Lean Principals in Construction

How to Apply Lean Manufacturing Principles to Construction


While Lean Manufacturing primarily focuses on efficiency, by reducing waste, improving output, and delivering higher quality to customers, at its core is true value. The ultimate goal is to increase value to customers, to the business, and to the bottom line. As the market evolves, and effective operations become more necessary to thrive, unsurprisingly, Lean Manufacturing has grown in prevalence, including lean construction principles.

There are a couple of industries that see major benefits when implementing lean principles: namely manufacturing, construction and development, retail, and others. Lean construction principles mainly deal with the concept of “waste not, want not.” Recycling or making better use of resources, upgrading processes to reduce waste, and kickstarting initiatives that boost output with as little buy-in as possible, are all great examples.

Applying Lean Construction Principles

Going lean seems easy enough, at least on paper, but implementing lean principles within a construction organization and on the average job site is quite involved. It’s a commendable goal, and it comes with a host of benefits, like lower operating costs, faster builds or faster time to market, and more effective processes. And, since it deals with eliminating errors and waste, it even mitigates the potential for costly delays and other operational setbacks.

Every operation is going to be a little different, potentially omitting some of these steps or coming up with new ones, but the implementation process for lean construction principles should follow something like this:

1. Lean Prep

Before trimming processes, eliminating various tasks, and trying to change the bulk of your operations, it makes sense to come up with an attack plan. Step one is to define the team’s value, and also what customers or clients consider valuable. What do they want? Why do they want it? What’s the most effective way to get there?

This is an ongoing event that should precede every new project because each development process is different. Lean prep should also involve every party from architects to engineers and on-site workers. Everyone should have a voice, but the discussion should focus on absolutes — reducing complexities while still delivering exceptional quality and meeting all project deadlines.

2. Reduce Waste

Step 2 is to take some of that action plan and put it into motion, particularly by reducing waste through more effective operations. Since this is construction, the first thing that comes to mind is using fewer materials or resources during the build, but that’s not necessarily the point or the endgame. Yes, reducing tangible waste is a small part of lean construction principles, but it’s also about wasted time, wasted labor, poor design or planning, and much more. Basically, anything that extends development time, reduces quality, and hinders productivity is “waste” in the lean sense.

This can be achieved by simply following three major tenets: Smarter planning, better collaboration, and stronger communication.

By planning the project from the top down, at a high level, and with efficiency in mind, processes will holistically become better, more achievable, and successful. To maintain those improvements, contractors and crews need to work together with unprecedented collaboration to monitor and control waste.

Finally, strong communication ensures everyone is on the same page, knows where the project is going, and what needs to be done to keep it on track and lean. It’s as much about reducing team-related waste as it is about materials and processes. It all needs to be in sync.

For example, during the average home building process, there’s more to the project than just designing and constructing the residence. Some other stages to consider include clearing the building site, digging a foundation, installing utilities, laying pavement or driveway materials, landscaping and lawn work, and more. Each of these stages should be considered initially, with proper planning to reduce waste and miscommunication — especially with the client or owners — and speed up timelines.

3. Iterate and Streamline

Lean Manufacturing, or lean construction principles, are not going to be perfect the first time you implement them, or even the hundredth time. In fact, the entire concept is about continually moving towards better efficiency and waste reduction — there’s no finish line. And since workflows are a foundational element of construction, it makes sense to measure, document, and improve them as time passes, continuing to iterate and streamline the campaign as much as possible.

Even when you’ve achieved something truly efficient, and quality and output seem unmatched, there are still ways to improve, and you and your team should be looking for them. The lean approach posits that improvements are always possible and that there are always ways to reduce waste and extract a little more potential.

4. Leverage Technology

A separate yet just as important point is to leverage smart and modern technologies to improve lean operations. Construction sites are starting to incorporate drones, artificial intelligence and more to keep equipment running smoothly and to manage projects better.

Building information modeling (BIM) can be combined with smart devices and sensors to vastly improve operational efficiency on a job or construction site. Development can be closely tied to the design and specifications through real-world data, digital platforms, and on-site applications, such as VR or augmented reality tools. Basically, the digital blueprints can be compared to the real structure, as it’s being developed, in real-time to reduce errors, improve design specs, and ensure the project remains on schedule.

Lean Construction: Reducing Waste Through Smarter Operations

In the end, the best approach is to apply the concept of lean construction to your team, your projects, and your processes in the best way possible. The general strategy is going to follow a similar approach to the steps listed above, but you may find something works better for your operation — or not — and then adjust accordingly.

It’s about reducing waste, and not just tangible waste, through smarter operations, better planning, streamlined collaboration, and stronger communication.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over three years experience writing industrial topics for the manufacturing, energy, and supply chain industries.

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