According to McKinsey, the average construction project over $1 billion is delivered one year late and 30% over budget, which is a situation no one in the industry is happy about. To address it, some construction organizations have looked to Lean methodologies. After all, the concept has been widely adopted by manufacturing companies, and their results speak for themselves. Where construction’s annual labor-productivity has grown by 1% over the past 20 years, which is below the overall economic average of 2.7%, manufacturing labor productivity grew 3.6% in no small part due to Lean.
Lean Manufacturing as we know it today was perfected in the mid-20th century by Toyota. Now the world’s largest automaker, back then Toyota had just recently ventured out from manufacturing looms into assembling automobiles. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lean stood in stark contrast to the American top-down model of manufacturing. In Lean, the goal is to maximize value and minimize waste, and that goal doesn't stop at materials — it extends to employees.
The people actually working the line gain valuable insights about the manufacturing process, and Toyota wanted to put those insights to work. In the later stages of Lean’s evolution at Toyota, any employee on the line could stop the manufacturing process when they noticed a defect. Many people thought that idea was ridiculous, but, as a result, Toyota was soon manufacturing the highest quality cars in the world, and that reputation for quality helped propel the company to its incredible success.
Lean principles and benefits
Lean’s origins lie in manufacturing, but many other sectors have wanted to replicate that industry’s transformation, so they have adapted it to their own industries, including construction.
The basic principles of Lean are simple:
Value: Determine the value the customer hopes to gain. Here, it’s critical to take the customer’s perspective. One of the challenges of lean construction is that there are many different stakeholders, from the owner and architect, to the general contractor and subcontractor. Lean requires building strong relationships with all of them, so you can understand at a deep level what the stakeholders want, anticipate their needs and set expectations.
Map the value stream: Identify all the steps in the value stream required to produce the product, and cut out steps that don’t create value, eliminating waste. There’s a lot of potential for construction in this step to eliminate defects, rework, time wasted waiting for materials to arrive, and even inefficient motion, where workers have to make multiple trips to get what they need to complete a task.
Create flow: Once you have optimized the value stream, ensure all the steps flow smoothly from one to the next without interruptions or bottlenecks. Ideally, the schedule and project plan flows seamlessly, so that materials and crews arrive exactly when they are required. That way there aren’t idle people waiting for prior work to be completed, or piles of material waiting to be used. Nor will there be costly delays due to late deliveries or subcontractors not on site when the site is ready for them.
Pull production: Improve time-to-delivery so that customers can pull product as they need it, without requiring a massive backlog of inventory. In construction, pull production requires planning that works backwards from the target delivery date to schedule tasks and milestones.
This kind of planning requires tight collaboration between the general contractor and subcontractors, all of whom must be involved in the process.
Perfect the process: Always be searching for ways to eliminate more waste, improve project flow and better understand the needs of stakeholders. To be successful, everyone must be involved. Don’t discount suggestions just because it comes from a subcontractor — after all, they’re closest to the work on the ground.
Done right, Lean construction will improve quality, accelerate delivery and reduce costs. Yet while the principles are simple, implementing them poses some challenges.
Challenges in implementing Lean construction
First, construction is highly collaborative, and everyone on site must be on board with the methodology to succeed. Adopting Lean construction is a big change over the typical way of doing things, so you’re likely to run into some resistance. Success requires high-quality, consistent education. Without it, implementation of Lean might not be correct, which will not produce results. Morale may drop initially as people adjust. Stick with the plan. It takes time to develop a culture of Lean construction.
Additionally, every team member needs training on Lean construction, and supervisors who are accustomed to a very top-down method of running a crew will need to learn to listen to their people for feedback and potential improvements to the process. Don’t skimp on training. Success requires high-quality, consistent education at every level.
You’ll also need to work closely with suppliers and other partners in the supply chain. “Just in time delivery” may be a new concept for some of them, and if they’re not working with you on a Lean model, the model can fall apart.
Using technology to support Lean construction
While implementing a new methodology like Lean can seem overwhelming, technology can help streamline the process. A construction support system like Digital Construction Verification (DCV) can help support organizations as they implement a Lean methodology. Using computer vision and artificial intelligence, DCV is far faster and more accurate at verifying core, shell, and interior installation than manual inspection, alone, which enables construction companies to ensure that construction adheres to plans in real-time.
Because deviations can be caught right when they occur, it is faster and cheaper to fix them, and general contractors can ensure consistent quality and prevent rework. It’s an extremely powerful tool for eliminating waste, streamlining production, providing First Time Quality and fostering collaboration with subcontractors — all of which are critical to the success of Lean construction.
There’s no trial-and-error process with DCV. General contractors can much more easily achieve a smooth, uninterrupted flow between stages of projects because they will no longer have to rip up completed work to fix mistakes that weren’t caught weeks earlier at a prior stage.
Future of Lean construction
Lean construction is still a new concept to our industry. With the help of DCV, construction organizations can get a leg up on Lean construction and finally achieve their goals to deliver projects on time and within budget with the high level of quality that stakeholders deserve.
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