fan of the Toyota Way. “The designers and clients always come into the meetings. At the end of each planning session we ended up with lists of issues and who is going to do what – ordering bricks or getting the design of the doors issued,” says Mr Steele.


The Toyota Way was developed by the car company following the Second World War in response to the demand for more efficient ways of doing things. It is now seen as an inspiration for lean ways of working.

Richard O’Connor, an associate director of the Collaborative Working Centre and a director of 6ix Consulting, started off working in the car industry and then moved on to help develop BRE’s construction lean improvement programme.

“Construction does a lot of good work but there is still a huge amount of waste. It’s about relationships with the supply chain and also up the chain, with architects and so on.

“It’s about involving as many people as you possibly can. That is why it’s not always achieved.

“It optimises value for money – companies I have worked with have reduced programmes by up to 40 per cent.”

Mr O’Connor says that all managers need to be fully into the idea of putting lean construction into practice. But he understands that there are those who can be less willing. “Some people can think short-term or are driven by lowest price. But the focus should be on quality, cost, delivery and customer or tenant satisfaction.”

Concerns that training subcontractors in this way of thinking may mean they take their expertise to competitors when they move on should not be an issue, says Mr O’Connor. “The key is strong leadership,” he says.

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