Can Lean Construction Be the Sector’s Saviour?

Current economic conditions appear likely to squeeze the construction sector harder than ever. But many firms are adopting lean construction methods to offer customers better value, create more efficient workflows and eradicate waste.

For a cost-conscious sector like construction, achieving productivity gains through close collaboration with stakeholders, minimising waste, securing materials on time, and delivering projects on schedule and within budget have always been important. 

But when times are tough and the industry finds itself in turbulent economic conditions, as it does now, such aims become even more crucial. 

With productivity in construction in the UK regularly being outstripped by other industries, the sector has long been aware of the need to up its game using modern technology and embracing new ways of working. 

Digital methods are increasingly coming into use, but the adoption of a “lean construction” approach is also gaining ground. 

What is lean construction? 

Lean construction takes a leaf from the book of lean manufacturing, a practice dating back to post-World War II Japan, when Toyota introduced a “just in time” production system. 

The company wanted to create a more efficient, less wasteful way of making cars, focusing on lean principles which include recognising and learning from mistakes; detecting problems early and reacting to them quickly; using efficient supply lines; minimising waste; teamwork; and avoid “overburdening” systems and practices throughout the production process. 

The lean efficiency approach in construction similarly began to take shape in the post-war era as companies sought to deliver greater value for customers by being more cost effective. However, some trace lean construction’s arrival to 1993 with the creation of the International Group for Lean Construction. 

The IGLC bills itself as an international network of researchers from practice and academia in architecture, engineering and construction “who feel that the practice, education and research of the AEC industry have to be radically renewed in order to respond to the global challenges ahead.” 

Other organisations have since taken up the cause. According to the US-based Lean Construction Institute (LCI), lean construction “is a respect- and relationship-oriented production management-based approach to project delivery—a new and transformational way to design and build capital facilities.” 

Lean construction principles 

The LCI spells out six principles it suggests apply to lean construction: 

  1. Respect people
  2. Optimise the whole of a project
  3. Eradicate waste
  4. Focus on process and flow
  5. Generate value
  6. Continuously improve

Others suggest that customers’ needs should be included in any list of lean construction must haves, with the value for clientele being offered “without compromising cost and efficiency in all processes.” 

Examples of lean construction past and present 

Lean construction fits neatly with the drive to harness modern methods of construction. In a paper titled “Lean Construction Principles Past and Present—A Business Model Consistency,” Mohammed S. Hashem M. Mehany of Missouri State University argues that since speed of delivery is embodied in the lean construction concept, “tools such as modular construction are very important in achieving the lean process goal with respect to adding value and eliminating waste.” 

Speed of delivery was certainly a facet of one of the world’s most recognisable buildings, which doubles as one of the most famous examples of what we would perhaps classify today as a project delivered using lean construction. 

In just 20 months, the Empire State Building in New York City was designed from scratch, its site cleared for construction, built and opened on May 1, 1931. 

As Somik Ghosh and Kenneth Robson highlight in their 2014 paper, “Analyzing The Empire State Building From The Perspective of Lean Delivery System,” many of the practices followed by joint contractors Starrett Bros. and Eken would qualify in modern eyes as lean construction techniques, including the “just in time” design, detailing and delivery of the structural steel components that made up each of the building’s 102 floors. 

Additionally, the workflow techniques used by the team working on the building meant that the contractors were able to assess the status of a particular element of the work being carried out, the paper adds. 

A more recent example of how lean construction can expedite project completion—and perhaps spectacular, in terms of its lightning-fast delivery time—is the T-30 hotel in Changsha, China. 

The 30-storey modular building was built in just 15 days, with the main structure of the building erected in a mere 46 hours. 

Adopting lean construction methodology 

So, in practical terms, how does one implement lean construction methods? Many point to going beyond what the client wants from the outset. Understanding what a client values and embracing that, together with understanding why a particular project is being built, can seep into the delivery strategy. 

This encapsulates what the Lean Construction Institute describes as optimising the whole of the project. Drawing people together, listening, collaborating and understanding the needs of the project can be hugely effective. 

Close relationships with subcontractors and suppliers can help with delivery of the right amount of materials as and when they are needed, thereby reducing the risk of waste: just in time, another key tenet of lean construction. 

Meticulous planning and, once construction is underway, monitoring can enhance a project’s lean credentials, enabling workflows and practices to be effective. This was a major factor in the success of the Empire State Building’s rapid ascent into the Manhattan skyline. 

The future of lean construction in a digital era 

The efficacy of detailed planning and monitoring workflows—key elements of lean construction—can be enhanced using digital technology.  

The ability for stakeholders on a project to access documents online anytime and make agreed adjustments, tweaks or major changes, which could have an immediate impact, cannot be underestimated. 

An academic paper highlighted how 3D visualisation, construction process simulation and clash detection were effective on a six-storey car park project in Shenzhou, China, where building information modelling (BIM) was used in the lean construction management of the scheme.  

The project’s delivery team was able to discover “unreasonable issues during design and construction period … to guide the construction activities,” while construction simulations were used to help “master the detailed schedule and adjust the next assignments.” 

While technology can definitely help push the boundaries of what lean construction can achieve, ultimately it needs to be seen as more than just a successful management technique, wrote the late Jon White, the then-managing director of consultant Turner & Townsend. Instead, lean construction should be seen as part of a “seismic shift” in the way clients interact with their suppliers. 

“The goal,” White added, “should be to improve the supply chain dynamic, and to replace traditional, adversarial relationships in which the key metric is price alone with more collaborative, value-driven relationships in which goals and rewards are shared between client and suppliers.” 

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