Eliminate waste, increase productivity - A quick guide to Lean practices for construction professionals

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Lean Construction Management 101

Written by LetsBuild

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The lean construction industry is gaining momentum as construction practices make headway to more integrated and structured systems to deliver excellent final products.
In other words, lean construction practices are slowly acquiring a decisive role for organizations in the market to significantly improve their results and move forward to achieve bigger ambitions.
Lean-thinking principles can be applied to any industry, construction or not, at a small or big scale.
Lean principles are the foundation in which lean construction rises. These elements although quite straightforward, they make a sizeable impact on the final product results. They aim to reduce waste during the product manufacture – in this case, the product manufacture is the construction of any structure.

The internal processes in the construction site and administrative offices are not exclusively benefited by adopting lean construction practices. Reducing waste also means reducing the energy consumed during construction activities. This outcome clearly has an impact across the board: from reducing the flow of materials coming to already crowded cities to working on cleaner construction environments.

Some of the ​business benefits include an increment customer satisfaction of around 80% and productivity on 70%.
On the construction side, lean management practices were able to contribute to better safety in 77% and improve construction standards by 80%.
With that being said, the majority of construction companies worldwide are not implementing lean-thinking in their everyday tasks. There are a couple of reasons why this may be the case for the industry: there is little preparation from the headmaster’s or perhaps lack of approachable information about implementation processes. In any case, the companies that do try embrace lean management are having issues with inefficiency for the same reasons listed above.

On the construction side, lean management practices were able to contribute to better safety in 77% and improve construction standards by 80%.

It is worth mentioning that, lean management implications are far-reaching. Reducing waste to provide with a high-end product potentially reduces the energy consumed during all phases of construction. Among other benefits, lean construction potentially complies with government policies to reduce climate change, heating island effect and carbon footprint.

Read also: 6 approaches to streamline a construction process

Principles of Lean Management

Lean and optimization are different concepts and yet both are used in the industry. They work hand-in-hand to provide outstanding results for clients and reduce costs for construction companies. Optimization doesn’t require lean-thinking. You can optimize processes without necessarily know the governing principles, and have good results in the first instance.

Lean principles point to have a lasting change on the way business and constructions are done. For that lasting change, it is required to understand the nature of the practices and master the industry field the construction takes part.
There are three well-known principles on lean management widely applied in manufacture industry: ​Just-In-Time, Toyota Way and Six-Sigma​.
Just-In-Time (JIT) focuses on reducing the waiting time, labor and operational costs, inventory and improve the quality of the product. This practice was originated in Japan and it is common in mass production factories. Some people attribute JIT to Toyota as well – they were indeed one of the first well-known companies to adopt the method in their production line.
JIT focus on providing to the customer the exact product they demand, at the right moment using only the materials required. That means issues brought for a surplus of inventory or stock and delays on the product delivery improve with this method.
There are 14 principles in The Toyota Way – and none of them is directly related to construction, as you may expect. Keeping that in mind, Toyota was able to drive away inefficient processes, reduce waste alongside product cost to become one of the leaders on the automotive industry worldwide.
The principles written by Jeffrey K. Liker ​(Toyota management expert) highlight the importance of following the philosophy of the company, even if it compromises the immediate goals. There is a lot of emphases as well in leadership and teams streamlining efforts to improve results and work in accordance to the company principles.
Different than Toyota principles and JIT, Six Sigma has an approach closer to business and management than production and manufacture. The methodology focuses on statistical analysis, understanding customer requirements, put together business goals, measure results, improve and control.

Principles applicable to Lean Construction


Lean Six Sigma, Just-In-Time and the Toyota Way principles were not developed to optimize the processes related to construction. But today, Lean Six Sigma and JIT are some of the preferred approaches taken by contractors to tackle challenges found on fast constructions with a high level of uncertainty.

The flagship of lean construction management is hands-down Pull Planning – which is as well considered in more rounded approaches such Last Planner System.

Pull Planning in Lean Management

From a project development standpoint, pull planning puts stakeholders to play a key role in shaping the process from the final goal to the current day. That is, pull planning works backward and dictate the tasks and activities from top to bottom.
Pull Planning is mostly used to put together a plan on a phase of the project. In order to successfully understand the client demands, and come up with the right order of activities, employees from all disciplines collaborate to build the project process and schedules. All team members are invited to sit and put their knowledge on the matter to eliminate waiting times, redundancies and overprocessing.

Collaboration, constant evaluation and substantial improvements to the final structure and design are part of the immediate outcomes of adopting Pull Planning to the project development.

Collaboration is the most obvious of all, this methodology focuses on gathering information about the expertise of workers to apply their knowledge in the best way possible. Then, entire teams acknowledge the background of their members and are able to assign roles in the most efficient manner.

Lean Practices

There are individual practices outside of Pull Planning and Last Planner System that have measurable results on the project. Lean is all about collaboration and understanding of the bigger picture, that includes having contractors work with each other more closely.

Among the less known but equally effective practices for lean construction management, we can find Target Value Design (TVD), Multi-Party Contracts and Value Stream Mapping (VSM).

Read more: What is lean construction?

Target Value Design

TVD gathers efforts from designers, construction professionals, management, stakeholders and contractors and focus on providing the best value possible for a single or a couple of target values or other factors.
That is if the project is constrained by budget, or the owner wants to stick to all cost to it, all the teams will use the budget as an axis on the design and construction. This approach is often used in projects where BIM design is used for the planning stage.

Multi-Party Contracts

In Multi-Party Contracts, all companies and professionals in the construction and design share the same responsibility and risks in the project.

For obvious reasons, this Lean practice enhances collaboration among different teams and contractors.

Multi-Party Contracts although effective have a clear down-side which put in disadvantage stakeholders and contractors with less responsibility or those who are meeting the requirements to pay for mistakes of different teams.
Value Stream Mapping
Another cherished but low-profile lean construction practice is Value Stream Mapping. IBy mapping in chart connectors and activities, engineers and managers are able to identify to the detail bottle-neck tasks, inefficiency on single activities performed several times in repeating processes.
Therefore, in VSM the whole team evaluates the process to achieve comprehensive feedback and improve activities. In the flow, workers will be able to identify activities that add value to the product and business and other tasks that are costing too much without producing enough.

To sum it up

The construction industry is taking one step further and adopting strategic partnerships and collaborative approaches to achieve a more sustainable built environment.

Here, we offered a quick look at the most popular and adopted Lean Management practices in construction sites and design teams.

The question remaining is why engineers and managers are not adopting these strategies on their projects. Maybe there is misinformation regarding initial costs, maybe it is seen as a cumbersome never-ending process, or there is a lack of resources to keep up to date with the best practices.

However, more companies are adding extra value and achieving their business goals faster through collaboration, planning and strategic problem-solving. There is an immediate necessity from construction companies to adopt lean management, in order to save resources and mitigate possible impacts on the rural and urban environment.

The question remaining is why engineers and managers are not adopting these strategies on their projects.

The good news is that lean practices are highly malleable. They adapt to the core values of the company and focus on increasing efficiency in the areas where is needed. Lean management, despite being a relatively new term, it has been used for many years in the construction industry.

For instance, weekly or daily meetings with workers on construction site assist in putting everyone on the same page and meet efforts to achieve a goal conjunctively. The bottom line of meetings is undoubtedly building bridges to collaboration. Which is also part of the essence of lean management.

By making small progressive changes on the workflows and construction processes, assigning workers to activities in which they can use their full professional capacity and constantly establishing communications among teams to discuss goals, construction companies will achieve many of the significant changes they need to produce a high-end product and exceed expectations from clients.