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Waste & Variation

Eliminate Waste and Variation

Waste and variation are intolerable. That is how we should feel about it. That is how we should feel when we walk onto project sites that are dirty, open portable restrooms on-site and see no toilet paper, see rebar on-site laying around with no apparent purpose, or see work interrupted by changes.

We must identify the enemy—waste and variation—and rest only when we gain victory against them. The fight should fuel us with passion and drive. It might sound dramatic, but be assured that just as the lack of proper training and discipline in war can cause casualties, tolerating waste and variation on our projects leads to major losses.


Waste is anything that does not add value. There are eight recognized wastes in our industry: excess inventory, overproduction, wasted transportation, wasted motion, needless waiting, overprocessing, defects, and not using the combined skills of the team.

Consider inventory. Have you ever been on a project where all the fixtures or all the rebar were brought out only to sit, wait, get moved, get damaged, get re-ordered, get moved again, get installed with defects, get sold to an owner who no longer has a choice, and then haunt us during punch walks with everyone who tours the building? Do you remember the last time you saw a stockpile of rebar get completely covered with mud on-site? Do you remember how it felt? It is all waste. The ignorance was waste, the inventory was waste, the damage was waste, and re-ordered materials were waste. The lost productivity, added stress, missed football games at home while you were working late, lost profits, bad performance reviews, hindered careers, all the difficult and contentious conversations, lowered morale, lack of pride, sleepless nights, and on, and on, and on is all waste, and we should not tolerate it.


Let’s say you started making dinner for your family. You get all the groceries, start the burners, heat the oven, mix the ingredients, and get half-way through cooking the recipe. The kids now tell you they don’t want that meal. Your spouse tells you he or she is working late and can't be home for dinner. You realize you are missing the eggs you need to make what the kids really do want, and in all the confusion you burned the food that was on schedule. How do you feel? What do you do?

Variation is any interruption to the flow of the project. It happens when information or plans change, when commitments are not met, and when consistency and flow are compromised. Many in our industry love creating variation for our folks on-site. Have you ever gotten word from the architect to make a change on-site, picked up the radio, called the foreman, and changed the plan? What happens next?

Think about a concrete crew on-site. They have forms mobilized, rebar on the way, layout performed, concrete and finishers scheduled, and everything is ready to go. Then you get a call on the radio saying “hold off on the wall because there is a change.” Or, “please stop work because we forgot an inspection.” Or, “we need to put the bulkhead in a different location because we are missing information about a specific block out.” Easy, right? Just stop. Just change. Just deal with it. We all know it isn't that simple. The formwork was needed elsewhere. The schedule is now behind. We just wasted all day mobilizing forms and must take them back. We have to cancel concrete. And, oh yeah, they can't reschedule for another two days, so we just lost another two days. More rebar needs to be ordered, so the office is now interrupted. The suppliers are left fighting fires. No one now knows the new plan. Morale goes out the window. The engineers have to re-configure the layout. The work tomorrow needs to be rescheduled. The rest of the week needs to be planned again.

Variation is not easy, it is not fun, and it should not be tolerated. One seemingly minor change causes far more consequences than we realize, all at the expense of our morale, personal lives, and all we care about. It might be necessary at times to please an owner or fix a mistake, but it should never be tolerated easily. It should make us cringe to create variation on-site. It should embarrass us. We should shield people from it whenever possible.

The Ongoing Battle

We are at war with waste and variation. They cause delays, ruin productivity, lead to confusion, create unsafe environments, destroy morale, and make us lose control. In all phases of the project, we should fight against waste and variation. There is no time, no circumstance, and no push so hard that we should tolerate them easily.

You may be put off by the tone of the last few sections. They may have seemed a little negative or may have struck you personally. To reiterate: the criticism and condemnation is against waste and variation, not you. We should be against anything that does not bring you a positive experience on the job. You must expect more and be treated better.

Sometimes we get the idea that what happens in our industry is our fault or because of us. That is not so. You are a construction professional, and we want you to have professional expectations. Everything on-site, in the office, and as a part of safety, quality, schedule, cost, and your team, should bring you joy in your work. If it does not, please do not settle.

The three pillars of a lean culture are to identify waste, let it annoy you, and take steps to fix it. If something on your project is not remarkable--meaning remarkable for you, the workers, the owner, and your family at home--then expect more, leverage the team, and make a change. You are important enough to do that. That is why we should all fight against waste and variation together.

Jason Schroeder

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