How lean construction helps clients and improves contractors’ profits
Ken Osmun, a project executive with LeChase Construction Services in Rochester, New York, is certified in lean construction. Opinions are the author’s own.
Construction projects are rarely completed without a hitch, but the unanticipated issues don’t have to cause delays and cost overruns. With the lean construction approach, a project team can more successfully and easily navigate around obstacles — and even prevent many of them from arising in the first place.
Delays emerge from countless variables and logistics. One company may have trouble obtaining a needed product such as a light fixture because of a hold-up with the supplier. Another company may be temporarily short-staffed in the coming weeks.
Enter lean construction. The method is a series of best practices that encourage close cooperation and communication among all of a project’s stakeholders in response to these kinds of issues. Lean construction creates a unified team that is more nimble and efficient, avoids a lot of complications and identifies collaborative solutions for the issues that do arise.
Using lean principles, we recently reduced the timeframe for a Westchester County, New York, renovation project from 14 weeks to 12. The time savings, about 14%, came from collaborating to work around issues, including the previously mentioned light fixture that one contractor had trouble obtaining.
This is just one benefit of the approach, now a best practice for many companies.
A 2021 survey of 336 contractors, conducted by Dodge Data & Analytics for the Lean Construction Institute and the Associated General Contractors of America, showed the benefits of lean construction methods across timeframe, profitability and enhanced team culture.
Of those that used “high intensity” lean methods, 60% reported profitability higher than with typical methods; 56% said the quality of the project exceeded expectations; 41% reported finishing a project sooner than the original schedule; and 73% said they would work with the same company again.
Currently, we’re deploying lean construction principles at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, on the museum’s $53 million StudioNEXT expansion.
The project will transform the museum’s studio into a pre-eminent international center for students and artists working in glass. CMG was already was employing lean planning methods, so we began the project by providing refresher training to our subs with lean experience and introductory training for those with none. Careful planning is crucial to completing sections of the project while allowing museum operations to continue in other areas.
Collaboration and coordination
The Lean Construction Institute describes six tenets of lean construction. One, respect for people, provides the foundation for the rest. The other tenets are to optimize the whole; remove waste; focus on process and flow; generate value; and continuous improvement.
Applied to construction and design, these tenets help “develop and manage a project through relationships, shared knowledge and common goals,” according to the institute’s website. “Through these tenets, traditional silos of knowledge, work and effort are broken down and reorganized for the betterment of the project rather than of individual participants.”
This collaboration and coordination can generate beneficial practices at every step.
A small, but profound, example: Don’t set down materials if you’ll have to move them again. Coordinate team members to bring materials on site only when they’re needed. Then, place them proximate to where they’ll be used, rather than storing them elsewhere on site while crews prepare for them in another section.
Lean construction’s benefit may be greater, and more apparent, in larger projects, and lean construction might not be the right fit for every job.
Still, when used frequently, the principles can become part of the company’s culture and DNA. Even when lean construction isn’t used on smaller projects, a superintendent experienced in the approach will be more likely to collaborate with subcontractors about potential problems to find solutions.
Lean construction is not a one-size-fits-all process, but it brings value for both the construction company and clients. Success typically results in projects completed sooner and at lower cost.