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Building With a Purpose: An Introduction to Lean Construction

Jan. 19, 2020

A male construction project manager holding a pencil stands at a drafting table examining a large construction plan.

Building with a Purpose: An Introduction to Lean Construction

Whether it’s for a family residence or a commercial building, lean construction offers builders a project-based approach. It can address variables such as inventory problems, supply shortages, and changing requirements.

Through lean methods, companies can eliminate waste, help projects to run smoothly, and deliver value customers expect. Lean construction is a collaboration between design and engineering personnel, construction employees on the building site, and others, thus making for better outcomes.

An Overview of the History of Lean Management

The origins of lean management go back as far as 1913, at the Ford plant in Highland Park, Michigan, where Henry Ford revolutionized production. Specialized machines and gauges replaced general purpose machines, and processes were arranged sequentially based on the routing of parts. Parts became interchangeable, fitting any vehicle, thus eliminating the need to customize individual parts during assembly. Ford sped up fabrication and assembly of vehicle components, but at first the production process didn’t allow for variety. For example, all Model Ts were originally black.

Competitors sought to address the issue of variety with production systems of their own. They built larger, faster machines that also increased throughput, or the rate of production, and parts inventories. Not until Toyota reexamined the process shortly after World War II did vehicle production shift to a new way of thinking. Toyota fine-tuned the process and improved workflows while offering consumers variety for less. Its solution included several innovations in production machinery. For example, it “right sized” machines that reduced the time needed for setup, enabling the production of smaller volumes of many parts. Toyota also realigned steps in the production process. The result was faster, simpler, more cost-effective processes for producing high-quality products.

What Is Lean Construction?

Lean construction is a method that helps construction companies improve their process efficiency and quality while minimizing waste. Lean construction also enables companies to achieve continuous improvements throughout the project life cycle. Lessons learned in one project can be applied to the next, enabling companies to improve their efforts in future projects. For example, companies can reduce time to build and resource use, which can help to reduce costs. By taking small steps, construction companies can achieve cumulative benefits over time.

Lean construction helps teams to recognize gaps and shortcomings in processes and to take constructive actions to achieve improvements. Additional benefits of lean construction include a reduced environmental footprint and happier customers.

Reduced Waste

Waste is a byproduct of many processes that offer no value to customers, slow down progress in projects, and weaken the bottom line. Waste comes in various forms. In a construction project, for example, the time spent waiting for or transporting materials or equipment, while necessary, doesn’t add value to the customer. Properly applying lean construction principles can significantly reduce or eliminate waiting and transport times. By reducing process waste, a construction firm can make processes more efficient and boost employee productivity, thus improving profits.

Continuous Improvement

A term often associated with lean is “kaizen,” the Japanese word for continuous improvement. Kaizen initiatives focus on cutting or eliminating waste: an effort that often involves spending money on more efficient processes. Companies that embrace this concept see kaizen initiatives as investments because they provide customers more value. Continuous improvement can originate from top management, but it’s often driven by employees, especially those who are directly involved in typically wasteful processes. A key benefit of lean is that anyone willing to spread the message of continuous improvement can take a hands-on approach to eliminate waste.

Environmental Impact

By applying sustainable or green design principles—such as the use of natural heating and cooling and renewable building materials—architects, contractors, and construction crews can reduce waste and build healthy environments that minimize a project’s footprint. Reducing environmental impact is indicative of a sustainable project. Through lean construction practices, companies can further minimize waste to add value to their customers. Lean construction methods like 5S can improve workplace organization. For instance, by organizing chemicals and parts, crews can easily find what they’re looking for, reducing unnecessary use of materials and improving efficiencies. In another example, removing obstacles and providing clear signage enables employees to avoid danger.

Client Satisfaction

Waste drives up project costs. Lean construction’s primary goal is to turn waste reduction into customer benefits. The lean method continuously improves processes, which streamlines project efficiencies. Every aspect of a project can be improved, including communications processes. By avoiding miscommunication, companies can better understand customers’ needs and save them money in the process. In the end, lean construction helps companies to deliver projects correctly and on time.

Explore Lean Construction with Louisiana State University

For professionals striving to implement lean management practices in construction projects, LSU Online offers a Master of Science in Construction Management Graduates of the program learn essential communication, problem-solving, and organizational skills that make an impact in the construction field.

Learn how LSU Online’s Master of Science in Construction Management can help forward-thinking construction professionals to deepen their understanding of lean principles and help to lay the groundwork for a successful career in the construction field.

Recommended Readings

Building Tomorrow’s World: What Can You Do with a Construction Management Degree?

A Construction Management Certificate vs. Degree: Two Paths to Building the Future

LSU Online Broadened My Horizons - Master of Science in Construction Management

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