By Kim Slowey

The word “lean” explains a great deal about the goals of Lean Construction. It implies that something has been trimmed of excess fat, or, in the case of a construction company, of waste and inefficiency. However, according to Mike Stark, executive director of knowledge programs and building markets with the Associated General Contractors of America, Lean principles don’t stop with efficiency.

“At the core, Lean tries to maximize value and minimize waste, and efficiency is certainly part of that, but it’s the coordination and collaborative aspect that’s very important,” Stark told Construction Dive.

As Lean Construction picks up steam in the industry, professionals are taking notice of the method. Despite its growing popularity, Lean requires taking deliberate steps to incorporate into a company, and it still has room for improvements going forward.

Benefits of Lean Construction

Stark, who oversees the Lean education program that the AGC offers its members, said that Lean can often be the antidote to the complicated, segmented processes of today’s construction projects. He said Lean takes the “different moving parts” of a project — including concept, design, construction and occupancy — and “works to coordinate that and bring all the stakeholders and all those processes together at the beginning of the project and at every single step along the way.”

“To be more efficient with the resources you have — it’s better for everybody”

Felipe Engineer-Manriquez, project Manager at McCarthy Building Companies in California, said McCarthy has employed a Lean team for many years, but that the company initiated its first set of Lean pilot projects in 2014. McCarthy now has at least 20 Lean projects under its belt, and Lean as a concept is spreading among owner and contractors, according to Engineer-Manriquez. He said that some owners are even incorporating Lean requirements into their contracts.

“They want to cut some of the waste. The allure of Lean Construction is amazing. You get more with spending less,” Engineer-Manriquez told Construction Dive. “To be more efficient with the resources you have — it’s better for everybody. It’s better for the client. It’s better for you.”

Because Lean emphasizes the value in project stakeholders — architect, general contractor, major subcontractors — starting collaboration at the beginning of a project and working closely together throughout, Stark said it is very similar to integrated project delivery (IPD). However, he added, “Lean processes let you have that integrated approach no matter who your contractors are and without IPD’s ‘contractual barrier.’ ”

5 S’s of lean

According to the AGC and Stark, adherents to Lean Construction break the system down into the “Five S’s”: Sort, Set in Order, Shine/Sweep, Standardize and Self-Discipline/Sustain.

  • Sorting, Stark said, involves getting rid of the nonessentials, whether they are tools, inventory or processes. “On a job site, for example, you don’t want a ton of unused inventory taking up space and creating a potential safety hazard. Money is just sitting there,” he said.
  • Setting things in order, or organizing, involves taking those essentials and storing them away for easy access when needed. With Lean, Stark said, “Everything has its place.”
  • Following along that line of thought, the third step, shine/sweep, involves maintaining a physical tidiness in the workplace.
  • The standardization of work processes is a core principle of Lean “so you’re not reinventing the wheel” when you are performing repetitive tasks, according to Stark. “Eliminate steps, and you eliminate waste,” he said.
  • The last step, and the hardest to implement successfully, he said, is sustaining the changes made in the first four steps, Stark noted. “It’s a challenge to keep everyone on board,” he said. “You want to prevent people from going back to their old ways.”

The increased efficiencies with Lean mean that it’s much easier to “ramp up and ramp down” operations as the market dictates, according to Stark. “With Lean, you’re constantly evaluating the people you need, your capacity, the materials you need, all of that,” he said. Stark added that the operational swings are less severe with a Lean contractor “because they’re constantly trying to right-size.”

How to incorporate Lean into company culture

Both Stark and Engineer-Manriquez said that getting cooperation from employees is key in adopting Lean. “Everyone involved in that project, whether it’s the project managers or superintendents or the laborers, need some level of buy-in with this,” Stark said. “If you have one person that’s not on board with it, then that person will impact the collaborative process, and that’s an issue.” Stark said in these situations, it’s entirely acceptable to consider moving that resistant employee to another job site for efficiency’s sake.

“Everyone involved in that project (needs) some level of buy-in with this,”

Engineer-Manriquez said McCarthy’s philosophy for motivating its employees to get on board with Lean is two-fold: Develop people and then empower them to make the changes they know they need to make to be more successful. “Those two things together work in tandem, and that’s where your efficiencies come from,” Engineer-Manriquez said.

That idea, he said, goes hand in hand with another Lean concept of tapping the knowledge of field personnel. He said that on one of his projects, there was an expensive tower crane sitting idle, with scheduling conflicts keeping it from being used efficiently. One of McCarthy’s employees suggested they appoint one worker to be “crane coordinator,” and Engineer-Manriquez said, “That totally changed production on the site.”

He said the company watched that crew’s production numbers get better week after week, “and all we did was listen to our foreman tell us we should have a crane coordinator. If we weren’t (implementing) Lean, and we weren’t engaging the guy in the field in the first place, we might’ve missed that opportunity.”

Another important step, Engineer-Manriquez said, is to create an environment where people are not afraid to make mistakes. “Anything human is going to have a lot of failures, especially when you’re bringing in new staff or interns right out of school,” he said. Critical to Lean is the adoption of a growth mindset and to start seeing failures as opportunities. “If something bad happens, that’s great. I’m glad it happened now. You can learn from it,” he said. “Let’s teach other people not to make that mistake and move forward.”

2 main methods of approaching Lean

Two aspects of Lean that both Engineer-Manriquez and Stark said have proven benefits are the “big room” concept and “pull planning.” The big room involves all of the project stakeholders with their bases of operation in one room. In fact, Engineer-Manriquez said, McCarthy has had at least two owners who required it. “They’re in this room together, so there’s a huge efficiency there,” he said. He added that the method’s transparent, open communication style greatly increases a project’s chances for success. “I’ve not heard of a big room project that had a claim, that was behind schedule or had financial issues,” he said.

“I’ve not heard of a big room project that had a claim,… was behind schedule or had financial issues”

Pull planning is a little more complicated — think lots of white boards and sticky notes — but Lean devotees swear by it. Stark said pull planning starts with a project goal, and then the stakeholders “work their way back,” breaking down tasks and deadlines as they go, each signified with a color sticky note that only the associated participant can move across the board.

“Everyone comes together to set those goals and deadlines, and everyone is held accountable because if you are slipping … you’re going to hold up the other aspects of that project,” Stark said. “Your name’s on that board, your target date is on there, and today’s date is on there. So it holds people accountable, particularly in a room like that, face to face with peers.”

“In pull planning, you have to respect the work that people have done and the coordination they have with each other because they’re making agreements person to person,” Engineer-Manriquez said. The easiest way to undermine the process, he noted, is to move somebody’s sticky note for them or write somebody else’s note. “If you write a note for somebody else, watch (the task on the note) never occur when you want it to occur,” he said. “If they write it for themselves, and they move it across the board themselves, it takes on a whole new level of ownership.”

Evolving to improve with technology

What is perhaps counterintuitive about the pull planning process is the amount of paper used and a scheduling process that relies on the amount of “sticky” on the notes. Susan Parker, product manager at software company Newforma, said that it’s a logical next step for Lean methods to evolve toward a more digital route.

Parker said technology is critical to achieve the Lean goal of input from workers in the field — the ones, she said, with the most knowledge about how to get the work done. “We need to be having face to face conversations with the people actually installing the work,” Parker said, “and technology allows the plan to be mobile.”

And to those who are hesitant to bring that technology into the “big room” filled with sticky notes, Parker said that it can be done in a way “that doesn’t lose the face to face contact.” However, she added that it can be a tricky balance.

The software is easy, Parker said, but “what’s difficult is the culture shift that needs to happen first.”