A pathway to lean construction

Lean construction is based on holistic pursuit of continuous improvements aimed at minimising costs and maximising value

COMMENT, MEP

The construction industry is notorious for below average productivity and a high amount of waste. The end result in the majority of construction schemes are project delays, cost and schedule overruns, claims, disputes, arbitration, litigation, termination, contractors losing money etc. In a nutshell, everyone is a loser including the client.

So to remain on top of an ever-changing construction industry, a contractor needs to be on its toes and be more efficient by implementing new methodologies to successfully manage the value of the projects. As of today available choices are BIM and lean design and construction, and unfortunately both are yet to gain momentum in this region.

Whilst BIM has somewhat gained acceptance and is being implemented in major projects, the concept of lean is still in its infancy stage. Toyota Motor Corporation successfully embraced lean some fifty years ago in their production and the rest is history. Many other businesses subsequently followed suit and reaped the benefits of going lean.

Unlike automobile manufacturing, construction has lot of complex variables and differing field conditions. So the question arises how do we adopt lean in construction projects? Research has shown lean methodology can be implemented in construction but there are bottle necks which needs to be addressed. Lean is simple: reduce waste and increase value.

Lean construction is based on a holistic pursuit of continuous improvements aimed at minimising costs and maximising value through planning, design, construction, and the operation and maintenance phase of projects. It’s a bottom-up approach, not top-down management, wherein a pull-planning concept is used starting with completion target. All the teams work together to define and sequence tasks and then commit to finish on time.

Lean methodology involves identifying all areas of waste and finding ways to eliminate it at root cause through incremental improvements without reducing quality and safety. The various kinds of wastes are material wastage, time wastage, labour wastage etc. The reason for wastages could be poor levels of communication, supervision, productivity, workmanship, rework, incomplete materials, delay in material delivery, delay in drawings, submittals etc. Lean also focuses on eliminating non-essential or wasteful activities in projects. On average 50% of the construction period is spent on such non-value added activities.

So what prevents the construction sector from adopting lean? People are at the heart of lean. Since construction involves huge manpower with several stakeholders, there are behavioral issues and conflicts. Lean is a type of collaborative thinking by all stakeholders and this process allows contractors to break free from traditional roles and contribute in a variety of areas including sharing experience and expertise.

Lean is about engaging people and aligning systems into processes that deliver a continuous stream of value to clients while continuously eliminating waste and deficiencies in the process. So what is required at the heart of project stakeholders are highly motivated teams working on common goals, mutual trust, and flexibility and continuously solving problems as they appear. So at the beginning of any project, it is extremely important to conduct value-alignment sessions for all stakeholders so those onboard understand the key drivers behind the project and work together.

Adopting lean design and construction will result in 10-30% savings at activity level, 10-20% savings at project level, less wastage cost, greater profitability, and achieving a reputation for consistent delivery and agility.

In summary, lean is a fitness programme, like a diet and exercise regime for your body. Lean is a way to get your businesses fit for life through focus on the customer and implementation of new business practices. Contractors that embrace lean as a fundamental way of thinking and incorporate it in their culture are more likely to succeed. 

M. Vasanth Kumar is chief executive officer of Arabian MEP.

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