Industry Insights

Maximizing Efficiency in Building: Exploring the Principles of Lean Construction

Kristen Frisa
March 27, 2024
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Construction has remained strong and in demand despite the economic challenges that have presented themselves over the past number of years. Still, construction businesses that hope to survive have to learn to build with optimal efficiency to stay competitive through tough times. Efficiency means building profitably through supply chain uncertainty, labor shortages, and material price fluctuations, all of which have tightened already narrow profit margins.

Lean construction is one process contractors can use to guide their operations to achieve greater efficiency. Lean construction principles offer a framework for contractors to capitalize on the expertise of employees and industry partners to help tighten up the building process.

Here we'll discuss the meaning of lean and how lean principles can help contractors improve their efficiency.

About Lean construction

Lean construction principles are built around the idea that data silos between construction stakeholders hold projects back. Lean construction offers a process for delivering projects that emphasizes collaboration, communication, and data sharing between all parties on a construction project.

Using an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) system, Lean puts the owner, designers, and contractors all under a single contract, essentially tying their fates together. Stakeholders set financial targets collectively and share profits and savings among them.

Organized this way, Lean project teams are compelled to work together toward a common goal, communicating and sharing information expertise from the project's outset through delivery.

Proponents of the lean method suggest that closer relationships between construction stakeholders can reduce waste and help improve profits on lean construction projects. Because risk and blame are distributed equally, Lean may also foster a greater willingness to innovate and try new things.

The six tenets of Lean construction

Lean construction encourages project teams to look beyond their individual roles on a project to consider how they might benefit the project as a whole. These ideals are encapsulated in six guiding principles of Lean construction, as listed by the Lean Construction Institute.

  • Respect for people – encouraging trust among team members
  • Optimize the whole – each team member should work to improve the entire project life cycle, not just their individual roles
  • Eliminate waste – recognize processes that create waste and work to reduce or eliminate wasteful practices. Lean identifies specific areas to focus on in waste elimination, including transportation, inventory, wait time, and resource use.
  • Focus on flow – work together to avoid conflicting timelines that disrupt team members' ongoing effort toward project completion
  • Generate value – teams should collectively create a value proposition for the project, and reflect on their actions in relation to the quest for that customer value
  • Continuous improvement – all stakeholders work together to create a log of project constraints and actively work to eliminate or minimize them through lean thinking

The benefits of Lean construction

Though most construction professionals have probably heard of Lean construction, many construction companies have incorporated Lean principles into their projects only minimally – Dodge Data research from 2022 showed only six percent of an industry panel categorized themselves as being engaged with Lean design and construction.

However, when contractors use the Lean methodology, there's a greater likelihood of completing a project ahead of schedule, fostering good relationships between project teams, and seeing higher-than-typical profits.

How Lean construction improves process and outcomes

In traditional construction projects, the owner and designer will create the entire design and layout for a construction project before beginning the bidding process. Contractors receive the completed designs and often have just a few months to research and familiarize themselves with them before submitting bids. Contractors who win the bids enter onto the site and only then may become aware of site conditions or other factors that may impact project schedule and budget.

By contrast, the Lean construction philosophy offers contractors the chance to get involved early on in a project process, consulting on design to iron out those difficulties beforehand. Subcontractors and specialty trades can weigh in, too. Having more eyes on the project before building begins has multiple benefits for the Lean construction process and its final outcomes.

Increased productivity and efficiency

When project teams get the chance to pitch in on more processes, lean construction methods can result in a more buildable design and a more realistic schedule, and allow construction to be more efficient and less wasteful.

Cost savings

Improved communication and information sharing means fewer crossed wires and guesswork, which can help avoid rework, use materials and time more carefully, and ultimately save money during construction.

Improved project delivery and customer satisfaction

Contractors can use Lean construction techniques to deliver projects more effectively and efficiently, eliminating unnecessary steps, avoiding delays, and improving the quality of the final product.

Challenging the status quo

One of Lean's most touted benefits is that it requires construction teams to examine and change the way they approach their work. Rather than relying on old, inefficient processes, each project team member is called to task to improve the way building is done, which could have wider industry implications on traditional construction methods.

Implementing Lean construction practices

Making changes within business practices can be challenging. Lean construction goes a step further than many other procedural changes by not only asking construction companies to change their processes, but also the way team members think about their processes. The following are some steps construction firms can take to ease their processes to better align with Lean practices. 

Support from the top

Lean construction empowers employees at all levels to take ownership of project outcomes. However, support of the Lean principles has to come from people at the top of a company's hierarchy. Big changes need a champion who can encourage and enforce new ways of doing things.

Training and education

Lean represents a new way of approaching each task for the entire length of the project. To really grasp the concepts, each level of the organization will need a unique training plan that focuses on trust in relationships, continual improvement in tasks, and teaches waste elimination tactics. Lean construction resources are available to help construction teams live the principles.

Measure and improve

Implementing Lean within an organization requires some stark shifts in thinking and behavior from all levels of the organization. Those changes are not going to happen perfectly or immediately. Continue to measure key metrics of success in the new way of doing things. Analyze things that didn't work and develop a plan to try a new way to approach the problem area.

Capitalize on tech that can help

Technology is a critical part of adopting Lean principles on construction projects. BIM (building information modeling) helps teams visualize a project long before shovels break ground, AI programs can help optimize schedules, finding the most efficient timeline to reduce wait time and material movement, and construction project management solutions help to track and analyze progress through each step of a lean construction project, which can help teams learn and grow with time.

Construction businesses can use digital solutions to bring their payment processes in line with Lean by reducing data input and wait times within construction payments. Truss is a fast, secure payment solution that can speed up receivables and bill payments, and minimize data inputs by integrating with accounting solutions. Truss cards empower employees to make the purchases they need, tagging the appropriate project and capturing the receipt through mobile devices, streamlining the entire expense management process.

Overcome resistance

Lean asks every project team member to fundamentally change their approach to a project. As such, there may be some resistance to Lean adoption within the early stages. Continuous training and support will help bolster enthusiasm through Lean implementation, including full explanations of the reasons behind the changes.

Small wins often help to change minds. When Lean starts to make a difference within a specific area of the business, use it as a case study to change minds and spread the love for Lean.

The time is right for Lean

Construction is not known for its willingness to jump on any new bandwagon that comes along, but the recent wave of tech adoption proves that the industry can make the change when conditions are right. Lean construction offers the construction industry a new way to look at building processes from project conception to delivery. It removes wasteful and harmful data silos in support of a collaborative approach.

Now that technology has enabled better communication, real-time data sharing through cloud storage, and smarter cash flow and payment strategies, construction can more easily implement Lean construction principles throughout the organization.

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