5 Reasons Why Construction Needs Lean

By Brian Lightner, Lean & Quality Control Manager

For decades, the term “Lean” was applied strictly to manufacturing processes. In recent years, however, the construction industry has begun to adapt Lean principles for their own purposes. This is a positive step forward for an industry that has historically shown flat productivity improvements. How does integrating Lean improve the construction process? Here are five convincing reasons.

  1. Lean Forces Us to Examine Processes. Most construction firms maintain historical data to estimate the time and resources needed to perform certain processes. But how often do we challenge that data? Lean methodology requires us to examine every step in a process, question its value and make improvements as needed. Following where both data and observation take you – instead of using generalized assumptions based on questionable data or no data at all – is essential to collecting measurements that lead to improvements.
  2. Lean Reduces Waste. When we find and eliminate the non-value-added steps in a process, the result is a drastic reduction in waste. This includes physical waste (excess materials, unnecessary tools, etc.); time spent on nonvaluable or redundant tasks, or waiting for others; and the accompanying financial impact of that wasted labor and material.
  3. Lean Establishes Standards. Taiichi Ohno, the driving force behind the Lean manufacturing phenomenon, once said, “Without standards, there can be no improvement.” When adopting Lean principles, construction firms establish baseline productivity standards based on realistic, value-focused processes – and measure future processes against those standards.
  4. Lean Addresses Labor Shortages. Lean construction methods improve and maintain productivity without necessarily adding labor resources. With the ongoing challenge to find skilled labor, this is a welcome bonus!
  5. Lean Improves Scheduling. Glenn Ballard, founder of the Lean Construction Institute, observed that most schedules are just “forecasts,” which typically have two features: they are inaccurate, and that inaccuracy increases the further out you try to forecast. Lean facilitates the transition from ‘scheduling’ or ‘forecasting’ to ‘planning’ – the purposeful act of making work ready. Emphasis is on developing a detailed understanding of project requirements, which increases a plan’s reliability; equal emphasis is on improving the reliability of the commitments required for successful delivery.  Lean fosters a collaborative atmosphere where responsibility is distributed to a team, which is much more effective than requiring one project manager to develop and maintain a single, often overgeneralized schedule and bear the burden of understanding by themselves.