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A Quick Guide to Lean Construction

Posted by Matt Banna

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Feb 16, 2017, 8:24:00 AM


construction.jpgReaders of this blog know that the Lean approach to business management has taken root far outside of the manufacturing sector. It is used by healthcare organizations, software development firms, financial institutions, and even institutes of higher education. The construction industry likewise has benefited from applying and adapting the fundamental principles of Lean. Construction is a unique industry with each project being unlike the last. That’s why agile thinking, effective communications, and extensive collaboration are necessary to maximize value.

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The History of Lean Construction

The term Lean construction was coined by the International Group for Lean Construction (IDLC) when it was founded in 1993. Used in this context, “construction,” includes the entire industry and not the phase during which physical building takes place. Therefore, Lean construction involves architects, designers, engineering, constructors, and suppliers.

In 1997 Glenn Ballard and Greg Howell started the Lean Construction Institute in an effort to develop and share information about how to improve the management of construction projects. They analyzed the data and found that only a little more than half of assignments made by foremen to be completed in a given week were actually completed on time. Traditionally, the focus of improvement efforts has been on worker productivity, but Ballard and Howell felt that this project management approach missed the real causes and results of unpredictable workflow.

This led them to the idea that the construction industry faced many of the same challenges of the manufacturing sector. They began to implement many of the principles of the Toyota Production System and Lean production methodologies and adapt them for the construction context.

The Principles and Goals of Lean Construction

Much like Lean manufacturing, Lean construction seeks to create production systems that minimize waste of time, materials and efforts in an attempt to produce the most value for the customer. Practitioners believe that the only way to achieve such a lofty goal is to include all stakeholders and participants including architects, engineers, contractors, facility managers, and the customer early on in the project. This is different than the traditional project management approach in which the participants react to designs rather than influencing them.

Emphasis is placed on three areas that will be familiar to those who have studied Lean in other contexts:

Transformation: The production of inputs into outputs.

Flow: Smooth, uninterrupted movement of work from one action to the next.

Value: Value is always determined by the customer and is reflected in what the customer is willing to pay for the output.

Tariq S. Abdelhamid, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the Michigan State University’s School of Planning, Design, and Construction, put it this way, “Lean construction draws upon the principles of project-level management and upon the principles that govern production-level management. Lean construction recognizes that any successful project undertaking will inevitably involve the interaction between project and production management."

Is Lean Construction the Same as Lean Production (Manufacturing)?

While it is correct to say that the Lean construction approach was influenced by and shares many of the same principles of Lean production, it incorporates ideas and practices from many disciplines outside of Lean manufacturing including social science and economics. There are also several tools unique to Lean construction like the Last Planner System, Target Value Design, and the Lean Project Delivery System.

That isn’t to say that common Lean production tools aren’t used in Lean construction. Anything that will improve flow and increase value is fair game. That’s why it isn’t unusual to see tools like  A3, value stream mapping, Gemba walks; 5S, and daily huddles in play.

The ideals that Lean construction has in common with Lean manufacturing include:

  • A focus on optimizing the whole system based on collaboration and built-in learning
  • The belief that processes can always be improved in an effort to achieve perfection
  • The recognition that every person involved can contribute to maximum value
  • Dedication to ensuring value flow by removing obstacles and eliminating parts of the process that don’t add value

Of course, construction projects and production factories are not the same. Lean construction places emphasis on making sure that workflow enables crews to be consistently productive, reducing project costs, and minimizing the need for inventory and equipment.

Given the similarities between Lean production and Lean construction, it isn’t surprising that those in the construction industry are turning to the same technologies that other Lean practitioners use to capture opportunities for improvement, manage improvement projects, track the progress of Lean and recognize and reward employees who contribute to positive change. If a cloud-based approach to Lean construction is of interest to you, we’d love to chat.

Topics: Lean

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