What is Lean Construction & Why You Should Care

by our Guest Blogger: Jessica Kane

The reigning paradigm of construction says that there are inherent trade-offs between time, cost and quality for any project. The old saying goes: “You can have it quick, cheap or good. Pick any two.” In other words, unless a construction manager is a wizard, a change to one factor will impact another.

Lean construction turns that thinking on its head and is being embraced by savvy owners, architects, engineers, constructors and designers as a way to keep projects on time, on budget and of the highest quality. No sacrifices necessary.

Genesis of Lean Construction

The International Group for Lean Construction is credited with coining the term “Lean Construction” in 1993 as a way to improve project delivery. At that time, academic research and industry experts pointed to woeful results in project delivery. Construction crews were not delivering projects on time, on budget or of the expected quality. Productivity was on a steady decline in the construction industry. Monetizing those shortcomings made it clear that it was time to revisit the tools of construction management.

The Lean Construction aggressively counters the decline in productivity. The methodology seeks to minimize cost and maximize value by focusing on customer needs. It also creates a construction site that feels less chaotic and more collaborative.

Silos on Site

Traditional construction management systems created inherent disconnects between phases of a project. Pre-construction would involve the architect, then engineers, then contract managers and general contractors long before the trade workers were brought into the project. The system creates challenges for delivering projects:


  1. Project workflows are not predictable as some workers are not committed until very late in the project.
  2. Improvement and collaboration are limited as the hand-offs can be very rigid.
  3. Focus on providing customer value is stunted by a siloed workforce that may never or rarely interact.


Drawing on Lean principles made popular by Toyota, Lean Construction employs the rigor of continuous improvement throughout construction projects from end to end. Primary principles that lead to better results include:


  • Collaborative planning and problem solving. All of the actors on a project are empowered to surface problems, fix processes and continue to look for methods to improve.
  • Customer-focused delivery. The system is designed to not only meet but exceed customer requirements and eliminate steps that do not add value for the customer.
  • Flow optimization. Actors in the system review processes to remove obstacles that prevent them from flowing continuously and efficiently.
  • Pull production. Instead of producing products or services to forecasted customer needs, triggers are created so that production takes place in response to demand.


Waste-busting in Construction


The primary concept of Lean is to eliminate waste in processes. Waste adds time, cost and frustration for employees without adding value for the customer. There are eight commonly recognized wastes. A few examples of how they translate to Lean Construction are:


  • Defects. Redoing or throwing out work.
  • Overproduction: Making more of something than is needed or making it too early, such as building cabinets before the kitchen is framed.

Waiting: Waiting on man, machine or materials for the next task, such as waiting for updates to design documents.

  • Non-utilized talent: Not tapping into people’s skills and talents.
  • Transportation: Moving people, materials and information around, especially if you are moving items more than once.
  • Inventory: Keeping too much of something that is not needed on hand, such as wood or other materials.
  • Motion: Movement of people around that does not add value, such as if deliveries are made to the wrong area of a job site.
  • Extra processing: Additional effort that’s not needed from the customer’s viewpoint such as a process that requires three signatures for one delivery acceptance.


The New Way to Deliver in Construction


In construction, eliminating waste requires a deviation from or addition to standard project delivery methods such as the Critical Path Method (CPM) that may focus too narrowly on steps and unintentionally frustrate any opportunities for collaborative improvement. Lean Construction takes the best thinking of everyone involved in the project, from the first architect to the last tradesman, and puts it to work delivering a faster, less costly, higher quality project.


Jessica Kane is a professional blogger who writes for Federal Steel Supply, Inc., a leading supplier of carbon, alloy and stainless steel pipe, tubes, fittings and flanges.

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