Trimming the fat. The basics of Lean Construction principles

A line of hammers in a construction job site

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Lean Construction?
  3. Lean Construction Principles
  4. Notable projects that utilized lean construction principles
  5. What are the potential limitations of lean construction? 
  6. The role of the Lean Construction Institute (LCI)
  7. Conclusion

If we're being completely honest with ourselves, likely every day we can say some amount of time, resources or both was wasted on a construction site. The combination of multiple companies, employing a multitude of people all working separately on their specialized tasks but in complete reliance on the work of those before and after them throughout the project generally leads to communication breakdowns, which lead to delays and rework...otherwise defined as waste. Waste in construction is almost always a result of a lack of modern and efficient processes. The concept of lean construction seeks to address these issues by reducing the amount of waste while still maintaining the highest level of quality.

The concept of 'lean' in business can be traced back to the Toyota Production System, which was developed by Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda in the 1950s. This system focused on minimizing waste and increasing efficiency in manufacturing processes. Lean principles were later adapted for use in other industries, including construction.

In simple terms, lean construction is a management philosophy that focuses on reducing waste and maximizing value in construction processes. It aims to deliver projects faster, cheaper, and with higher quality by eliminating non-value-adding activities and continuously improving workflows.

Lean construction was first introduced in the late 1990s by the International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC) as an alternative approach to traditional project management methods. The IGLC believed that the traditional approach, which relied heavily on large inventories and long lead times, was not compatible with the fast-paced and dynamic nature of construction projects.

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One of the key principles of lean construction is to focus on customer value. This means understanding what the client truly values and aligning project goals and processes accordingly. By doing so, wasteful activities can be reduced or eliminated, resulting in a more efficient and cost-effective project.

Another important principle is the elimination of waste. This could include anything from excess inventory to unnecessary movements on the job site (See image below for the 8 wastes in construction). Lean construction aims to identify and eliminate these wasteful activities through continuous improvement efforts.  The acronym DOWNTIME will help you remember them easily!

8 wastes in construction

Collaboration and teamwork are also emphasized in lean construction. Unlike traditional methods where each party works independently, lean construction encourages all project stakeholders to work together towards a common goal. This can lead to improved communication, fewer delays, and better decision making. 

Lean construction principles have been applied to many high-profile and successful building projects around the world, though it’s often the process rather than specific buildings that is highlighted. Here are a few notable projects where lean construction methodologies have been a central aspect of their development

The London Olympics Stadium in 2012 was one of the most iconic projects built using lean principles. The project achieved a 30% cost saving and a 50% reduction in construction duration through the adoption of lean construction methods such as value-stream mapping, last planner system, and 5S workplace organization.

The London Olympics Stadium
London Stadium Construction, 2010

San Francisco’s TransBay Transit Center is another example of a successful project that utilized lean construction principles. The team employed strategies such as prefabrication, modularization, pull systems, and real-time information exchange in order to reduce waste and improve the project efficiency.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest skyscraper in the world and it was built using lean construction techniques. Lean practices such as prefabrication, just-in-time construction delivery system and 5S workplace organization were adopted in order to reduce costs and the duration of the programme. The project was completed on time with a 30% cost saving.

The Grand Egyptian Museum is one more example of successful implementation of lean construction principles. The project was delivered on time and within budget owing to the adoption of modern planning techniques such as target costing, work standardization, total quality management, just-in-time delivery and team collaboration. These methods reduced costs and improved safety standards while ensuring project deadlines were met.

The Edge, Amsterdam, this building is often cited for its sustainable design and smart technology, which aligns with lean principles focusing on efficiency and value. The Edge is known as one of the greenest buildings in the world.

The Shard, London the Europe's tallest skyscraper when it was completed, The Shard is another example where lean construction methods helped manage the complexity of its design and construction, maximizing value and minimizing waste while maintaining high safety standards.

Denver International Airport Hotel and Transit Center, this project used lean construction practices extensively, particularly for integrating different project teams and streamlining the construction processes involved in building a significant addition to an already operating major international airport.

BMW’s Leipzig Plant, Germany. Although not a building in the conventional sense, this industrial complex utilized lean construction principles in its assembly plant’s construction, focusing on process optimization, waste reduction, and efficient design.

Some of the potential limitations of lean construction include a lack of flexibility in the project timeline and budget, difficulty in managing complex projects, increased reliance on technology which can become outdated or unreliable, and potential conflicts between team members due to the collaborative approach. Additionally, there may be issues with communication between stakeholders as different teams often have varying objectives. 

Lean construction has seen widespread adoption in the construction industry, with many companies implementing lean principles in their project management processes. However, it is important to note that lean construction is not a one-size-fits-all approach and must be tailored to fit each project's unique characteristics.

Founded in 1997, the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting lean principles in the construction industry. LCI provides resources, training, and education to help contractors, owners, and designers adopt lean practices and drive continuous improvement. Their goal is to transform the construction industry by creating a culture of collaboration, efficiency, and waste reduction. To learn more about LCI, visit their website here.

Lean Construction Institute Logo

In conclusion, lean construction is a management philosophy that focuses on reducing waste and maximizing value in construction processes. It was first introduced as an alternative to traditional project management methods and has since gained popularity in the construction industry due to its potential for improved efficiency and cost savings. By understanding the principles of lean construction, companies can strive towards delivering projects that meet client expectations while minimizing waste and maximizing value. Overall, lean construction has the potential to transform the construction industry and drive success in future projects.

Lee Evans
Lee Evans
Growth at Outbuild
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