If you ever get asked to take part in a lean construction project, it will offer a fresh perspective on building. Lean construction principles, and the practices that flow from them, not only transform projects, but they also transform entire companies.
What Is Lean Construction?
At the heart of lean construction is the idea that you can reliably release work from one construction process to the next. Just imagine being able to turn the building over to whoever is next in line to do their work and know everything will proceed as planned.
The authors of Foundations of Lean Construction compare the realization people have when they grasp reliability to the moment when they learn to ride a bike. Suddenly, they feel a new freedom and get a fresh sense of speed and range.
When someone grasps the idea of reliability in construction, they feel empowered by the notion that they can change design, supply, assembly and control to get better results, knowing it will work.
Lean Construction Principles
Construction projects have phases, beginning with design and ending with closeout. Each stakeholder performs their function as assigned by contract. In lean construction, the focus switches from individual stakeholders focused solely on their individual roles to all stakeholders working as a team. When applying lean construction principles, the project takes on extra dimensions as participants consider its entire life cycle when deciding what to build and how to build it.
Focus on the Process
You already know where people focus their energy and resources when involved in traditional construction projects. It’s mainly on transactions and contracts. Each participant focuses on their self-interest. So, relationships remain transactional, with contracts ensuring that outcome.
In a lean project, however, everybody focuses on the construction process. When they follow lean construction practices, they optimize everything for the final product.
If you are a subcontractor on a lean project, you will take part in design with all the other participants. If you are the general contractor, you and the owner will accept design variations suggested by a subcontractor if it’s best for the project. Regardless of your role on a lean project, you have a voice, and it will be heard.
Lean construction also fits the process to the product. So, you don’t build a project component in a certain way just because it’s always done this way. Instead, you use a building method and materials that you and the team have optimized to that component.
Planning More Than Reacting
Traditional construction projects with their rework and change orders reflect modern tendencies to think short term. During the design phase of a lean construction project, on the other hand, the participants consider the entire life cycle of the structure. Not just what happens to it at midlife, but also what happens when it’s reached the logical conclusion of its life.
Lean construction project participants also consider how their individual interests affect each other to align their short-term and long-term interests to the project’s benefit.
Today’s projects foretell success on future projects. What went right and what went wrong is only instructive if you analyze it. In a lean construction project, participants honor the future by incorporating lessons from the past at all levels.
Creating Structures to Achieve Goals
In a lean project, you use a systemic approach when getting ready to begin an activity. Then, people doing the work make a firm commitment to complete it following the requirements. In this way, activities start “at the last responsible moment.”
As work gets underway, everybody tunes into the lean construction practices in use so they can foresee and solve problems that could potentially threaten completion. Commitment is key, and on a lean project, every participant is already committed if they signed on to the project. Plus, they know that help flows in all directions so they are not in it alone.
Focus on the Project Supply Chain
The supply chain on most construction projects is fragmented. Each participant manages their own materials and equipment. Parties to a lean construction project work together to improve supply chain performance, allowing them to free themselves from market variabilities. They can reduce price shocks, shortages, and lead times.
Using Realistic Contingencies
Contingencies apply to anything you use in the construction process to cushion you or the project from surprises. Most commonly, it’s money, but it can also be inventory, favors, or even good will. The problem is that contingencies often build up in the wrong proportion to the risk.
If you follow lean construction principles, you and the other participants assign contingencies to offset project variabilities. No more and no less. The group effort helps assure that people don’t overlook necessary buffers, or include unnecessary ones.
Lean Construction Benefits
In a notable 2018 study, companies using the most effective lean methods completed 45% of projects early and delivered 70% of them under budget.
While few who have studied lean construction would disagree with its benefits, the transition to it requires changes in human behavior. Companies must figure out how to overcome lean’s contradictions with long-held group behavior. Those who have transitioned to lean construction have themes in their stories of “urgency, leadership, focus, structure, discipline and trajectory,” making this transition nothing short of a transformation.