Construction Management: Should You Go Lean?

Construction Management:  Should You Go Lean?

Most contractors utilize, at least in principle if not in active practice, “project management” methods.  And most contractors are familiar with the Critical Path Method, or CPM, when managing projects.

The basic premise of CPM is to construct a plan for completing the project that includes:

  • A listing of all the activities or “parts” of the project that are required to complete the project – this is usually called a Work Breakdown Structure.
  • The time each activity or part of the project will take to complete – this  is commonly called Duration.
  • A listing of what activities or parts must be completed before a related activity or part can then be completed – these are usually called Dependencies.  If you are not familiar with dependencies, just think “I need to get A done before I can B done” or “I can’t do B unless A gets done first”.  Easier yet – “I can’t texture until drywall is complete.”

These pieces are then put together into a plan that brings the project to completion in the least amount of time and within budget.

But, as all contractors know, this is “Easier planned than done.”

As a matter-of-fact, proponents of a radically different approach to construction management cite “Currently, projects are nearly chaotic, with an average of 55% of work promised in a week actually being completed as promised.”  (for more information, download the report here)

So, what is this alternate approach to construction management?

Lean Construction.

Lean Construction:  Background and General Description

Lean Construction methodology has its roots in something called “Lean Thinking” which, in turn, can be traced back to Toyota’s Production System within the production of automobiles.  In turn, TPS was further developed into the Lean Manufacturing Model between 1948 and 1975.

We all know how successful Toyota has become.  The Washington Post reported in January 2009 that Toyota overtook General Motors as the largest producer of automobiles in the world. Toyota had only just started manufacturing autos two years after GM snagged that title from Ford in 1931 – rendering this a staggering achievement for a small foreign company in direct competition with the world’s largest automobile manufacturers.

It is no wonder that construction industry professionals decided to test whether or not the principals and practices of Lean Manufacturing could be adapted to construction.  The first hurdle was to align the principles of Lean Manufacturing to construction.  Construction management is project based, whereas manufacturing management is product based.  What the two hold in common are the goals of maximizing value and eliminating waste.

The most significant difference between commonly used project management processes (for example, CPM) and those of Lean Construction is a shift away from the concept of developing a linear model management plan with each subcontractor/supplier developing their own “same yet different” linear plan to a collaborative team approach.

The goal of both Lean Manufacturing and Lean Construction is to maximize value and minimize waste.  Both also must deal with supply chain challenges.  While Lean Manufacturing delivers a product whereas Lean Construction delivers a project – both benefit from the same main principles.  When adapted to construction these principles include:

Value: Establish and define value from the end user’s (owner’s) viewpoint.

Value Chain: Map out the value chain and eliminate all activities that do not add or contribute to value.

Flow: Create a continuous flow with no interruptions.

Pull: Don’t construct anything until it is needed.

Perfection: Strive for continuous improvement.

When applied these principles achieve what Lean Construction expert Dennis Sowards (download Lean Construction Practices )identifies as the priorities for all construction projects:

  • Maintaining a consistent work flow so that all crews onsite are always installing/crafting
  • Reduce unnecessary inventory and waste of material and tools
  • Overall project cost reduction

If limited to two words that differentiate Lean Construction from typical Critical Path Method (CPM) of construction management they might be:

Philosophy: A philosophy is a “way of living life”.  Lean Construction is a philosophy or “way of doing things” to get a project completed.

Collaborative: CPM construction management treats each participant (for example subcontractors) and activities (for example getting permits) individually.  In Lean Construction each participant works together and individual activities are always dealt with as they relate to the entire project as a whole.  The project is a joint venture between all parties.

If the above information has not convinced you that Lean Construction methods actually work to “Get the job done, on time, on budget, and to specifications” perhaps a couple hard numbers will:

Current Manufacturing:

Waste – 26%

Value Added – 62%

Current Construction:

Waste – 57%

Value Added – 10 %

Lean Construction principles can work to increase your company’s bottom line.

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