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How To Incorporate Lean Construction Practices Into Your Jobs

What Is Lean Construction?

At its core, lean construction is a concept that can be difficult to grasp. But it doesn’t have to be. Put simply, lean construction is all about reducing waste. Whether it’s wasted time, movement, materials or even human potential, lean construction techniques are continually being improved and implemented to make construction sites more efficient.

Kristin Hill, Director of Education Programs at the Lean Construction Institute, defines lean construction as “a culture of respect and continuous improvement aimed at creating more value for the customer while identifying and eliminating waste.”

How Can Lean Construction Techniques Improve Your Work?

As waste on the job site is reduced, you’ll also see improved productivity, hazard reduction and cost savings become benefits of the methods.

Keep in mind, there’s no right or wrong way to implement lean construction techniques. “It’s a mindset and a culture. It’s very much about respect for people, continuous improvement, understanding value for the customer and then getting rid of waste,” Hill said.

So, while the by-the-book definition of lean construction concerns itself with eliminating waste, at the heart of the concept is generating value as a whole for the customer and the people working on the project.

Lean Construction Institute's Kristin Hill

“You can’t get rid of waste if you don’t know what’s truly of value first. So I always focus on the value side of it.”

Kristin Hill | Lean Construction Institute


The 5 principles of lean in a circular chart with respect for people at the center, along with definitions of lean and lean project delivery system.
Graphic courtesy Lean Construction Institute

What Are the Five Principles of Lean?

While there may not be a step-by-step way to add lean construction practices to your job site, there are still methods and principles that will always be present as you apply the concept to your construction. These methods are collectively known as a lean project delivery system, with five core principles driving it.

1. Eliminate Waste

This is the primary goal of lean construction. But it’s not simply about keeping trash out of a landfill. This goal is also about how to cut waste across the board — from time to energy.

While there are plenty of ways to reduce waste, there are five main focus areas:

  1. Time: Wasted time tends to be the place lean construction starts. Cutting down on worker wait-time for materials or direction is key.
  2. Materials: When materials are purchased at the wrong time or incorrectly measured, these mistakes can eat into your budget and waste space on the job site.
  3. Human talent: If workers are not matched to the proper job based on their skill, talent and ability, it leads to waste. If workers are attached to tasks that they are either over- or under-qualified for, you may be misusing their potential.
  4. Motion: This can range from people to materials. It involves streamlining each process so that no motion is redundant or unneeded. Limiting the number of trips for supplies or ensuring things are stored nearby is essential.
  5. Extras: With the focus of lean production on adding value to the customer, removing processes that add no value should be taken into account.

Keep these principles top of mind throughout the construction process to increase efficiency, make worksites safer and help decrease mistakes along the way.

2. Focus on Flow

Solid workflow is another significant goal of lean construction. Communicate a strong plan to everyone involved in the build — owners, architects, engineering firms, contractors, etc. — to make sure this is implemented effectively.

Do everything you can to ensure that work is not interrupted due to things that could be avoided. Schedules are bound to change over the course of a project, but it’s imperative that everyone is informed. This way, adjustments can be made to keep the flow of the project smooth.

Construction team analyze work on an industrial construction site while referencing blueprints.

3. Continue Improving

Improvement to lean construction concepts will never be done. In the big picture, the construction industry is always changing as new techniques and technologies are implemented. With those changes, adaptations to the overall practice of lean construction must happen with it.

In the small picture, repeated evaluation as a project is being completed needs to happen. You enter the build with a game plan, but expect it to be adjusted along the way.

“The industry continues to drive forward and is advancing,” Hill said. “Things that we were doing 10 years ago in terms of lean may not be happening anymore as we continue to advance with the industry. Sometimes it’s a complete change from what we had been doing. Sometimes a change in construction practices allows us to dig deeper into what we had been doing. It’s continuous improvement.”

4. Optimize the Whole Team

Traditional construction practices assign tasks to individuals. Lean construction practices challenge all members of a project to work together to streamline a project from start to finish. The goal is to eliminate any wasted time and creating a backlog of tasks that need to be done.

5. Generate Value

Generally speaking, lean construction will come around to this concept often: the customer defines value, the construction generates the value. More simply, when you know what a customer finds valuable, you know what to center your budget around.

This means that all decisions made during the project — from planning to completion — should be done to generate value for the customer.

Lean Construction Institute logo

“A lean mindset is a cultural change. It’s a challenge and it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, persistence and dedication. There’s not a set formula for success. The key is to start somewhere and keep improving.”

Kristin Hill | Lean Construction Institute


Man and woman viewing construction plans on an iPad as well as a whiteboard.

How Can You Learn Lean Construction?

While you would be hard-pressed to find a college or university that offers a degree in lean construction, that isn’t the end of the road. According to Hill, lean principles are continually integrated into construction management, architecture and engineering curriculums at the college level.

“An example would be Penn State,” Hill said. “It has a particularly strong construction program with lean curriculum integrated. And that’s just one school. It’s continuing to become part of program’s cores across the board.”

It’s because of places like the Lean Construction Institute that lean methods are becoming more prevalent. With educational offerings and a willingness to share its knowledge, Hill believes that integration will only continue.

Lean Construction Institute's Kristin Hill
“We’re actively going out and talking with more universities about lean and bringing it to students to make them aware of it. It’s a piece that is becoming a focus for us. Lean as a whole is at that point where it’s not going away, but it’s being integrated at the educational level.”

Kristin Hill | Lean Construction Institute

What Is Six Sigma and How Does It Fit With Lean Construction?

Six Sigma is about quality control. The term was coined by Motorola, using the Greek letter sigma — the statistical symbol for standard deviation — and six because the Six Sigma concept is expected to make a process defect-free 99.99966 percent of the time. Six Sigma aims to find and remove defects that cause variations in production quality.

 “Lean is focused on the culture, the behavior and the processes,” Hill said. “Six Sigma is focused on what you’re measuring as an outcome. That’s why they marry up well. They both follow the scientific method of problem solving, but they care about different, yet related, things.”

Graphic showing the journey of lean, noting that there is a continuous learning cycle between understanding and competency.
Graphic courtesy Lean Construction Institute

What Is the Future of Lean Construction?

The industry is always evolving. With trade schools continually adding lean instruction to the curriculum, there is no doubt that lean construction techniques are here to stay. The ways it will be implemented in the future may be unclear, but lean construction will continue to evolve and increase efficiency and safety on the job site.

Want to continue taking control of your job site and making it as efficient as possible? Learn more about why you should embrace construction apps and how to create a quality assurance plan.

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