A Fresh Look at Lean in Construction

Mark Konchar, Chief Innovation Officer

One of the major paradigm shifts in the construction industry is around our increasing adoption of lean philosophy and practice. We keep hearing more and more about various tools and techniques (pull planning, target value design, A3s, etc.) and then there is the proliferation of Japanese production terms (andon, gemba, muda, kaizen, poka yoke, etc.). 

Why? What is the point of Lean?

Many would say that the whole point of these Lean tools is to eliminate waste in the delivery process. Well, yes and no. There are two aspects of this statement that require further clarification:

1) Tools, by themselves, don’t achieve results.  

Tools are there to support and enable various processes. Those processes, in turn, encourage certain types of behaviors and these behaviors are ultimately responsible for project success. Just to recap: tools enable process, process encourages behaviors, and behaviors deliver results. This is something that we often forget.

At our industry conferences, so much of the discussion is about the specific tools, technology or innovative process. What is often only alluded to is how those tools and processes changed the team behaviors resulting in greater success.

A simple example is that of the Last Planner System of scheduling - specifically phase planning. I’ve seen numerous presentations that show pictures of rooms full of people and walls covered in colorful Post-It® notes. What the pictures do not convey is that this tool (i.e., a highly visual, easily understandable tool for collaborative phase planning the team) achieves several key behavioral shifts:

  • Collective buy-in through engagement: The individuals most familiar with the nature of the work are the ones engaged in detailed discussions that expose assumptions, unknowns and misunderstandings, and result in clear, personal commitments. 
  • Enabling: The discussions are focused on “what do you need to be able to do this by this date?” rather than simply “you need to do this this by this date.”
  • Optimizing the whole: Because there is a collective understanding of the entire phase of work, the collective focus is on optimizing the flow of the entire project rather than each trade simply looking out for themselves.
  • Integrity:  The emphasis shifts toward one’s ability to make reliable commitments rather than pressuring individuals into overly-optimistic commitments.

These are some of the behaviors that enable great projects.  This focus on behavior is what most people in our industry miss, but as more and more discussions turn to Lean culture, learning organizations, strategic partnerships, and Lean journeys – the fact that behaviors are the key is becoming undeniable. 

2) Lean is primarily about understanding value… not waste.

The foundational principles of Lean philosophy are: 1) define value, 2) map the value stream, 3) create flow, 4) establish pull, and 5) seek perfection. Waste is anything that takes resources away from the delivery of value.  Although there have been tremendous efforts to discuss, identify and eliminate waste, there has barely been any discussion in our industry focused on really understanding value.   
First of all, this presents a dilemma because it is impossible to truly define waste without deeply understanding value. 

Second, we as an industry are missing the opportunity to define how we can bring greater value to our current and potential clients. 

At Balfour Beatty, we have long sought to better understand the needs, desires and broader business case of our clients. For over a decade, we’ve been utilizing our mission alignment process (MAP) to first understand the specific notions of value that our clients hold, but also to hold ourselves accountable for delivering that value with the finished project. 

In recent years, we’ve developed robust processes internally to ensure we translate those client-specific notions of value into actionable strategies. This has required us to develop a deep understanding of exactly how our tools and techniques impact project team behaviors and ultimately project success. It has also required us to restructure our entire organization so the lessons learned (both positive and negative) can be aggregated and scaled in a manner that enables us to bring the best of our collective knowledge to each and every project. 

The fact that over 80 percent of our clients come back to us for additional projects is a testament to how hard we work to align with their needs and deliver a different level of value.

Third, our Lean transformation is not something we can do alone. Internally, we can gain significant efficiencies and greater effectiveness, however, the real power of Lean comes when ideas, improvements and innovations flow freely up and down the supply chain.

Our “Lean transformation” has truly been a journey, one which we are still in the midst of and will continue to travel. However, this journey has always been grounded in the most foundational Lean principle – the relentless pursuit of value – which is what matters most to our clients, our industry partners and the people who make up our organization and those of our partners.