Feb 21 2020

MAPL Blog series–Lean implementation in Construction

Welcome to my series of blogs on lean implementation in construction. In Australia, lean construction is becoming a topic of interest. This first in my series of blogs addressed the question, what is it to be lean.

What is it to be lean

Welcome to my series of blogs on lean implementation in construction. This first one addresses the question of “What it is to be lean?”
Much has been written about lean production and also about the application of these ideas to construction. First let us address a few myths:

  1. Lean is a set of tools — lean practitioners use lean tools to achieve their goals, but lean is much more than a set of tools. The world is full of tools and of salesmen keen on selling you the latest version. You must first be clear about what you want to achieve and then look at how to best achieve it. Most tools when used properly will add value, but without lean thinking behind them, their benefit will be limited. BIM is in this category; many people today think of BIM as a silver bullet. It is a very powerful and beneficial technology, but without lean thinking to drive a focus on effective BIM implementation, BIM will fall short of its promise.
  2. Lean is the elimination of waste, but WHOSE WASTE? — while the elimination of waste can be a very effective way to drive continuous improvement within existing processes and drive down costs, efforts which refine poor legacy processes rather create new systems that refocus on creating customer value can be wasteful of itself.This conflict is eloquently described in a story in a recent book (This is Lean—Resolving the efficiency paradox; Modig N & Ahlstom P). This story contrasts the experience of two patients with suspected breast cancer as they pass through two very different health care systems. One system, which is focused on process efficiency (process flow) bounces the patient from specialist to specialist according to their diaries and yields a diagnosis for the patient after 6 weeks. In the other example, the system which is focused on patient value (patient flow), the specialists are collocated to be available for the patient, they all see her on the same day and the patient is given a diagnosis before the end of the day. This example truly contrasts the one (and most common) system which is focused on the efficiency of the supply chain, as against the other, which is focused purely on the creation of value for the customer.
  3. Lean applies to repetitive processes — I remember a few short years ago when working on a rail project, the project director felt he understood what lean is and he wanted to implement lean on his project, however he delayed engaging with lean thinking till they were laying track as that was a repetitive process and hence suitable for lean. Lean applies to everything we do, it is a mindset that we can apply to the way we approach absolutely everything.

Having dispelled some common myths, I want to address the great excuse, our people are suffering change fatigue, let’s wait till these current changes are bedded down—This mindset is almost universal. The decision to put off implementing lean in an organisation is akin to the woodchopper not having time to sharpen his axe because there is too much work to get through. Lean is simply committing to methodical, continuous improvement in everything the organisation does, starting immediately to improve a mix of the most pressing as well as some of the easiest issues to tackle.

My simple definition of lean practice is to “Continuously strive to improve service and product quality outcomes for customers—this must be built on a deep understanding of what customers value, and a focus on giving more value for less, reliably and as promised”.

This requires a continuous engagement with all customers (internal and external, intermediate and final) to know what they want and value, and to know through feedback how you are performing. It also implies that in all systems (processes, services and products) weaknesses are continuously assessed and targeted for improvement. Improvements must also capture the potential offered by new technologies. Finally, there is a relentless drive to eliminate waste and improve the flow of value to the end customer.

Note the emphasis on continuous, this is the most challenging aspect of lean. This is not a one-shot wonder, no silver bullet. It is a commitment to continuously strive to give customers better value, and to improve process efficiency, it requires a productive culture committed to excellence, learning from work each day and improving on it the next.

It also requires out-of-the-box and in-the-box innovation and improvement. While improving existing processes, it is critical to re-evaluate basic product and service assumptions and to develop improved models of value creation.

Within the lean community, there are many techniques which help to drive better process outcomes. The following are just some of these:

  • The Last Planner® system of planning and production control
  • Location based planning
  • A commitment to finding and eliminating waste
  • Creating flow in operations
  • Delivering work (product or service) at the pull of the customer
  • Value stream mapping to improve overall process efficiency
  • Empowering workers to identify opportunities for improvement
  • Performance measurement as a tool to drive continuous improvement
  • Creating reliable processes throughout an organisation
  • Language in action—work only occurs as a result of linguistic acts

All of these are important and valuable practices, a lean organisation uses these together with supporting tools as appropriate. However, the focus is on constantly refining processes to achieve the strategic priorities of the organisation.

Finally, it is important to make sure that whenever an improvement is targeted, it has a process behind it, that resources are allocated, and progress towards agreed goals is monitored.

Take away

Visions are easy to write, missions are hard to achieve. The hallmark of a lean organisation is that it can consistently turn its aspirations into practice. All organisations aspire to be better, but few can consistently bring smart improvement ideas to the fore and convert them into practice. Failed ideas and plans choke the cutting room floor undermining the focus and enthusiasm of the workforce. Lean implementation requires a clear vision in the top leadership and an ability in the entire team to convert aspirations into practice.