Understanding the Principles of Lean Construction

Understanding the Principles of Lean Construction

The Lean philosophy, originating from the Toyota Motor Company in the 1950’s, aims to maximize efficiency through strategic planning. By enhancing overall respect and communication and incorporating specific strategies, operations can be continuously improved as waste is reduced. While Lean is most widely known for its application in manufacturing, other industries can use techniques such as Kaizen, 5S, Six Sigma, and Just-In-Time production. Many construction companies have found that they can successfully incorporate Lean methodology into the completion of their construction designs and projects.

Intertwining Lean ideologies with the construction industry has become known as “Lean Construction” (LC). It can be difficult to execute because the Lean approach to project delivery has many different aspects than traditional construction. Traditionally, construction is an industry that is more unpredictable and difficult to control, as workflow disruptions and variation occur more often. When a company aims to adopt Lean Construction into its operations, the ideal outcome is achieved when a clear and concise understanding of Lean principles is merged with traditional methods. Establishing a Lean mindset among each employee in a construction company is necessary and goes a long way in ensuring that this unique approach is implemented into every step of a project. 

What is Lean Construction?

Lean Construction is a philosophy that incorporates certain ideologies and principles into the design, completion, and delivery of a construction project. It's a specific method of production that aims to:

  • Shape the way that a project is handled through systemized thought and action
  • Reduce effort, time, materials, cost, and other wasteful aspects
  • Maximize efficiency and profit
  • Maximize the output and overall value of a project

Because LC is different than traditional methods of construction, for it to be effective, all workers must be on board with incorporating it. Training all levels of employees to adopt a different technique does take dedication and time; it may take construction workers a while to get used to this new method of production.

The traditional construction approach utilizes a mass production system, which means that each job is allocated to a specialized group, with little interaction between each group. Miscommunication and a lack of predictability, result in waste such as lost time and inadequate materials. Lean Construction, on the other hand, encourages communication between all parties so everyone has a clear set of the same objectives for the end process. Each group works cohesively together, with the main idea of maximizing performance at every level. This allows more efficient planning and centers around predictability and flow.

Lean Construction and Project Management

LC has the biggest potential, and impact, during project management. Project management involves planning and executing the work of a team to meet specific goals within a specific period. The challenge to this is to achieve each goal within given constraints.

From the very beginning of the construction project to the result, each step of the process must be changed to incorporate Lean methodologies, making it different than other construction methods. Project managers play a highly important role in the implementation and success of LC. A project manager who focuses on Lean techniques can help guide the entire operation, from the original design to the result.

The Principles of Lean Construction

Just like other industries that incorporate Lean, there is no one cookie-cutter approach to Lean Construction. Each construction project has unique time, material, and labor constraints. There is also a range of Lean tools that may be appropriate for each project— one project might focus on 5S, while another utilizes Kaizen events. However, there are general principles that can help guide each company into more efficient project management and lower costs.

The basic principles of Lean Construction include planning carefully to reduce waste, increasing communication between team members as well as the construction company and the customer, and using data to create a predictable process. These principles can be carried out in these general steps:

  1. Use the customer’s point of view to identify value.
    Focus on what the customer needs you to build, and why, as you develop plans and specifications for the construction project; the customer’s value should define the end goals. Often, what they find value in goes deeper than just the “what.” Try to truly understand from your customer’s point of view in the beginning phases. This requires enhanced communication and trust.

    The project team, which often includes the owner of the construction company, engineers, architects, the general contractor, and subcontractors, should be informed of what the customer sees as value. This way the team not only delivers on what the client is asking for but is also able to meet expectations throughout the entire process as the project takes shape. The primary goal is to minimize or eliminate waste at every opportunity so the customer is fully satisfied with the result.

  2. Define the value stream.
    Once you've understood value from the customer’s POV and have identified sources of waste, you can begin to establish the processes that will deliver the value. These processes map out the value stream. For each construction activity, the required equipment, materials, and labor are determined. If any resources or steps are found to be unnecessary or wasteful, they are removed.

    A value stream map is a great tool that may help you define the value stream for your construction project. These hand-drawn diagrams help visualize how resources move through different aspects of a process, and include information such as how long a task is predicted to take, or how often orders for materials are placed. A map helps you focus on creating value for the customer while eliminating waste in the process—and it’s especially helpful because it shows the flow of both materials and information.

  3. Create work process flow.
    The ideal state of a Lean Construction project is an uninterrupted, continuous workflow that’s predictable and reliable. Clear communication between all parties—different groups of laborers, the customer, the project manager, etc.—is essential to achieving this smooth workflow.

    In construction, each group must work together, and sequence is key. For example, you can’t start creating the frame of a building until the footings are set. When one aspect of the project gets either ahead or behind, this must be communicated so the process as a whole can make adjustments. This will help you avoid the waste of excess inventory and waiting.

  4. Use “pull” planning and scheduling.
    Rather than using a traditional “push” system, in which production is based on predicted demand, Lean manufacturing utilizes a “pull” system, also known as just-in-time, in which production is based on real-time demand, and a product is not created until someone places an order for it. Lean Construction incorporates this idea by releasing work based on demand. For example, construction on those frames isn’t planned or begun until it’s communicated that the footings have been set.

    Creating a workflow that’s reliable and predictable depends on this “pull” type of planning and scheduling. Everyone involved in the construction project must communicate and closely collaborate in order to determine the schedule for tasks, materials, and labor. 

  5. Strive for continuous improvement.
    A central component to the Lean methodology is Kaizen, which translates to “change for the better” and ultimately aims for gradual improvement. Within each step of the construction process, opportunities for improvement are identified, and action is taken. This also requires everyone’s participation and depends on overall communication and respect in order to aim for the end delivery of a project that matches the customer’s needs.

Integrating Construction and Lean

Each construction project is different, and the specific Lean techniques you incorporate will be different each time. However, there are general ways you’ll be able to integrate Lean into your project. First, your company should look at the process of the project, which is directly impacted by materials and information. In order to accomplish the project efficiently, you must first get the customer’s input and understand their ideas.

Listening to the customer is essential when it comes to utilizing resources and eliminating waste, as waste is most often created when a company’s end result is not aligned with the customer’s value. This is especially true in construction, when changing the end result will require many materials, more labor, and a higher cost. Before a Lean Construction project begins, a comprehensive plan of action should be established. Identify the potential causes of waste, and ensure that communication will be upheld between all the different groups and team members.

When an LC project is carried out successfully, both the customer and the construction company experience benefits. Benefits for the overall business, individual workers, and clients include:

  • Reducing costs by eliminating waste and using fewer materials, as well as overall construction time, through strategic planning 
  • Achieving a higher rate of safety and fewer accidents
  • Increasing workers’ productivity, accountability, focus, and understanding, which in turn may lead to increased job satisfaction
  • Increasing the predictability and reliability of your company’s schedule
  • Increasing project turnover, customer satisfaction, and profits 

The construction industry, like many industries, tends to resist change and sticks to old methods that have traditionally worked. The many benefits of Lean, however, are causing more and more construction firms to adapt their processes and incorporate techniques that help boost efficiency and reduce waste. In the end, when a project is completed on time, on budget, and is exactly what the customer wanted, everyone involved in the project is successful.

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