What is Lean Construction?

what is lean construction

The Lean methodology is most often associated with manufacturing. Its roots began at the Toyota Production System in the early 20th century as a means for process improvement. Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, pioneered the thinking and processes that are now known as Lean. Ohno was known for the saying, “The more inventory a company has, the less likely it is they will have what they need.” While other professionals in his field were focused on maximizing resources, Ohno theorized that the key to productivity could be found in minimizing waste. 

The other core elements of Lean are maximizing customer value and continuous improvement. Ultimately, any industry could benefit from pursuing these goals. The same principles apply to Lean Construction, the methodology, and processes of design and construction to generate the greatest value for clients. Let’s review the core elements of Lean Construction and the advantages it offers the industry. 

The Principles of Lean Construction

While Lean began in manufacturing, the concepts behind Lean began to make their way into construction operations, processes, and projects as the construction and manufacturing industries became more closely integrated.

According to the Lean Construction Institute, Lean Construction is defined as a “respect- and relationship-oriented production management-based approach to project delivery — a modern and transformational way to design and build capital facilities. Lean production management caused a revolution in manufacturing design, supply, and assembly. Applied to design, supply, and construction of a capital facility, Lean changes the way work is done throughout the project-delivery process.”

Lean Construction has the following six core principles:

  • Identification of value: What is value from the customer’s point of view?
  • Definition of the value stream: What processes are required to deliver that value?
  • Elimination of waste: Targets eight major types of waste
  • Work process flow: Creating a continuous, predictable workflow
  • Pull planning and scheduling: Communicate and collaborate to plan tasks
  • Continuous improvement: Identify ways to improve in current and future projects

What makes Lean Construction different? The methodology focuses on collaboration and accountability. Stakeholders must place great trust in each other and engage in a cooperative relationship. In an industry where adversarial relationships between contractors, owners, and designers are commonplace, Lean Construction requires all stakeholders to align with goals and objectives. 

Teams on Lean Construction projects use collaborative processes, tools, and technology to uncover ways to add value, continuously improve, and eliminate waste. The processes help to remove variation, create continuous workflows, and improve productivity. 

How Does Lean Fit into the Construction Industry?

To understand how Lean fits into the construction industry, let’s take a closer look at where the industry is today:

The amount of waste is nearly incomprehensible, especially when you consider how much of that material is never reused. The upside is there are plenty of opportunities to improve efficiency and consumption. For instance, Ariana Alvear, Senior Production Manager at The Boldt Company knows exactly what it takes to successfully implement Lean principles. In a recent Digital Builder podcast episode, she says, lean is “a smoother and more reliable system of delivering a project in a way that adds value to the stakeholders.”

 Let’s explore now how to take Lean Construction from principles to implementation. 

3 Must-Have Lean Construction Practices

No one says Lean Construction is easy to implement–but it is worth the effort. “Yes, it is a lot of work, but it’s a lot of work upfront that makes the rest of the process easier and more predictable,” Alvear explains. 

As you make the shift, lean on the core principles of early stakeholder involvement, pull planning, the percent plan complete metric, and weekly planning sessions. These principles will set a strong foundation to stabilize your move to the methodology.

1. Early Stakeholder Involvement

Projects can’t be successful without stakeholder engagement and collaboration. However, we often see collaboration treated more as an afterthought. Communications between construction crews and contractors sometimes take place so late in the building process that they are less effective than they could have been at an earlier date. Lean Construction addresses this challenge by emphasizing the need for collaboration between stakeholders from the start of a project. 

“Yes, it is a lot of work, but it’s a lot of work upfront that makes the rest of the process easier and more predictable."

- Ariana Alvear, Senior Production Manager at The Boldt Company

Contractors are selected by the insights and feedback they can provide during the combined design-build stages, rather than just on a cost basis. Making collaboration a must-have on the front end reduces conflicts, project waste, and the need for rework. And the same goes for buy-in for Lean Construction to be successful. According to Alvear, “You cannot be in a project where only the owner is Lean, or only the general contractor is Lean. You need to be able to get everybody on board.” 

Yet, despite the value in this process, it’s still somewhat unknown by contractors. According to the research in the Handling Lean Construction from Beginning to End with Autodesk, only about half of global contractors had a moderate or better familiarity with this Lean Construction process. The good news? Following this step can give your firm a significant competitive advantage. 

2. Pull Planning

The typical planning process in the construction industry is linear. It starts in design and preconstruction. Timeframes are adjusted as issues pop up during the process. This planning method is incredibly popular, but it has significant downsides. The linear method often leads to rework, poor profit margins, obstacles, employee burnout, and low productivity. 

Pull planning turns linear planning on its head to address these issues. The team begins by defining the final deadline for the project. Next, they work backward to set key milestones, deadlines, project phases, and handoffs. What makes this process so efficient? It allows teams to prioritize critical tasks and uncover any dependencies between tasks. To keep the project plan on track, teams use weekly planning sessions and meetings. 

3. Weekly Work Planning and Percent Plan Complete

In order to improve projects and processes, construction firms need a method to monitor deadlines and discover any potential risks for going over schedules and budgets. That’s where the percent plan complete (PPC) technique and weekly work planning come in. The PPC metric tracks how many assignments have been 100% completed. You find the PPC rate by dividing the number of activities completed on the specific day by the total number of activities planned for the week. 

70% of construction projects are over time and budget.

Teams can review the PPC metric, progress, and risks during weekly work planning sessions. The sessions help to reduce delays, wasted resources, and missed deadlines. Be sure to include stakeholders from all levels and departments for the best results. 

Getting Started with Lean Construction

Now that you’ve learned the principles of Lean Construction and its benefits, you’re probably eager to start seeing that same payoff in your firm. While a shift to the methodology may seem like a daunting undertaking, you can follow this quick start guide to start getting results quickly. 

Assemble Your Team

First things first: determine the roles and responsibilities for each team member. Each member should be clear on expectations. Leave room for clarification questions and take time to address them and any concerns about scheduling, planning, and accessibility. Help your team get comfortable with any collaborative technology and tools you’ll be using during onboarding sessions. Then, establish milestones for the project and phases with the owner’s oversight and input. 

Engage Subcontractors

How do you get subcontractors onboard? Engage them by focusing on benefits. Share the advantages of Lean Construction from their perspective. These should be personal to them and their role in the project. By integrating these contractors into the planning process early, you can achieve greater buy-in and have more time to get them up to speed on the collaborative technology you’ll be using. 

At The Boldt Company, they’ve applied these concepts by creating dashboards that filter data to make information and insights easier to find. 

Learn more: Digital Builder Ep 42: How to Maximize Value with Lean: It’s Worth It! 

“We sat down with our trade partner and said, ‘Okay, give me a list of all your long-lead items because we need to make sure we release this procurement as soon as possible,'” says Alvear.

“Then, we built a report with another tool that extracts the information from the schedule for those specific items… So we have an interactive dashboard where you can click on specific items or companies and see, ‘Okay, what do we need to focus on?'”

She continues, “That helped everybody see the big picture and make better decisions.”

Develop Your Schedule

Next up? The schedule. Leverage the pull planning method. Determine the sequence of tasks through milestones to develop your final deadline. As for coordination schedules, you can use last planners for tasking. Don’t forget to set aside time to continuously assess progress and milestones. 

For Alvear,  it’s producing a clear picture of how the team will build the project. “I take the master schedule, which is a very high-level Gantt chart type of schedule. We take this to another level because a Gantt chart view doesn’t necessarily tell you how you are going to move across the building,” she explains. 

“We start with that high level, then break it into construction phases, and then we draw this pretty visual.”

The team also maps out the various project activities, enabling them to fully understand the different phases of the job, along with when and where they need to take place.

Conduct Check-Ins

As you conduct check-ins, use the opportunity to record areas that need improvement and evaluate project performance with your team. You can then create action plans to address these areas.  Bring in stakeholders to pinpoint best practices that will help you create an environment of continuous improvement. 

Insights to Power Your Lean Construction Journey

You can’t miss this Lean Construction guide packed with insights into the methodology and information about how firms are reaping its benefits. Download the guide now to power your Lean Construction journey. 

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Grace Ellis

As Manager of Content Marketing Strategy at Autodesk and Editor in Chief of the Digital Builder Blog, Grace has nearly 15 years of experience creating world-class content for technology firms. She has been working within the construction technology space for the last 6+ years and is passionate about empowering industry professionals with cutting-edge tools and leading strategies that improve the quality of their jobs and lives.