If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered the term “lean.” It emerged and gained popularity in the 1990s as the automotive, pharmaceutical and other industries sought to eliminate waste, increase value to their customers, and improve profitability.

Efforts to apply the principles and techniques of lean management to construction have been ongoing for some time now. Yet the lean approach has been somewhat slow to catch on in certain construction segments. Advancing technology, along with greater sophistication among construction industry leaders, is making now a good time to reconsider the concept.

What it means to be lean

The Lean Construction Institute (LCI) defines lean construction as a production-based project delivery system that emphasizes the reliable and speedy delivery of value. The goal is to maximize value by minimizing wasted time, movement, and human potential.

Delivering value takes more than just getting projects done quickly and cheaply; it involves meaningful collaboration in planning, engineering, procurement, and construction. Lean means doing quality work in an ultra-efficient manner that satisfies the owner’s needs without requiring costly callbacks. It also means focusing on safety to avoid injuries and downtime.

The battle against waste

All of this may generally sound like traditional construction, but lean breaks down a project into a series of tasks and assigns four categories within those tasks: processing, handling, inspection, and waiting. Value stream mapping — that is, close analysis of these categories — has shown that often less than half the time is being used productively on processing.

Much of the remainder can be identified as wasted time or effort on activities such as:

  • Performing repairs or redoing work to correct errors,
  • Picking up or stacking materials inefficiently,
  • Producing more material than is needed or before it’s needed,
  • Transporting materials into and out of storage between processes unnecessarily,
  • Maintaining excess inventory of raw materials, and
  • Losing time while waiting for tools, supplies, parts, etc.

Contractors can reduce or even eliminate these types of wasteful activities by applying lean construction principles.

Best building practices

So what do lean principles look like in practice? There are many to consider. One example is bringing key project participants, such as the construction manager and major trades, on board early in the process — soon after the architect and engineer are engaged. Lean projects try to involve “downstream” players (suppliers, for instance) early as well, seeking their input to enhance value at every stage of the process.

Lean projects are also a perfect fit for today’s information-sharing technology. Building information modeling systems enable project stakeholders to collaborate early and identify many ways to reduce inefficiencies and avoid waste.

A lean approach will also guide contractors to monitor and adjust work sequencing and schedules continually throughout the project. Doing so should allow front-line staff to make better decisions on work commitments, so they can avoid wasted downtime or correct problems before issues seriously affect the project schedule.

A formal approach

The traditional goals of construction project management — to complete the work on schedule and within budget — still tend to dominate the industry. But if you’re looking for a formal approach to improving quality, reducing costs, and preventing waste, lean construction is worth exploring.

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