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Making Construction Leaner, not Meaner

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Back in the mid-80s there was a film released called Gung Ho that was about a shuttered Midwest car factory purchased by a Japanese auto manufacturer. The factory is re-opened with the new owner’s management team in place, freshly transplanted from Japan. Much of the comedy, and drama, that ensues stems from the inevitable culture clashes. Ostensibly a comedy, the film hit some serious notes as well, particularly concerning the conflict between new management techniques and worker productivity. At its heart the film was about adaptability and collaboration, two buzzwords/ideas that have found their way from business management into construction management, most notably embedded in the process of Lean Construction.

Back in the mid-80s there was a film released called Gung Ho that was about a shuttered Midwest car factory purchased by a Japanese auto manufacturer. The factory is re-opened with the new owner’s management team in place, freshly transplanted from Japan. Much of the comedy, and drama, that ensues stems from the inevitable culture clashes. Ostensibly a comedy, the film hit some serious notes as well, particularly concerning the conflict between new management techniques and worker productivity. At its heart the film was about adaptability and collaboration, two buzzwords/ideas that have found their way from business management into construction management, most notably embedded in the process of Lean Construction.

Lean Construction is a project delivery system that has adopted lean manufacturing principles to construction projects, with an emphasis on minimizing cost and maximizing value. The system does not adhere to the belief that there must be a trade-off between time and cost and quality. Rather, by changing the way work is done throughout the delivery process, Lean Construction seeks to eliminate all waste, simultaneously conserving time and money. Much like Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), Lean Construction depends on the collaboration between the owner, A/E team, contractors, facility managers and building’s occupants at early stages of planning. IPD is an approach that creates the organization, or collaboration, that can apply Lean Construction principles, but does not necessarily have to follow through on Lean Construction practice.

A major proponent of Lean Construction is the Lean Construction Institute (LCI), a non-profit research organization whose purpose is to “reform the management of production in design, engineering and construction for capital facilities.” The LCI has outlined these differences between lean construction and other forms of project management:

  • Control – The emphasis shifts from merely monitoring results to working to assure project outcomes happen as predicted and planned
  • Performance – Maximizes value and minimizes waste at the project level, rather than attempting to optimize each step — the project is considered as a whole
  • Project Delivery – Shifts from a sequential process that allows for waste to ‘concurrent engineering’, which is the simultaneous design of the facility and its production process
  • Values – Rather than define all requirements at the outset of a project, value is defined and created through the life of the project
  • Coordinating action – A traditional schedule relies too heavily on central authority and project schedules to coodinate work, while Lean Construction coordinates action through pulling and continuous flow
  • Decentralizing decision making – Promotes transparency and empowerment

LCI has developed the Lean Project Delivery System™ (LPDS), a series of modules which act as implementation aids and tools to maximize value and minimize waste throughout the construction process. Information on the LPDS and other resources from LCI can be found on their website at www.leanconstruction.org.

by Wayne Engebretson

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