Lean Construction: Principles Shaping the Future of Construction

Lean construction focuses on reducing waste in the timeline of a construction project by finding novel ways to maximize productivity and efficiency. Resource scarcity continues to shape construction trends and influence how the industry might change in the coming decade.

As environmental regulations change and building materials evolve, going lean could mean setting yourself up for industry success by creating a culture built around innovation and efficiency. No longer relegated solely to the world of manufacturing, the lean method has clear benefits for companies in other industries that endeavor to wholly commit to its principles.

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Below, we’ll break down just what lean construction means and illustrate some of the benefits of adapting to the lean method.

What Is Lean Construction?

construction worker holding small crane

Lean construction is a methodology similar to value engineering. This methodology applies the principles of lean manufacturing, an efficient system attributed to post-World War II Japan, across the construction industry.

The lean process was refined by Kiichiro Toyoda, second president of Toyota Motor Corporation. Modern thinkers adapted the principles of lean to many industries in hopes of capitalizing on Toyoda’s monumental success. Coined the “Toyota Way,” his management system was so influential in the automotive industry and beyond that Toyota Motor Corporation still adheres to its core tenets.

Benefits of Lean Construction

On its own, lean is a construction management and implementation style that strives to achieve sustainable business success by improving how employees solve problems, measure success, and view morale.

Some of the benefits that can be achieved by adapting to a lean construction model include:

  • Decreased process waste
  • Reduced monetary loss
  • Increased capacity for innovation
  • Enhanced adaptability to challenges
  • Improved employee morale

These benefits are correlated so that one benefit may lead to another (decreasing process waste can also directly reduce monetary loss, for example). Ideally, with enough preparation and implementation, lean thinking transforms a company into a machine of self-sustaining innovation.

Six Core Lean Construction Principles

The appeal of lean construction is in its potential to become a self-sustaining model. If the methodology is properly implemented, each employee will approach their work while keeping in mind these four steps:

  • Plan: Identify any areas for improvement
  • Do: Enact changes for positive impact
  • Study: Quantify the impact
  • Adjust: Make modifications and share new knowledge

These cyclical steps reveal more opportunities for improvement because of the attention given to positive outcomes and their impacts. The following six principles should shape every project in a lean operation:

6 steps of lean construction: identify client values, define value stream, eliminate waste, streamline workflow, implement pull scheduling, achieve continuous improvement

1. Highlight What the Client Values

Lean construction can be described as a more empathetic approach to the business model, and that’s clearly illustrated in the first core principle. Connecting with the client on their values will establish substantial trust at the outset of a project.

2. Map the Value Stream

Value stream mapping utilizes flowcharts to identify opportunities within a process to maximize returns and minimize waste. Highlighting the value to the client is simpler when the process is contained to a single, bare-bones chart. These maps also more clearly illustrate wasteful elements in the construction project cycle, improving efficiency and lowering cost.

3. Minimize Waste Accumulation

Lean construction strives to eliminate waste in eight forms:

  • Defects: project steps or components aren’t completed correctly, resulting in errors
  • Production waste: tasks are completed ahead of schedule or in excess of requirements, resulting in downtime or waste of materials
  • Time waste: involved parties are left waiting for the next step because of an error in supply scheduling, or because of overproduction/production waste
  • Talent waste: knowledge goes to waste because a particular person is underutilized
  • Transportation waste: construction materials or equipment is transported too early, or project information is shared unnecessarily, resulting in wasted effort
  • Inventory waste: construction materials that aren’t immediately needed end up clogging a site or pipeline
  • Movement waste: sequential steps aren’t physically organized with regard to their order, resulting in movement wasted by workers traveling to different parts of the worksite
  • Process waste: steps added to the project aren’t adding value for the client

Eliminating these sources of waste can boost efficiency and value. Once wastes are decreased, opportunities for streamlining become more apparent.

4. Streamline Work Processes Flow

Sequence flow is a major source of delays in construction projects. Each step has preceding requirements that must be met to continue. Planning for predictability and practicing clear communication are key here. By ensuring all parties are looped in, there’s less chance of setbacks or adjustments inhibiting a project. 

5. Implement Pull Scheduling

Pull planning or scheduling creates a timeline for project completion that announces tasks on a downstream schedule. As one task is completed, the next task in the process is activated. This streamlines workflow by creating concrete expectations of responsibilities and points of contact for handoffs. The sequential process naturally creates more opportunities for communication between parties (typically subcontractors).

6. Keep Improving

Integral to the lean philosophy, continuous improvement sets in motion the self-sustaining potential of the other five other core principles, ensuring they’re internalized across the organization.

Tools and Methods to Achieve Lean Construction

Lean thinking is adaptable to many industries and therefore is achievable by using a variety of tools. With these tools, the benefits of lean construction become more immediately realizable. Here are some examples of recommended tips applicable to your work to attain lean processes in construction:

Adopt the 6S Methodology

wheel describing 6s methodology: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain, safety

Traditionally, this structure has five S’s, but with the importance of safety in construction an ever-present factor, the model has been amended to reflect a sixth S:

  • Sort: Organize resources in a worksite and ensure only necessary tools and materials are present
  • Set in order: Locate all tools and materials in the optimal position to maintain efficiency and fulfill their function
  • Shine: Clean and order the worksite continuously to avoid time loss
  • Standardize: Create and maintain standards that define the process used to clean and order the worksite
  • Sustain: Ensure adoption of standards by everyone at the worksite
  • Safely: Prioritize the safe completion of each project in conjunction with workplace standards

Each S is translated from the original Japanese to reflect broad process goals that are scalable to a construction company of any size.

Plan a Kaizen Event

Kaizen is a Japanese term related to lean management that loosely translates to ‘continuous improvement.’ Kaizen Events are retreats that facilitate improvement. These events are company-wide team-building retreats that use trickle-up problem-solving to expose problems from the point of view of on-site workers, who will be the ones most exposed to any implemented solution.

Kaizen Events are most successful as add-ons to solve complex problems, once a culture of kaizen is already achieved in your company.

Use Production Control Systems

Software that exists to facilitate lean construction planning is known as systemic production control. This process oversees the designation of specific people or teams to certain parts of a project, as well as the implementation of strategies and plans. Monitoring the collaborative nature of teams leads to more direct insight into productivity problems.

Try the A3 Process

A3 mapping is a process first introduced at Toyota that simplifies problem-solving, confining it to one piece of paper, size ISO-A3 (about 11” by 17”). While the name refers to the size of paper used in the original process, A3 is more contingent on the aforementioned, structured PDSA process: Plan, Do, Study, Adjust.

Learn More at the Lean Construction Institute

The Lean Construction Institute is a nonprofit organization that helps construction businesses actualize lean methodologies and plan for more efficient futures. Each year, a congress of those in the construction industry meets to embark on intensive training courses, breakout sessions, and site visits to put lean construction principles into action.

The Future of Construction is Lean

Sustainability and resource preservation are rising to the forefront of the national conversation in many industries. It’s not far-fetched to consider that streamlining just one element of a current construction project could eliminate waste in some way.

Lean construction borrows successful, decades-old principles and applies them to an industry that, for the first time in decades, is seeing average costs decrease. Many factors will shape construction trends into the next decade and beyond, but maximizing efficiency while minimizing waste continues to remain the most reliable focus point in the process of continually improving. 

With these tools and principles, standing out from a crowded industry becomes a step-by-step process.

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