What Is Lean Construction and How Does It Relate to Project Management?

Lean construction & project management software offer better solutions to time/cost/value paradigm throughout the continuum of an office building project.

Lean construction and construction project management software offer a better solution to the time/cost/value paradigm throughout the continuum of an office building project.

When an owner or real estate developer is commissioning a corporate office building, lean construction practices help them maximize value. These mid- and high-rise towers that dominate the skyline, where 50 percent of those employed in the U.S. work, are significant long-term investments that require smart collaboration between owners, designers, contractors, and other business partners.

According to Lean Construction Institute(LCI), 70% of projects are over budget and delivered late. Construction labor efficiency and productivity have decreased, while all other non-farming labor efficiency has doubled or more since the 1960s.

Lean practices are employed to deliver reliable and speedy value throughout the life of complex projects, reducing cost overruns and waste, and increasing safety and employee retention. They produce significant improvements through continuous workflows, knowledge sharing, and common goals - as opposed to reliance on the fast-track, schedule-driven model overseen by a central authority. Transparent and decentralized decision-making empowers all project participants with the information they need to take action.

Yet, according to a recent study, 37% of contractors sampled were totally unfamiliar with Lean, and only 28% reported implementing any of the six principles of lean practice.

The 6 Principles of Lean Construction

  • Lean Construction: Concerned with continuous improvements in all dimensions of the built environment.
  • Pull Planning: Helps to get buy-in from all project participants, by pulling activities into the process that are compressed to reduce overall activity duration.
  • Last Planner: Developed by the Lean Construction Institute, it discovers ways to reduce waste and add value by encouraging teams to work together in a more transparent and collaborative manner.
  • Just-in-Time: An inventory strategy to increase efficiency and decrease waste by receiving goods only as needed for the production process, which reduces inventory costs and accurately forecasts demand.
  • Toyota Way: A system based on 14 principles that are designed to provide the tools for people to continually improve their work.
  • Six Sigma: Improves the quality of the output of a process by identifying and removing the causes of defects and minimizing variability in business processes.
"...We are talking about how we work to deliver successful capital projects and how we manage the costs of inefficiency."
—Construction Management Association of America

History of Lean

Lean became popular in Japan in the early 1980s to reduce waste and add value in manufacturing. But the concept of Lean can be attributed to Henry Ford’s mass assembly of the automobile and even pre-20th century, to Benjamin Franklin - as documented in Poor Richard’s Almanack. "He that idly loses 5s. worth of time, loses 5s., and might as prudently throw 5s. into the river."

Henry Ford cited Franklin as a major influence on his own business practices, which included just-in-time manufacturing - and Toyota noted Henry Ford’s work, which supports this historical legacy of Lean.

Waste within the work environment was also noted by motion efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth, who examined the work style of masons bending over to gather bricks. The introduction of a non-stooping scaffold, which delivered the bricks at waist level, allowed masons to work about three times as quickly, and with the least amount of effort.

The term “lean construction” was coined in 1992 by Lauri Koskela of Stanford University as a way for the construction management community to consider the inadequacies of the time-cost-quality paradigm. It’s based on 11 principles that have become the framework of the lean construction movement:

  1. Reduce the share of non-value-adding activities (waste).
  2. Increase output value through systematic consideration of customer requirements.
  3. Reduce variability.
  4. Reduce cycle times.
  5. Simplify by minimizing the number of steps, parts, and linkages.
  6. Increase output flexibility.
  7. Increase process transparency.
  8. Focus control on the complete process.
  9. Build continuous improvement into the process.
  10. Balance flow improvement with conversion improvement.
  11. Benchmarking.

Modern Viewpoint

Glen Ballard and Greg Howell first cited in 1994 that typically only about 54% of the tasks ordered by foremen on weekly work plans were actually completed by the end of the plan week, creating unpredictable workflows. Their solution, based on the Toyota Way, actively managed unpredictability - beginning with the structuring of the project and continuing through its operation and improvement.

The rule, instituted by Taiichi Ohno, was “say ‘no,’ to stop the production line rather than produce cars with a defect.” This was similar to enforcing construction contracts, with little regard for principles and practices of production system design and management. In 1997, Ballard and Howell formed LCI as a way to develop and disseminate new knowledge regarding the management of work in construction projects.

In 2003, Sven Bertelsen suggested that construction should be modeled using chaos and complexity theory or dynamical systems - which provide a mathematical framework of change over time, even when that change happens suddenly. He specifically argued that construction could and should be understood in three complementary ways: as a project-based production process, as an industry that provides autonomous agents, and as a social system.

According to the CMAA in a survey of owners in 2004, the new Lean paradigm was simply stated: “We’re not talking about just materials, methods, equipment, or contract documents. We are talking about how we work to deliver successful capital projects and how we manage the costs of inefficiency.”

BIM and Lean Construction

The history of Building Information Model (BIM) was built on more than 40 years of theory, including published research by Chuck Eastman in the 1970s and the work of Autodesk, Jerry Laiserin, and others. BIM supports lean construction as a design management tool. BIM generates and manages building data during its life cycle by using 3D building modeling software tied to a database to increase productivity in building design and construction. BIM saves project time and cost and increases overall productivity and delivery of building projects with less errors and rework.

One of the best ways to achieve open collaboration between all stakeholders on a project is by using constuction projects management software that facilitates communication between cross-collaborators, giving them permission-based real-time access to the most relevant and timely information.

Lean Construction and Project Management

The field of project management includes strategies, tactics, and tools for managing the design and construction delivery processes and increasing satisfaction of all stakeholders, optimizing quality and investment. Construction value requires completing a project both on time and on budget, by early investment in planning and programming upfront. On the backend, it means that a new building will meet the objectives of the owner and contribute socially and economically to the area.

Key differences between lean construction and project management from The Lean Construction Institute (LCI):

>Control is redefined from monitoring results to making things happen. Planning system performance is measured and improved to assure reliable workflow and predictable project outcomes.

>Performance is maximizing value and minimizing waste at the project level, instead of reducing total performance by attempting to optimize each individual activity.

>Project Delivery is the simultaneous design of the facility and its production process through concurrent engineering versus a sequential process that’s unable to prevent wasteful redos.

Collaboration Aided with Construction PM Software

Lean construction management relies heavily on the collaboration of the entire team, empowering them to contribute to the continuous improvement process through close, collaborative problem-solving and decentralized decision making.

One of the best ways to achieve open collaboration between all stakeholders on a project is by using construction project management software that facilitates communication between cross-collaborators, giving them permission-based real-time access to the most relevant and timely information. As workflows become more predictable, sites become better organized, meetings shorter, disputes fewer, and bottlenecks more apparent. When selecting a software program, keep in mind the end-user and the information required, along with ease of use, mobility, support, and other benefits and features.

Teamwork Exemplified

Office building construction requires speed and cost management without sacrificing quality at every single stage - from programming to warranty. Ongoing collaboration is critical to long-term success. Planning, scheduling, and executing work, along with the ability to collaborate and build better together without compromising time, cost, and quality results in higher and more stable profit margins.

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Casey Scogins is construction technologist at The Simplex Group, creators of VPO, the Microsoft Office 365-based construction project management software.

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