If construction jobsites have one thing in common, it’s that they’re all different. This variation — in project size, scope, type, materials, timelines, etc. — makes a philosophy like lean manufacturing seem unsuited to the construction industry. Lean, an approach to manufacturing first developed by Toyota, focuses on streamlining and standardizing processes by reducing waste, improving flow and designing what you do based on what’s valuable to end customers. It aims to continually improve all facets of operations, including productivity, an area that has become a key performance indicator for contractors.
That sounds great, right? But what about that inevitable variation? Manufacturing is a controlled environment where companies can easily minimize variation. How can you standardize your processes when jobsites are all different and conditions constantly change?
It is possible to use lean in construction. Doing so just requires focus, good communication and some adjustments. The significant benefits are worth the extra attention. According to the Lean Construction Institute, using lean in construction can result in improved productivity, increased safety on jobsites and significant cost savings. When your business uses lean principles, you can have better operations and a better end product.
Applying Lean to Unpredictable Construction Jobsites
At its most basic, lean aims to maximize value for customers while reducing waste. That’s an appealing goal for construction, where waste such as errors and rework can derail timelines and budgets, a problem for both contractors and customers.
Define and Increase Value
First, contractors need to define what customers actually consider valuable. It’s important to deliver the end result they want, but to get there you also need to know why they want that. Seeing things from their perspective can provide insights into where you should focus the most time and effort.
At the beginning of a project, get all parties involved — architects, engineers, project managers, customers — together and make sure you understand where you’re going.
Next, look for ways to reduce waste. When you hear the phrase “reduce waste,” materials on the jobsite might first come to mind, since that’s a tangible construction waste. But reducing waste also includes cutting down on wasted time, wasted movement and even wasted human potential (if you have employees whose skills and time you aren’t utilizing properly).
So how can contractors reduce waste? Better planning, collaboration and communication. That means not getting lost in the details of a project right away. It’s worth looking at the project from a high level to see how parts of processes connect and depend on each other. Starting with this holistic view can help prevent silos and lead to better flow from one step in a project to the next. Then look at where waste enters those processes. Data from past jobs can help you predict possible waste, as can feedback from your crews, your project managers and even your back office team.
Workflows are the foundation of all construction projects. Once you and your team have developed a project plan and identified common areas of waste, work to put streamlined processes in place. Document them and provide training if needed so everyone is on the same page, and then get feedback about how things went.
Another key principle of lean is continuous improvement. This means even when you’ve put a good process in place, you should still keep looking for ways to improve that process. Many construction companies get set in their ways, and people do things the way they’ve always been done. The lean approach challenges that way of thinking in order to continually make processes more efficient and deliver results that will impress customers.
Reinforce Lean Construction with Technology
If you’re new to lean, it might feel pretty conceptual. Applying it to real jobsites isn’t easy and can take practice. But you can encourage a lean philosophy for your projects and support its principles with tools that improve communication and collaboration, which are fundamental to effective processes.
To keep processes on track, construction sites need tasks, deliveries, inspections and all other parts of the job to be scheduled properly and carried out in the right order. If that schedule changes, the right people must be notified. When that doesn’t happen, delays occur, mistakes happen and people start looking for others to blame.
Construction software like Viewpoint Team, which connects your office, field crews and extended team of subcontractors, keeps everyone involved in a project in the know by providing real-time access to information. Our new construction management software system, ViewpointOne, can integrate functionality and processes even further by connecting project management and mobile tools in the field with finance and HR. In addition to enabling good communication, tools like these also help support lean efforts by increasing efficiency. And your employees, your customers and your bottom line will all be happy about that.