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What is Lean construction?

What is Lean construction? What is the philosophy behind it and why should the construction industry consider implementing Lean practices as a standard for projects going forward?

A construction worker marking a blueprint on site.

In this guide, we’ll share the answers to these questions and all you need to know about Lean construction.

Labor productivity in Germany has increased five-fold since the 1960s (source 1). This is unsurprising considering the technological advancements of the past decades. What is surprising is that the construction industry has not only failed to maintain similar growth, but efficiency has actually decreased in the past few years (source 2).

According to a 2015 study, approximately 73% of large construction projects in Germany go over their estimated budget (source 3). Design-bid-build project delivery methods continue to dominate the industry despite offering limited oversight and control, with isolated stakeholders prioritizing individual deliverables over a project’s overall success.

A new approach is necessary. One that minimizes waste and maximizes value for project owners, achieved through a holistic approach from conception to completion and with an emphasis on continual process optimization. In other words, an approach rooted firmly in Lean construction principles and practices.

What is Lean construction?

It is generally agreed that Lean principles find their origins alongside Henry Ford’s ground-breaking manufacturing techniques, which he developed for the Model T car in the early 1900s. By introducing standardized parts and an optimized assembly line, Ford created a revolutionary manufacturing process that boosted efficiency and reduced waste. However, it was not until the end of World War II that Toyota revisited Ford’s approach: intending to optimize the process itself rather than its individual components, Lean philosophy as we know it today was born.

With its principles stemming from Lean methodology, Lean construction management brings order to complexity with an approach that prioritizes transparency, communication, and collaboration at every stage of the production cycle. The focus is reframed from what is best for individual stakeholders to what is best for the project as a whole.

What are Lean construction principles?

Lean Construction Principles Illustration

At the heart of Lean building principles is the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Any individual actively involved in the construction process is best placed to identify inefficiencies. That’s why every individual has a part to play in achieving a better standard.

Identify client value

Lean thinking in construction starts with identifying the value proposition of everyone involved. How will each team or individual contribute to the ultimate success of the project? Implicit within this principle is a respect for the importance of all stakeholders. Open communication is central to identifying value for the customer.

Optimize processes

With customer value identified, it is time to turn our attention toward waste — that which does not contribute to and can hinder a project’s deliverables. Onsite, that can include momentum-slowing processes such as waiting for materials, overproduction, or repeated processes. Lean construction management involves identifying all avoidable waste and minimizing its impact.

Create a continuous flow

Continuous flow is a central component of Lean construction scheduling and management. Adoption of a holistic approach — facilitated by a comprehensive collaboration tool such as Bosch RefinemySite — makes it easier to identify bottlenecks and other impediments to a smooth workflow. Once identified, they can be addressed through collaboration with the relevant teams. Lean project management in construction is designed to make it easier to both spot and remove these obstacles.

Establish pull

Traditional workflows operate around a ‘push’ system. Tasks that require completion are assigned to a team leader who then pushes that work onto individual contractors. This can quickly lead to bottlenecking and poor throughput between teams. Lean construction planning seeks to address these issues by reframing how work progresses. Tasks — and associated resources — are placed into a queue from which teams pull the highest priority projects only when required. The aim here is to increase autonomy by minimizing the need to direct the flow of work, ultimately resulting in shorter cycle times and increased throughput.

Seek continuous improvement

Central to the philosophy of Lean management practices within the construction industry is the theory of continuous improvement — referred to in Japan as ‘Kaizen’. Lean construction is not a process with an end. It is a frame of mind. A cyclical approach that promotes continual optimization of value and reduction of waste through an ongoing process of recognition and adaptation. The benefits to adopting Lean building principles are substantial and some are immediate, but its true strength comes from continuous application.

What are the benefits of Lean construction practices?

Lean construction management offers numerous immediate and long-term benefits, both on the jobsite level and industry wide. Onsite, the goal of Lean management is to make complexity manageable through superior collaboration between teams, alongside continual oversight and process optimization. Projects are completed on time and within budget with waste reduced and the value proposition maximized.

When people are involved in daily decision-making, job satisfaction is improved and stress reduced. This is especially evident during the onboarding of new teams and specialists, who now have access to the entire construction process from inception to point of involvement and beyond. Lean construction management also promotes a greater sense of trust between employers and employees, with an approach that clearly recognizes the value of everyone involved.

Ultimately, a more comprehensive approach to planning benefits everyone, with Lean construction projects experiencing considerably less friction between suppliers, contractors, and other third parties. And that is only the beginning. By repositioning the idea of ‘continuous improvement’ from an abstract concept to a driving force of the industry, construction can hope to go from strength to strength.

In short, Lean construction means better working standards, better results, and a brighter future.

Lean construction in practice

What does a Lean construction process look like?

First, it is important to establish that there is no such thing as a Lean construction process, per se. Lean is a mindset. One based on core principles, dependent on the right mentality, and actionable with the assistance of planning tools such as Bosch RefinemySite.

While no comprehensive process exists, there are commonalities across the most successful Lean construction projects. It is generally acknowledged that two key methods lie at the heart of Lean management: the Last Planner System® and Takt planning.

Last Planner method

The Last Planner System® is designed to greatly enhance collaboration and input from all teams involved in the construction process. Where previously only a select number of team leaders were involved in the planning process, Lean construction projects recognize the valuable input of every stakeholder involved.

Takt planning method

Takt planning is the process of accurately estimating the amount of time necessary to produce a product, then multiplying that number by the number of units needed to calculate the operational time necessary to meet demand.

By adopting a similar approach in Lean building construction, project managers can hope to align production more precisely with demand; reducing waste and overproduction, as well as making it easier to create an optimized pull workflow.

How RefinemySite integrates Lean construction methods and tools

RefinemySite utilizes the Last Planner method to help jobsites better implement Lean construction principles, while also modernizing the approach with an accessible-anywhere cloud-based platform.

While the Lean approach is a mindset first and foremost, implementation tools help bridge the gap between mentality and reality. Bosch RefinemySite is designed to facilitate transparent communication between all stakeholders and is equipped with a comprehensive suite of tools that facilitate real-time KPI tracking, collaborative planning, and scheduling.

By aligning technology with Lean building principles, stakeholders can better realize the core tenets of value delivery, waste reduction, a steady pull workflow, and continuous improvement. Though Bosch RefinemySite does not yet incorporate Takt planning as a concept, in the spirit of ‘Kaizen’, this functionality will be implemented at a later date.

What challenges come with implementing a Lean construction approach?

Applying Lean principles to the construction industry has helped advanced building sites around the world actively compete with the productivity metrics of other non-construction industries. The advantages for worker morale, organizational efficiency, and waste reduction can be immediate. However, tangible and long-lasting change can only be attained with a concerted effort to challenge mindsets and ingrained approaches.

Challenges to widespread adoption of Lean processes in the construction industry include:

Resistance to change: While the Lean approach is nothing new, even within the construction industry, it often represents a radical departure from the status quo. It is important to note that the current approach has long proved irreconcilable with the demands of the modern building site. Those resistant to change are destined to be dogged by longstanding issues of inefficiency and poor delivery.

Lack of understanding: Lean project management is at its most effective when applied holistically to an entire project. To do so effectively requires in-depth knowledge and ongoing training. Though this can appear daunting at first, Lean construction tools such as Bosch RefinemySite are capable of optimizing the transition and bridging the gap between established and new ways of working.

Lack of time: Associated with the previous point, effective Lean construction management cannot be implemented overnight. It requires significant planning and time upfront to review current inefficiencies and set about a process of continuous improvement. Furthermore, it takes time for all stakeholders involved to adapt to a new way of thinking. A transition period is to be expected.

The wrong mindset: As established, there is no such thing as a ‘Lean construction process’ ready to be plucked from the shelf and implemented immediately. Lean building is a mindset that needs to be learned. One built upon collaboration across the entire project and greatly improved the more individual stakeholders are in agreement. Ultimately, Lean building practices are built around the philosophy that what is good for one is good for all; to be at its best, the willing cooperation of all stakeholders is required.

Lean building: Example from the construction industry

pde Integrale Planung

pde Integrale Planung GmbH, part of the PORR Group, is an integrated planning company founded in Vienna in 2012. Focused on innovative, sustainable processes and ideas, pde have utilized the latest construction practices, including Lean management and BIM (building information modeling), to become pioneers of the complete building cycle.

With Lean construction methods and tools that include Bosch RefinemySite, pde have successfully implemented new planning strategies that result in higher efficiency and cost security for their projects. Thomas Baierl, Head of the Lean Department at pde, has described the strategic partnership between pde and Bosch's RefinemySite team as a win-win situation. This is because the Bosch RefinemySite platform is continually optimized to include valuable feedback from our partners.

By following the key principles of Lean construction, pde Integrale Planung GmbH can use Bosch RefinemySite to incorporate more efficient planning, waste reduction, and greater transparency into their projects.

Read more on this Lean building case study.

Pde Integrale Planung Logo

Evolve from traditional Lean to digital Lean with Bosch RefinemySite

The need to evolve at an industry level was evident even before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated underlying issues. Poor collaboration between teams, an ill-optimized design-bid-build project delivery system, and a technologically lacking approach to planning have all contributed to the prolonged stagnation of construction efficiency.

Lean construction offers a proven model of how constant communication and process optimization can work to the betterment of the industry as a whole. A digital Lean approach is the next logical step in that process.

Bosch RefinemySite is a cloud-based collaboration platform that applies Lean construction principles to enable your entire team to communicate accurately and effectively. The platform is accessible anywhere in the world, with real-time updates and full transparency for all stakeholders. This approach facilitates greater on- and offsite collaboration, improving current practices while increasing resilience to future obstacles.

Discover how Bosch RefinemySite can revolutionize your next construction project today.

FAQ: What do experts need to know?

Why should I adopt Lean building practices?

Lean construction addresses the increasing complexity of the modern construction site with a bottom-up approach that emphasizes the value of every stakeholder involved. By reframing our approach to construction planning with an emphasis on process-oriented delivery, trust, and collaboration, we can bring construction’s productivity in line with that of non-construction industries.

How do I implement Lean principles in construction?

Lean construction is a mindset above all else. Once the desire to change has been established, collaboration tools such as Bosch RefinemySite are designed to facilitate the site-wide implementation of core Lean principles.

Where do I get support with implementation?

For more information on Lean building principles and the tools needed to get the job done, visit our contact page.