Lean Construction – A series of Articles
Episode 01 – What is Lean Construction?
By Eng. Kokila Arandara
The term “Lean” is not new to the construction sector. It is used with its surface meaning and for example, “Lean Concrete”. The simple meaning of “Lean” is “fat-free” or “slim” or “thin”. Lean is defined as a set of management practices to improve efficiency and effectiveness by eliminating waste. The core principle of lean is to reduce and eliminate non-value adding activities and waste. Accordingly, “Lean Construction” could be explained in other words as “thin-approach of construction”.
The same shall be understood specifically through scientific expressions. To step in, Lean construction is a combination of operational research and practical development in design and construction with an adaptation of lean manufacturing principles practices to the end-to-end design and construction process (Abdelhamid, et al., 2008). At the same time the same authors state that unlike manufacturing, construction is a project-based production process. More importantly, they mention that Lean Construction is concerned with the alignment and holistic pursuit of concurrent and continuous improvements in all dimensions of the built and natural environment: design, construction, activation, maintenance, salvaging, and recycling. Also, Lean Construction approach tries to manage and improve construction processes with minimum cost and maximum value by considering customer needs (Koskela, et al., 2002). Further, Lean Construction helps to achieve and maintain sustainability in the construction sector (Solaimani & Sedighi, 2019). At last, but not least, here another expression could be taken to have a wide meaning. The Lean Construction Institute (LCI), is a US-based not for profit organization established in 1997. They define lean construction as, “the application of lean thinking to the design and construction process, creating improved project delivery to meet client needs and improved efficiency for constructors” (Sharman, 2017).
Lean Construction terminology further could be grasped through the glossary of Lean Manufacturing. Lean manufacturing, or lean production, is a system of techniques and activities for running a manufacturing or service operation. The techniques and activities differ according to the application at hand but they have the same underlying principle: the elimination of all non-value-adding activities and waste from the business. Lean enterprise extends this concept through the entire value stream or supply chain. The leanest factory cannot achieve its full potential if it has to work with non-lean suppliers and subcontractors.
Industry is probably rife with waste. Whether it’s idle workers or unused materials that cannot be recycled or repurposed, the results are the same: a drag on productivity. This insistence on eliminating waste is where the idea of lean as a management system developed. Called lean manufacturing or lean production, the truth is that the lessons learned from this methodology can be universally applied. Lean manufacturing principles can help your business processes gain efficiencies and, as a result, become more effective and competitive in any marketplace (Landau, 2019).
On the other hand, the construction industry has an intractable productivity problem. While sectors such as retail and manufacturing have reinvented themselves, construction seems stuck in a time warp. Global labor-productivity growth in construction has averaged only 1 percent a year over the past two decades, compared with growth of 2.8 percent for the total world economy and 3.6 percent in manufacturing (Barbosa, et al., 2017). Again, another blog reports that up to 30% of construction is rework, labor is used at only 40-60% of potential efficiency, accidents can account for 3-6% of total project costs, and at least 10% of materials are waste. The message is clear there is plenty of scope for improving efficiency and quality simply by taking waste out of construction (Sarhan, 2015).
In general, a very high level of wastes/non-value-added activities is assumed to exist in construction, and it is difficult to measure all waste in the construction. Several partial studies from various countries have confirmed that wastes in construction industry represent a relatively large percentage of production cost. Waste measures are more effective to support process management, since they enable some operational costs to be properly modeled and generate information that is usually meaningful for the employees, creating conditions to implement decentralized control. The Figure 01 shows the waste percentages of time in manufacturing and construction. (Aziz & Hafez, 2013).
Figure 1: Waste percentages of time in manufacturing and construction ( (Aziz & Hafez, 2013)
Lean Construction extends from the objectives of a lean production system, maximize value and minimize waste, to specific techniques and applies them in a new project delivery process. Therefore, lean theory, principles, and techniques taken together, provide the foundation for new forms of project implementation. Building upon its roots in production management, lean construction produces significant improvements, particularly on complex, uncertain and quick projects (Lean Construction Institute, n.d.).
Lean construction ensures that a project is quickly done, and lower costs are incurred during the building process. Moreover, lean construction is aimed at maximizing value and minimizing costs involved during construction project maintenance, design, planning, and activation. Worldwide, the use of Lean construction increases the productivity of the construction industry (Riddell, 2017).
There are enough evidences of Lean Construction practitioners and enterprises throughout the world. First example is Vinci. It is a multinational infrastructure and construction company based in France. It is one of the world's largest construction companies, with revenue of €38.1bn (approx. 51.4 bn USD) in 2016, employing over 185,000 people and operating in over 100 countries. Vinci has started to practice and align to Lean Construction concepts in 2009 (The Vinci Construction UK Magazine, 2014). Secondly, Bechtel Group Inc. It is the largest construction and civil engineering company in the US, which specializes in nearly every sphere of construction work ranging from infrastructure to mining and metals, oil, gas, chemicals, and nuclear engineering. It is famous for its participation in various megaprojects across the USA and abroad, having taken credit for the construction of the Hoover Dam, Jubail Industrial City, Chernobyl containment shelter, Riyadh Metro, and many others (studycorgi.com, 2021). Bechtel Group Inc. indicates that they are practicing lean concepts somewhere from 2008/2009 (Bechtel Group Inc, 2009). Thirdly, China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) is taken as an example. The CRCC is the 59th among the Fortune Global 500 in 2019, the 14th among the China 500 in 2018, the 3rd among ENR’s Top 250 Global Contractors 20201, and the CRCC is also one of the largest engineering contractors in China. The Annual Report of 2010 of CRCC indicates that they have started Lean Construction Practices even before 2010 (CRCC, 2010).
There are more examples to mention and such examples and further more details on this topic would be discussed from the next articles.
Eng. Kokila Arandara
Lead-Lean Construction Practitioner in Sri Lanka,
Lean & Green Solutions (Pvt) Ltd.