Dennis Sowards. Photo credit: Bob Miodonski


One principle of lean manufacturing is to do something right the first time. That makes lean thinking a natural for service work too, consultant Dennis Sowards told members of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association during their annual convention Oct. 29 in Las Vegas.

“Lean thinking is a shift in management’s focus to differentiate between value and waste,” he said. “Value transforms a product or service to what the customer is actually willing to pay for. It includes functions, features, time and price, and is done right the first time. Value is the opposite of waste.”

Defects in products and services comprise one of the seven basic types of waste because they result in call-backs and rework, Sowards said. The other six, applied to service work, can result in:
  • Ordering too much material for a job or fabricating material too soon;
  • Storing unused tools and parts at the jobsite or in the service van;
  • Redundant processing of paperwork and unnecessary restocking of the service van;
  • Unnecessary moving of people to look for files, tools, parts or even the customer;
  • Leaving the job to buy material or the unneeded moving of material, tools or parts; and
  • Waiting by service techs for equipment, plans, approvals or material; by payroll for time sheets; or by customers for service.

Since lean thinking has not been adopted widely for plumbing service, contractors will have to experiment to find the right solutions for their companies. They can start, Sowards said, by applying lean tools to their businesses. These include:
  • Sorting what’s needed from the unneeded in the van or on the job;
  • Simplifying work by putting the items used most often closest to the work area; and
  • Standardizing labels, business forms and van interiors.

“Management focus priorities should be to keep technicians doing value-added work, reduce inventory and reduce other costs,” Sowards said.    

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