Lean Construction: 8 Principles and Best Practices

Hard Hat and Floor Plans at Construction Site

The construction niche is one where completing projects faster and within the budget is very important; yet, most construction projects are always completed late, with budgets modified multiple times. The sector is also lagging labor efficiency, at a time when other sectors have seen substantial improvements in this regard. It’s, therefore, no surprise that more companies are turning to Lean construction.

Construction companies are embracing Lean principles to help reduce costs, improve efficiency, boost morale, and fight the factors that have contributed to the sector’s inefficiency over the years. With Lean construction principles, businesses can maximize the value created and minimize waste.

The rest of the article will take a closer look at Lean and Lean construction principles and best practices.

What Is Lean?

Lean is a systematic approach to working aimed at maximizing the value created for customers while keeping costs down and reducing wastage. It was developed in Japan by car manufacturers Toyota, who were looking for a way to go a step ahead of the competition around the world. They developed a collection of practices referred to as the Toyota Production System, which focused on increasing the value created by customers by keeping down variability.

By applying the principles of this practice holistically, Toyota was able to maintain a competitive advantage, bringing a paradigm shift in the automobile industry. Lean became more popular with more Western manufacturers adopting the company’s best practices.

However, the results achieved varied from one company to the other, highlighting the fact the successful Lean implementation had more to do with adopting a mindset than copying a set of principles verbatim.

Businesses that tried to follow Lean practices without first gaining deep insights into the reasoning behind the principles typically failed to achieve any results. Those that adopted a principled and holistic approach to the Lean methodologies, however, saw significant improvements in customer satisfaction, safety, quality, and productivity.

After Lean emerged, different variants of it were developed with Six Sigma, Just-in-Time, Theory of Constraints, and Total Quality Management, some of the most popular—and still in use until now.

Since Lean originated in manufacturing, many people erroneously think it is mostly about keeping costs down. However, this isn’t all it is. Cutting costs is just one part of the equation as the system focuses on creating a process for a brand to improve profitability while creating more value for their clientele.

Lean Construction

Progressive construction companies are relying on Lean principles to reduce costs, improve morale, and ensure better efficiency. The adoption of Lean principles in construction is helping to ensure the following:

  • Improved risk management
  • Better workplace safety
  • Improved productivity
  • Better customer satisfaction
  • Cost reduction/higher profitability
  • Improved project scheduling
  • Higher quality construction results

According to research by the Lean Construction Institute LCI, construction projects incorporating Lean principles are more likely to be completed ahead of schedule. They are also twice more likely to be completed under budget.

The construction process’s inefficiencies mean it’s been due for some shakeup, such as that brought about by the adoption of Lean principles, for years. However, the unique challenges of the industry have hindered more companies from embracing Lean construction. Construction projects are often very unique and complex and are carried out in highly uncertain environments—all of this in combination with the pressures of meeting a schedule.

By adopting Lean construction principles in the midst of these challenges, however, progressive brands can improve the symmetry between people, practices, and processes to ensure the completion of construction projects in a timely manner.

In all construction projects, the goals often revolve around keeping the project moving, keeping costs down, staying on schedule, and maintaining a tight inventory of tools and materials. However, it’s impossible to remove variables like inventory issues, inclement weather, disappointment from suppliers, changes to the project from clients, etc.

Lean construction isn’t geared towards eliminating these variables, as that will be an unrealistic goal. However, in all projects, there are opportunities to reduce the interference caused by the internal and external variables. Lean construction ensures that personnel on the project can find these opportunities to reduce disruption and act on them in a valuable, measurable, and constructive manner.Instead of seeing Lean construction as a huge disruption to the norm, it should be viewed as a supplement to the conventional traditional management methods. Basically, it helps all stakeholders in the industry to understand how information, materials, and people can be combined in a more efficient manner to ensure projects are completed on time, on budget, and at the highest level of quality possible.

Below are the top Lean construction principles and best practices adopted by forward-thinking construction businesses.

1. Pinpoint Value From the Customer’s Viewpoint

Traditionally, construction focuses solely on what the customer intends to build. This covers what’s included in the plans and specifications. On the other hand, with Lean construction, you have to go deeper and understand why the customer wants that particular construction. Trust has to be established early enough in the project’s planning stage to understand what qualifies as value for the customer.

Lean construction, therefore, ensures that all stakeholders are unified in purpose. The suppliers, subcontractors, engineers, architects, and everyone else in between have to work together to deliver what the client wants. They should also be able to provide guidance when necessary and help to keep a lid on expectations over the course of the project.

2. Identify the Value Stream

With a clear understanding of what qualifies as value for your customer, you can proceed to put in place the most important processes to ensure the delivery of the said value. This is what is referred to as the value stream. The required information, materials, equipment, and labor for all the activities are properly defined. This makes it easy to find and remove any resources or steps that won’t add any value.

3. Stamp Out Wastage

Getting rid of waste at every turn is one of the main goals of Lean construction. Below are the main types of wastes that Lean construction aims to minimize or eliminate.

  • Over-processing is the addition of features or activities that don’t bring any real value to the project’s owner into the construction process.
  • Motion waste is any unnecessary movement between different work teams or between workers and tools (or materials).
  • Excess inventory is the materials that are not required during a stage of the construction process. They don’t just require storage and tie up funds; they may also degrade when they remain unused for long.
  • Transport waste occurs when workers, materials, and equipment are moved to a job site before they are required.
  • Talent waste is the failure to match workers of a specific skill or knowledge level to the right job, leads to skill wastage or improper task completion.
  • Excess wait times occur when workers cannot proceed with a task because a prerequisite task is yet to be completed or because the necessary materials for a project are yet to be delivered.
  • Overproduction occurs when tasks are completed earlier than scheduled or well before the next process in the pipeline can commence.
  • Defects occur when tasks are not done correctly at the first time of asking, leading to reworks and wasting materials and work hours.

4. Maintain a Steady Flow of Work Processes

The best Lean construction projects have an uninterrupted and continuous workflow that is reliable and predictable. The sequence is very important in the construction process. For example, building frames before footings are ready is not the right approach to take.

It’s also important to get everyone on board when a specific segment of a project is ahead of or behind schedule. This is to ensure other stakeholders in the process can make adjustments and avoid some of the types of waste covered above.

5. Embrace Pull Planning and Scheduling

To create reliable workflows, you have to pay attention to the demand downstream. In Lean construction, workflows are best maintained by those carrying out the tasks. This is almost always the subcontractors. They work closely with each other, communicating and collaborating to ensure that tasks are scheduled in the best way possible.

6. Work Towards Continuous Improvement

Sustained improvement based on continuous and deliberate optimization is one of the main pillars of Lean practice. This principle is based on the idea that excellence can only be achieved when businesses consciously strive to grow, learn, and test new ideas. With continuous improvement, construction crews can become more efficient on projects by default.

In other industries, it is easy to identify opportunities for continuous improvement and implement them immediately. In construction, however, the more complex value stream means that the cycle time is typically longer. Changes to the original plan will have an impact on the chain towards other parts of the project. This is why changes have to be carefully decided on and communicated clearly to stakeholders.

Any continuous improvements in Lean construction need to follow a specific cycle of control and planning to ensure projects keep going forward. Such planning should also have clearly defined criteria for success, with specific strategies for achieving said successes.

7. Optimize Holistically

In traditional construction management methods, optimization often occurs at an individual level. An example is trying to cut down the time plumbers spend on installing bathroom and kitchen fittings. However, such compartmentalized optimizations may not bring any benefits to your construction system in general. If anything, you may end up triggering wastage unintentionally.

The bulk of the wastage that happens in organizational systems can be found in the transition between processes and activities.

With Lean, stakeholders have to develop and apply better ways of managing the entire construction structure from one end to the other. This is because construction crews can’t optimize activities for more reliable delivery if they don’t have a holistic view and understanding of how materials and information flow through the construction process.

To create a system that is capable of delivering on time and on budget, while meeting the client’s needs, all project participants must come together and collaborate. This should begin at the start of the project to ensure proper alignment of goals and requirements and then continue until all goals and objectives have been met.

In Lean construction, collaboration has to go beyond the agreements in the project contract, and it also has to go beyond processes like constructability reviews during which stakeholders only have to react to plans and designs. All stakeholders must influence the planning from the very start. This will ensure the entire system can deal with variability from the beginning.

By optimizing holistically, construction companies can ensure the flow of value by removing all potential sticking points for its creation. It will also ensure the elimination of the parts of the process that don’t create any value.

To achieve this, the stakeholders must first work out how value flows in the organizational chain, and then work hard to remove any potential tension points. This is achieved via a process known as value stream mapping.

8. Eliminate or Restrict Variation in the Process

Construction sites have a lot of variables. This is in contrast to conventional factories where material flow across workstations can be controlled and planned properly. Construction crews not only have to carefully manage the flow of materials but also have to manage the spatial flow with their workstations over the course of the project. This makes things increasingly complex.

The rapidly changing nature of a typical construction environment means that it is difficult to put layout planning and visual control in place. The lack of a central production hub means that it’s more difficult to execute improvement and benchmarking activities. These sources of variation lead to a high level of waste on construction sites, and even during the pre-construction phase.

With Lean construction, crews will be able to identify and get rid of variations to reduce the impact of their side effects. Allowing variation in the construction process can have a negative effect on the reliability of production operations workflow. Even the minutest of negative changes in one crew’s performance can distort things and lead to delays for other crews down the line.

One effective approach to take to eliminate or cut down variation is to ensure that individual crews go with standardized work processes. By adopting standardized processes, they’ll not only eliminate variation but also create an important baseline that can be used to further improve the overall construction process on a larger scale. It can also help to deal with issues in transparency, benchmarking, and complexity.

The best Lean construction crews excel at improving processes with the aim of approaching an optimum balance between wait times and the utilization of capacity. In doing so, crews can reduce wait-induced wastage and maintain progress on the project at all times.

A Closer Look at the Advantages of Lean Construction

As we’ve seen above, Lean construction can reduce waste and improve efficiency—two things that are very important for construction teams. However, there’s a lot more value to adopting Lean construction beyond improving productivity and maximizing resources. Below is a closer look at some of the main benefits of Lean construction principles.

Superior Quality Work

The integrated project delivery process that is a major part of the Lean construction principle depends heavily on the trust and respect of the people involved. This leads to an increased emphasis on communication and working together. With teams working together as a unit, all stakeholders will feel obligated to pinpoint possible areas where better value and quality can be achieved.

This can’t be achieved in the borderline toxic and adversarial environment common with traditional construction teams. Additionally, by ensuring that teams are on the same page in terms of goals and objectives from the start, through pre-construction collaboration and coordination, there’ll be a reduced probability of reworking or running into issues that can grind the process to a halt during execution.

Use of Prefabricated Components

Lean construction incorporates the principles of reducing waste and ensuring “just-in-time” delivery. Therefore, it encourages component prefabrication where possible. With such an approach, elements like wall components, light fixtures, railings, etc. can be constructed in a controlled environment where they can be monitored to ensure consistency and quality.

These elements are then delivered to a site when they are needed, ready to use. A good example of this can be seen in the two-week construction of a hotel in China, thanks to 93% of materials used being premade.

Prefabrication means it will be more difficult to implement changes midway into the construction process, so it ensures that smart decisions are made very early in the design process to remove the need for such changes. When done well, prefabrication can ensure a project is on schedule and within budget. It also reduces the number of workers required on a site.

Here’s the video of the 13-story building built in 15 days:

Improved Project Satisfaction

To enjoy the full benefits of Lean construction, all stakeholders have to understand and alight towards the project owners’ goals and objectives. Understanding what aspects of a project are most valuable to the owners or users will ensure teams can make the best possible decisions in a timely manner, without putting the final result at risk.

With owners safe in the knowledge that the project team has their best interest at heart for every decision, issues can be resolved a lot faster. The decision-making process will also be decentralized, which will ensure that the project can progress faster towards completion.

If the project team can quickly eliminate blockades, they can stay on schedule and significantly reduce the chances of going over budget. These factors will lead to a satisfied owner, who will be happy to provide more contracts or bring referrals in the future.

Better Return on Investment (ROI)

Companies that have adopted Lean construction principles have noted an improvement in productivity, which ultimately leads to better ROI. The estimates provided by a subcontractor or similar parties are reliant on the production rates.

Therefore, staying in line with the estimate of production rates is vital if staying profitable is the goal. An increase in productivity reduces the risk of losing profit and ensures more success for the company in the future.

Away from the improvements in productivity, reduction in all kinds of waste during the project can improve the overall efficiency of a project. A widely cited study by Dr. Roger Liska at Clemson University highlighted the fact that construction workers were only operating at around 40% efficiency.

Other findings from the study showed that 20% of the efficiency is lost to inefficient processes and poor design of systems. Another 20% of efficiency is wasted as workers wait for information, materials, and equipment. Poor scheduling also gulps another 15% of the efficiency, especially when workers have to work around congestion or wait for space to become available.

Lean construction processes reduce material waste and also helps reduce lost efficiency. This opens new opportunities for improvements in profitability. By minimizing the need for surplus materials, savings can be actualized.

Better Risk Management

Pull Scheduling is one of the key aspects of Lean. It’s a planning method based on three principles:

  • Creating a backlog of tasks prime for execution
  • Committing on tasks that can be achieved over an immediate cycle
  • Regularly reviewing and assessing the success of the tasks committed to

The decision-makers can easily pinpoint potential risks and put processes in place to mitigate or eliminate them ahead of time if a project team can keep an eye on their progress in relation to planned commitments.

How to Adopt Lean Construction in Your Business

As we’ve seen thus far, Lean construction principles are pretty far-reaching, and will, therefore, take some effort to implement for any construction company regardless of size. However, it is doable. Here’s what you should do:

Look for the Right Change Agent

Cultural changes such as that encouraged by Lean construction can be difficult to adopt. This is because humans are generally uncomfortable with any sort of deviation from the norm. We see the uproar that greets every slight interface change on the popular social media apps, so how much more an attempt to change existing processes in a strongly traditional industry such as construction?

This is why the first approach to take is to find a befitting champion for change. This has to be someone influential enough to command the respect of internal staff, subcontractors, and everyone else. They should also know how to navigate any backlash from people that don’t want to deviate from the norm.

With the change agent secured, they should get to work and identify other early adopters and work together with them.

Gather the Knowledge

Having information on how to start the Lean construction journey is not enough. You need to continue acquiring knowledge all through the process of implementing the principles. The Lean Construction Institute has many resources you can rely on.

Find Leverage

This could be a crisis or any situation that convinces people that it’s time for a change. Seize the moment to convince people and use it to introduce Lean construction. Such moments are common in the construction industry, so you’re bound to get an opportunity soon enough.

Start Quickly With Visible Actions and Demand Results

You can achieve this by putting together a production and assignment planning system. By measuring and improving planning performance, you can highlight problems, leading to visible results almost immediately.

When demanding results, you should be sure to demand the right ones. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on single elements like cost-cutting and speeding up the construction process. Rather, you should measure quantitative KPIs, collect qualitative feedback, and pinpoint areas that require immediate improvement.

Deal With Barriers to Lean Construction Implementation

Here are some tips to keep in mind in case you hit a snag when trying to implement lean construction or find it too difficult to get your staff on board:

  • Help them to grasp their role in the change and help them see why it’s good for them to do their best to help in the process.
  • Create and launch a reinforcement and rewards program that will make it attractive for more people to come on board your wider Lean plan.
  • Be sure to only work with people that have the requisite skills to make the transition to Lean construction. Launching a new plan of engagement is not enough.

Conclusion

When properly applied, Lean principles can ensure better outcomes at every stage of the construction process. With more companies adopting Lean construction, the industry will gradually begin to claw back some of the efficiency deficits it has learned to live with.

Adopting Lean construction in your business won’t come without its challenges. It also won’t happen in a short time. However, working with the recommendations documented above will make the process easier to manage. Remember, it will take some time to fully implement Lean construction. However, it is possible to start seeing results right from the early stages.

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