The Basics of Lean Construction Methods

Contributions from: Holly Welles and Kendall Jones – Construct Connect

The notion of doing more with less has integrated itself into countless industries. The pressure to achieve greater results with fewer resources is immense, and the construction industry isn’t immune to it. Projects have grown more complex and challenging over time with tighter timelines, regulations and budgets, layered with new materials, intricate processes, and customization requests. This has potential to added further strains on already thin margins in the industry.

Thankfully, lean construction management principles allow companies to do more with less while delivering high-quality output to customers.

What Is Lean Construction?

Lean construction is a relationship-focused production management system that eliminates waste from the construction process to deliver greater value to clients.

The method has roots in the Toyota Production System. First developed in Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in Japan in the 1920s and later implemented in Toyota automobile manufacturing facilities after World War II, the system focused on providing greater customer satisfaction while reducing waste and giving workers more meaningful jobs. Toyota’s strategies were found to be so successful that lean concepts were adapted for use outside manufacturing. In construction, lean concepts offer a framework for improving the entire construction process, from design through completion, based on a few basic principles.

 Lean Construction Principles 

  1. Value from the Client’s Point of View

What your client truly values in a construction project goes beyond delivering what’s laid out in the plans and specs. It’s more than just the quality of your work or completing a project on time and within budget. This requires a customer-focused approach that can be achieved by building a relationship with the client. In lean construction, this should include all stakeholders i.e. client, architect, engineers, general contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers.

Identifying client values should begin early in the conceptual planning phase of a project and must be carried on through construction. It’s about understanding not only what your client wants, but why they want it so the project team can manage expectations and best advise the client. A deep level of trust must be established between all stakeholders in order to successfully implement lean practices. 

  1. Processes that Deliver the Value Stream

The value stream is simply what the client values. Once you’ve identified value from your client’s perspective, it’s time to identify the processes needed to deliver the value stream. All steps in the process should be carefully mapped out to determine what activities are involved. Take into account labour, information, materials, and equipment needed for each activity. Any steps in a process that don’t add value for you client should be eliminated. 

  1. Eliminating Waste

Lean construction is accomplished by cutting out waste. The eight major types of waste in construction are easy to remember because they result in DOWNTIME.

 Defects – This is anything not done correctly the first time which results in rework. This wastes time in having to make the repairs and materials needed to correct the work.

 Overproduction – In construction, this type of waste occurs when a task is completed faster than scheduled or before the next task in the sequence is ready to start.

 Waiting – This is wasted time where workers are stuck waiting for materials to be delivered or for preceding work to be completed. This disrupts the workflow and results in workers waiting for work.

 Not Utilizing Talent – You wouldn’t hire an electrician to fill a labourer’s position. It would be a complete waste of their talent, skills, and knowledge.

 Transport – This can be the transportation of equipment, materials, and workers to a site before they are needed or it can refer to the transmission of information with no added value.

 Inventory – In lean construction, you want to move toward “just in time” inventory as opposed to “just in case” inventory.

Motion – This is any unnecessary movement that can be eliminated, such as having to make multiple trips across the site to get more tools or materials.

 Excess Processing – Excess processing is typically generated when having to deal with too many instances of other waste such as defects or inventory. Double-checking or adding extra processes to try and eliminate other areas of waste will involuntarily lead to more waste from over processing. 

  1. Flow of Work Processes

The goal in lean construction is to achieve a continuous workflow that is reliable and predictable. Each stage of production is done in sequence. For example, you wouldn’t start hanging drywall in a room until all of the electrical and plumbing was roughed in. In order to achieve flow, all parties have to communicate and work together to avoid interruptions.

You also want to avoid workers waiting for work or vice versa.  Dividing a project up into separate production zones can help contractors ensure they have the capacity to finish each task on schedule. If one stage of production gets behind or ahead of schedule, it’s important to communicate and make adjustments to avoid the workers waiting for work scenario. 

  1. Using Pull Planning and Scheduling

When using pull planning or scheduling the work is released based on downstream demand in order to create reliable workflows. Because work is done sequentially and the completion of one task releases work on the next task. This requires starting from a specific milestone or target completion date and working backward to schedule work when it can be performed. In lean construction pull planning is done by those performing the work, typically the subcontractors, through communication and collaboration with each other to dictate the schedule of tasks. This is because they are best suited for determining their capacity for performing a given task. They can work with the next subcontractor, or customer, downstream to coordinate schedules and handovers. 

  1. Perfecting the Processes Through Continuous Improvement

Continually making improvements to further eliminate waste and add value is critical in order to perfect your lean construction processes. Not only should adjustments be made throughout the individual project to identify and reduce waste but taking what you learn from project to project will allow you to continually innovate new ways to add value and eliminate waste.

What Are the Benefits of Lean Construction?

Lean construction transforms nearly every stage of the construction process, requiring teams to work together more closely and build innovation into every project. Although how much a company gets out of lean construction depends on how the philosophy is implemented, potential benefits could include:

  • On-time project completion: By cutting out inefficiencies, lean construction allows teams to finish projects quicker, even with fewer workers on-site. This is particularly appealing, as the construction industry skills shortage makes deadlines harder to meet.
  • High-quality work: Standardization, continuous improvement and a focus on communication mean teams make fewer mistakes and produce exceptional results.
  • Increased worker satisfaction: When workers have more control over the process and waste less time on unnecessary tasks, they are more likely to enjoy their jobs and put in a full effort.
  • Better risk management: Companies that embrace lean construction plan for problems before they occur. As when creating a contingency plan, this reduces panic and ensures leaders make the best possible decisions when problems occur.

How Can You Implement Lean Construction Philosophy?

Often, companies focus on using a certain tool or procedure in an attempt to increase efficiency. But lean construction is a philosophy and is continuous (not a start-to-end process). This means the best way to obtain the benefits of lean construction is to apply lean ideas and methods at every level of an organization and at every stage of construction. However, you can start getting results quickly from the methodology by following a step-by-step approach.

Step 1: Assemble Your Team

Start by determining roles and responsibilities for each team member, ensuring that they are clear on what’s expected of them. Allow for clarification questions, and take time to address questions about scheduling, planning, and accessibility. Next, help the team get comfortable with any collaborative technology you’ll be using with onboarding sessions. Finally, establish milestones with the owner’s oversight and input.

You must also give workers more autonomy. Workers know their jobs better than anyone else. Show workers the respect they deserve by encouraging them to solve problems, work together and offer suggestions for improvement. A team can build this relationship-based work culture by holding lean trainings that incorporate discussions and give volunteer facilitators, not just management, the opportunity to lead.

Step 2: Engage Subcontractors

To build transparency, highlight the individual benefits subcontractors will receive through lean construction. Make it personal to them and their role to get them onboard. Integrate these contractors into the planning process early and get them up to speed on the collaborative technology you’ll be using.

Step 3: Set Goals Based on Client Priorities

In lean construction, every decision should be rooted in maximizing value for the client.  All steps in the process should be carefully mapped out to determine what activities are involved, taking into account labour, information, materials, and equipment needed for each activity. Any steps in a process that don’t add value for you client should be eliminated.

Step 4: Develop Your Schedule

Use backward planning in the pull planning method. Determine the sequence of tasks through milestones, which lead to the final deadline. To create coordination schedules, use last planners for tasking. Progress and milestones will need to be assessed continuously to keep things on track.

Step 5: Conduct Check-Ins

During check-ins, take note of areas that need improvement and create action plans to address them. Use this time to discuss best practices with stakeholders and keep communication open. Check-ins are also an excellent time to evaluate project performance with your team.  This includes practicing preventative maintenance. Keep processes and equipment in good shape with regularly scheduled maintenance. Even a one percent drop in equipment productivity can cause a 2.75% drop in project profits. Lean construction requires managing much smaller maintenance expenses before major problems derail and delay business operations.

Step 6: Standardize

As you work on the project and review best practices, develop your own standards for operations. Communicate these to your team and set expectations for reporting and benchmarks. During this step, you can also quantify the benefits and results you’ve achieved with lean to make a case for continued and increased investment.

Step 7: Embrace Continuous Improvement

Teams looking to benefit from lean construction should constantly evaluate their existing processes for areas that need improvement. Look for inefficiencies in transport, scheduling, work quality, inventory, processing, movement and more.

A Better Way to Tackle Construction

Lean construction has gained popularity for a reason. When implemented thoughtfully, this philosophy allows construction teams to complete jobs more efficiently and more successfully, all while making clients and workers happy.

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