What Does Lean Construction Really Mean?

Construction StartThe great American industrialist, Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” In many ways his words embody the heart of lean construction. While lean building means and methods are relatively similar to traditional construction, lean planning and management tend to embrace more interactive and collaborative models. Several contractors on ENR’s Top 400 Contractors of 2013, including Turner Construction, manage with lean construction principles and find that team members collaborate much more efficiently.

So how does lean construction stack up against traditional construction management processes?

First, a few basic lean construction strategies and principles:
  • Workflow management is continuously monitored and streamlined.
  • Face-to-face communication is set up between all team members from the beginning through to the end of the project.
  • Construction drawings and data are simulated via 3D imaging software programs, such as BIM, and then linked to the schedule in real time.
  • All members of the team accept equal shares of liability and profits if any are realized at close-out.
In traditional construction management:
  • Plans pass down from one professional to another in a linear fashion for each phase of the design process and then during construction.
  • The budget is set at the beginning of the project with predicted overrun contingencies.
  • The schedule and budget are managed under a fragile scenario where all goes well until one link in the chain fails, which can result in a chain reaction of scheduling delays and budget overruns.
  • Collaboration breakdowns may occur between team members because one professional accuses the other for being the link that broke the chain.

The intention of lean construction is to seek better methods for meeting customer demands, and to create more efficient operations as a result. Ultimately, the lean process is meant to adapt to the project rather than the other way around. Traditional construction management is a very well defined process and does not encourage straying from common procedure for the sake of efficiency and collaboration. In a lean culture, waste is eliminated in favor of creating reliable work processes and predictable scheduling. From the client’s perspective, this is crucial, since it means the most value will be delivered in less time. Of course, a comprehensive management approach will vary from company to company, but the object in lean thinking is to keep the team working together on predetermined deliverables at a constant pace, thereby eliminating redundancies and guaranteeing maximum profitability.