Building the Layers of Lean Construction

Kirk_P.jpgKirk Paluska, General Manager and Owner of DUCTCO LLC, is a lean guy at heart. As lean consultant in his former life, Kirk has experienced lean thinking transform organizations from waste-ridden and varied to efficient and stable. 

Now, he's hung up his consulting shoes for some steel-toes and bought a middle contracting company servicing sub contractors in the commercial construction industry.

Using his lean background, Kirk is transforming his commercial contracting company in the midst of an industry where lean thinking can be rare. With complex supply chains and custom, varied projects, there's little room for standardization, PDCA or measurement.

We interviewed Kirk on what he's seeing in the construction industry and where lean thinking can help it improve.


  1. Tell us a little about DUCTCO. What does your company do and who are your customers?

DUCTCO designs, fabricates and installs air moving systems in the commercial, industrial and institutional market.  Our main focus is providing our customers with a quality product and exceptional service, at an affordable price. Whether your job requires galvanized, stainless, aluminum or black iron material we can handle the task.

  1. From where you sit, what industry challenges are impacting your business?

The main challenge lies in maintaining profitability and surviving the labor shortage of skilled trade in the construction industry.  Construction is a licensed trade, regulated by the state. Retaining our talent means creating a problem solving culture where they are engaged, learning, and developing.

At DUCTCO, we have 40 employees and one manager -- me. To start developing our leadership, I’ve identified some key players who can step into management roles and coach the team, because I can’t do it all. It’s challenging for them to take time to solve problems and coach people in addition to their other responsibilities, but they’re working hard and doing their best each day. I know there are other sub-contractors out there with a similar story.

  1. Have you applied lean principles to your operations? How has this driven improvement?

We operate with a value stream view. There’s a flow operation starting with drafting through fabrication to installation. Based on the construction schedule, we’ll determine parts of the building to be fabricated. If it’s an existing building, we often won’t have accurate drawings of the current structure – so we’re relying on estimates to order material. Once we’ve identified key hand-offs, we track defects from all of those hand-off points. I want to know everything that goes wrong in these processes – everything from a supplier shorting us to the wrong data being entered.

There’s a tremendous opportunity for lean problem solving and PDCA with our suppliers. I find it amazing that some of our suppliers will work with us on a small lot basis. They’re willing to deliver in small batches because they have other customers in our area. These and other suppliers may support their customers in special ways, but I’m not seeing those best practices standardized upstream. 

  1. How do you engage your people in business improvements? What metrics do you focus on?

We need baselines from which to improve. Because every order and building is different, it’s hard for me to say “this particular order should take four hours, and this one should take six hours. Did we get them done on time?” We focus on quality, safety, and defects. We talk about them as a team. I solicit input from others around improvement measures, but formally implementing and sustaining these improvement measures across the company -- and industry -- is a challenge.

  1. What are you seeing in the construction industry as a whole?

"I’ll tell you what I’m not seeing from where I sit – organized improvement activity around construction. The Lean Construction Institute is a great organization, and some organizations are doing it well, but I'm not seeing lean as mainstream in our industry yet. My customers are mechanical and general contractors.

Typically, when a general contractor takes more command and control of vendors and process in a project, there’s less waste and inefficiency. This may be necessary containment when there’s a deviation from the plan. But beyond that, I don’t see our industry formally embracing lean, operational excellence, or continuous improvement. How do I take these concepts I’ve seen work in other industries, and apply them to our space?

We have an opportunity to come together as sub and general contractors to advance our supply chains and transform the way we serve our customers.

  1. Thank you for talking with us, is there anything else you’d like to share?

This interview has been really useful. It gave me the opportunity to do some deep reflection as a leader, which is something I need to make more time for on a regular basis!


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Posted by Derek Browning

blog author

As VP of Supply Chain Solutions, Derek directs a portfolio of end-to-end supply chain projects for companies in a wide array of sizes and industries. He's trained thousands of professionals in lean, six-sigma, leadership, and supply chain through LeanCor and leading education partners. Derek complements his experience with an MBA, a bachelor’s degree in marketing, and several professional certificates.

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