Jessica Kane, Federal Steel Supply Inc.
Overall, the efficiency of the construction industry is broadly perceived as inadequate when compared to other industries. Many of the construction companies that have survived the market downturn since 2008 feel they are nothing but skin and bones, as any fat had to be cut long ago.
Lean concepts have been implemented in the business world for a number of years. Lean constructs have shown impressive improvements in manufacturing processes and as a result the principles have been effectively applied to the construction trades. Fueled by the recession, Lean Construction Institutes have spread throughout the world, teaching companies how to cut wastes, beginning at M.I.T.
What is lean construction?
Great waste is designed into construction. By the time builders get their first look at a design it is generally too late to make changes that would make the project easier, safer and less costly. Lean construction is an integration of best-management practices and green construction techniques. Relatively speaking, lean construction is a fairly new concept in the construction industry, being in practice for less than two decades.
Lean construction refers to the industry as a whole, and not a particular phase in the construction process. Lean construction techniques seek to minimize waste of not only materials, but time and effort as well in order to create the maximum amount of value. As such, lean construction techniques are as essential to architects, designers, engineering, and suppliers as to owners.
A few lean principles include:
- Understanding value for customers from their perspective.
- Understanding the value of the process to make the product.
- Making sure that value added activities smoothly flow.
- Building systems should be prefabricated and modularized.
- Ensuring nothing is made or delivered until needed by achieving pull.
- Recognizing that perfection is sought by a commitment to continually improve the entire process.
Lean construction recognizes that results are affected by how the ends are achieved, therefore the available means will affect the end results. Designing a complete production system to accomplish the stated goal is only possible with the successful collaboration of all project participants during the early stages of a project. Lean construction techniques draw from the principles of project-level management as well as the principles governing production-level management. This is important as any successful project inevitably involves the interaction between production and project personnel.
Why does lean construction matter?
Lean design and construction matter because they foremost increase value, reduce cost, and protect the environment all by reducing waste at every step. Lean practices also emphasize respect for workers and promotes collaboration between production-level management to generate better outcomes at every phase of project implementation.
Lean-construction techniques are showing evidence of making a huge impact on project cost reduction and environmental impacts. Documenting all the benefits lean construction techniques produce can be challenging, as no two constructions projects are exactly alike. However, a substantial body of investigation suggests the realized successes of lean projects are both actual and repeatable.
Organizations, such as Universal Health Systems that builds medical facilities around the United States, have fully embraced lean construction practices have seen significant results. In dozens of cases across the country, results have shown similar characteristics in terms of project complexity, size, and cost. A snapshot of 50 Universal Health Systems projects ranging between $1 million and $150 million in cost that used lean techniques showed that 97% of all projects were completed below or on budget, with only one project being just 3% over budget. Over a 20% cost reduction was seen on similar UHS projects completed from 2009 to 2013, with a cost reduction of $56,000 per bed.
Results were equally significant in the Temecula-Hospital project in California, where the project came in at an impressive 40% below market cost, realizing a 30% while doubling labor efficiency. In addition to efficiency and cost saving, because lean practices also utilizes “green” practices, with much of the material sourced from recycled components, lean construction techniques are environmentally friendly.
How lean construction is affecting the world
Minimizing wasted time and completing projects ahead of schedule is of value to customers anywhere in the world. However, cultural change must take place for lean construction practices to become the norm, rather than what some areas of the world would view as a novelty.
It has been said that time, cost, and quality cannot all be brought together in the construction trades. That is just not so. As such, lean construction necessitates a worldwide shift in corporate commitment to training, implementation and execution that can only be accomplished with dedication and discipline.
Research performed in 2004 in Denmark by MT Hojgaard, one of the lean construction pioneers in Europe, showed almost a 70% reduction in accidents on lean construction sites. Because construction is the end user of so many products, reducing waste during construction results in more money for construction of more housing, factories, and public facilities.
On the environmental side, the EU construction industry alone is responsible for about 25% of all carbon emissions. The numbers are closer to 35% in the U.S. As such, lean construction techniques can play a consequential role in protecting the environment and the planet.
Lean construction also has the potential to affect other aspects of construction besides just erecting new buildings. Two examples are power generation, like wind farms, and infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.
In reference to the wind industry
Presently, wind power is not as efficient as it could be because wind farms are typically costly to construct. However, much of the cost of setting up the farms could be significantly reduced through lean construction practices. Such practices have potential to make one of the most readily available sources of energy, the wind, more viable on a large scale.
The same techniques and practices that make lean construction productive in reducing cost and waste in erecting buildings can also be applied to building better and less-costly substructures around the world. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that over 50% of the nation’s roads and bridges will need replacing within 25 years.
In what is perhaps the largest single study of lean construction programs ever done, lean construction strategies enabled the San Diego Community College District to save $13.6 million, averaging $900,000 per project, while reducing maintenance costs over 50% in a three-year period.
Jessica Kane is a professional blogger who writes for Federal Steel Supply, Inc., a leading supplier of carbon, alloy and stainless steel pipes, tubes, fittings and flanges.