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The Concept of Waste in Lean Construction

Written by LetsBuild

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The only reason I know about “Waste” in “Lean Construction” is because I was contacted by a PhD student who wanted to pick my brains for his research. That meant I had to put myself on a crash learning course!

So let’s start with looking at “Construction”. That means, in the Lean Construction context, every stage from Conception through to Handover. It doesn’t just mean us guys sticking it up! Then we have “Waste”: that doesn’t mean what we chuck in the skips; it also applies to TIME being wasted – again, at every stage from Conception to handover. This can apply not only to time on the Programme, but also peoples’ time being wasted when they are not being productive.

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So there you have “Waste in Lean Construction” in very condensed terms! Sadly it does seem to be rather an academic concept and where it tends to fall down, in practical terms, is that every country has its own construction culture which greatly affects how “Lean” a project is!

Looking at the U.K. first, our actual material waste is very low. Working on, often, a 1% profit margin on the contract a U.K contractor can’t afford to throw much material in the skips! Likewise, the lads on commercial contracts are often on price work; they crash on with it because they want to make as much as they can in the year! As for the contractor companies, LAD threatens if the project finishes late! The inference of the last couple of sentences is that time wasted on U.K. construction sites is also very low.

We get a different picture, though, when we look at U.K. construction from the Conception stage to Start on Site. Rule of thumb is that this takes 18 months! Roughly a year of this is spent with all the parties with a vested interest in the project arguing about what they want. The remaining six months is down to Town Planners and Building Control doing their thing and requiring changes. What a waste of time! There isn’t much material waste here, though. Architects and engineers specify dimensions to accommodate standard-sized materials. There is a waste of money, though: Inflation of prices over this period!

Compare our U.K. 18-months to Romania: there they seem to be able to decide what they want to build in a few weeks! Then, with the help of a “commission” in a brown envelope, any sensible, practical application gets the official go-ahead inside a couple of weeks! Later design changes are approved in a couple of days! Being Lean seems to stop when work starts on site, though. Firstly, the tender profit margins are much higher than in the U.K; perhaps 30%. Secondly, labour and material costs are much lower so work progresses more slowly and more material goes in the skips. There is another factor, too, which I haven’t seem mentioned in what I’ve read about lean construction management. That is land costs. In the U.K. with land granted OPP costing about £5 million/hectare, nobody can afford to “waste” land on a construction project! In Romania the land with OPP is only about £50k/hectare. Any new build is usually surrounded by nice gardens or plenty of parking spaces!

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Another comparison I can give from personal experience is France. There they seem to get from Conception to Start on Site in about 6 months for a commercial construction job. They, like the U.K., are using dimensions to fit standard material sizes, so little material waste at that stage. Once work starts on site material and labour costs are similar to the U.K., as are contractual end dates and the liability for LAD – hence little waste of either!

I just slip this in because of interest as being very strange to we British. French construction clients have a gun hidden in their belts! They appoint a site-based Clerk of Works and I worked for a British company out there who ignored my warnings. The Clerk of Works was given very little respect and not much notice was taken of his polite requests. (Must make it clear that he and I were mates in our fag breaks and I did argue his side in Meetings). However, come the “end” of the project, the Clerk of Works changes his “head”! He becomes a Judge! Yes, fully qualified, State approved –a real Judge! At the end of the day he had his way! Slipshod work was mad good and a big LAD bill picked up. Thankfully my contract had ended by then so I didn’t suffer the embarrassment!

So there you have it – an overview of the Concept of Waste in Lean Construction. Waste refers to any time or material not used efficiently from the moment of project Conception to Handover by the contractor. Looks like, wherever we work, there is plenty of opportunity to make things Leaner!