04 July 2017

In a nutshell, lean construction is a team-led effort that, when successfully implemented and sustained, provides the means for workers to become more efficient and improve the quality of their work. Because a lean programme requires continuous problem solving and improvement, it can’t be instigated by an outside party and then thrust upon an unknowing group of people. It must have the buy-in from bottom up as well as top down, as it is the workers who make it successful.

Founded by Toyota

Lean production was pioneered by Toyota after WWII.  Designed around what is now known as the 5 S's, lean manufacturing has a very specific set of principles that are employee-centred. More than putting into place a set of improvement and efficiency techniques, lean manufacturing is a culture. With lean, you depend upon your workforce to identify hidden problems and eliminate them, reduce waste, evaluate practices and look at ways to improve efficiencies. Through teamwork, employees create and sustain a sense of urgency and unite under a single a purpose – moving together towards the company’s goal.

Lean Construction Institute

Lean Construction Institute (LCI) is a US-based not for profit organisation established in 1997. They define lean construction as, “the application of lean thinking to the design and construction process, creating improved project delivery to meet client needs and improved efficiency for constructors.”

LCI has several global communities, including one in the UK. LCI UK is a charitable membership organisation that offers e-learning and other training. Membership is open to a wide range of people working within the industry. You can find more information about LCI UK on their website, and they also have a presence on both LinkedIn and Twitter.


At the time of writing, BDOnline is offering CPD credits for completing their “Implementing Lean Construction” module. RIBA CPD also offers lean modules. 

The lean approach

The 5 S's

5S is a philosophy and methodology first used by Toyota as part of their lean manufacturing strategy. As its base level, it is a simple team-run organisational tool that helps standardise working practices and provide a clean, safe, and efficient working environment. The result is improved productivity.

In Japanese, 5S stands for:

  • Seiri – sort, clean, classify
  • Seiton – straighten, simplify, set in order
  • Seiso – sweep, scrub, shine, clean, check
  • Seiketsu – stabilise and standardise
  • Shitsuke – sustain, self-discipline

While there are a few iterations of 5S in English, they all have the same goals. One of the most common translations used is “sort, set in order, sweep, standardise, sustain”.

  • Sort – What’s necessary? What isn’t? Eliminate the unnecessary, be it tools, documents, or materials.
  • Set in order – Create a place for everything and keep everything in its place. Arrange things with a mind to work flow. Items should be stored near where they will be used. Workers should have easy and comfortable access to what they need. Labels and demarcation should clearly define what goes where.
  • Sweep – Keep the workplace tidy. Set aside a portion of time at the end of every day to return things to their place. Cleanliness should be a part of the daily routine rather than an occasional activity.
  • Standardise – Responsibilities and work practices should be clearly defined and consistent across the board. Every member of the work force should also understand their personal responsibility when it comes to the first three Ss.
  • Sustain – Once a system that incorporates the above four rules has been established, the goal is then to sustain it; don’t let old habits creep back in. Sustain should also incorporate reviewing how things are being done and looking at new ideas to help improve ways of working.

Hoshin Kanri

A seven step planning and implementation process that focuses on eliminating the waste that stems from poor communication (in particular, inconsistent direction) Hoshin Kanri helps to ensure that actions and progress align with company goals and are driven at every level within a group or organisation. When translated, “ho” means direction, “shin” means needle. Combined, “hoshin” means compass. Add to that “kan”, which means control and “ri” which translates to reason or logic. 

Hoshin Kanri takes into account execution every step of the way, providing you with a systematic method of strategic planning and managing progress towards achieving your strategic goals.

William “Wes” Waldo,

the Seven Steps of Hoshin Planning


The purpose of Hoshin Kanri can be summed up as: Align strategy (company’s overall goals) with tactics (middle management plans) and operations (employee efforts) to ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction at the same time. The approach can be broken down into seven steps:

  1. Establish company vision
  2. Develop a three to five year strategy (breakthrough objectives)
  3. Determine annual objectives
  4. Deploy those objectives (top downward, identifying workable targets and creating plans)
  5. Implement objectives (execute improvements; SCORE* see below)
  6. Review monthly
  7. Annual review

Creating strategies

Identify your goals. While writing down goals can give a sense of progress; the truth is that it is in the action that progress actually happens. Therefore, keep the number of goals limited to ensure that your employees can keep focus. Generally, there should be five or less goals at any given time. “When everything is important, then nothing is important.”

Give each goal an owner. Assign each goal to someone who has the knowledge, skills and authority to see it to successful fruition. This person will serve as facilitator to remove any obstacles and help smooth the way and as coach to track progress and move things back on track should they depart from it.

Focus on doing the right thing.  While we tend to put a lot of focus on efficiency – aka doing things right– it is a by-product of a process, not a process in itself. Therefore, the focus should be on effectiveness – aka doing the right thing. What is the next right thing to do to take the company or project to the next level? Will it have a broad impact?

Consult with others. While it is typically top management’s responsibility to set the goals, it is of utmost importance to consult with middle management and other employees before finalising those goals. 1) Consulting with those who are on the front line, the ‘feet on the ground’ so to speak, gives a better perspective for creating better strategies. 2) It creates a sense of shared responsibility; something that is vital to any successful lean strategy.

Track KPIs. Key performance indicators do not only help track progress, they can also be behavioural drivers. This is another area where effectiveness v efficiency comes into play. Efficiency is a good thing, but when the KPIs drive your workforce to cut corners in order to keep the process going, the end result is actually a less effective workforce, not a more efficient one.

Determining tactics

Play “catchball”. Having a continued back and forth exchange between top and middle management ensures that strategies and goals are understood, strategies and tactics are aligned, and that KPIs are meaningful.

Review regularly. In order to best align with a strategy, plans may need to change at any given point in of time. So tactics need to be flexible. By evaluating results monthly, plans can be adapted as necessary in order to best meet objectives.

Taking action

Turn goals into results. This step is where worker/employee buy-in is key. Line managers and team leads translate tactics into actions and then determine how best to implement those actions.

More catchball. On this level, continued communication is the key to ensuring that actions being taken on the shop floor, at the construction site, in the office, and/or out in the field align with the company’s agreed-upon tactics and defined strategies.

Revisiting and adapting

Close the loop. As well as ensuring that information flows from top to bottom, it is equally important that it flows from bottom to top. Regular progress tracking and monthly reviews provide the opportunity to revisit, regroup, and adjust tactics as necessary.

Kaizen workshops

Well known in the UK manufacturing industry, kaizen is a philosophy of continuous improvement, and one of the things that made Toyota not only one of the most successful manufacturers of its time but the reason that so many manufacturing and other industries are adopting the “Toyota Way” (i.e. lean).

In a kaizen workshop, participants are given the opportunity to develop and improve upon day-to-day collaborations and learn better ways to problem solve. The most successful workshops include participants from all levels within the organisation.

Flattening the management structure

For lean to work best, it is important to keep the management structure as flat as possible. The fewer levels between the very top and the very bottom means the fewer risks of the message to be lost in translation between layers. Fewer layers also facilitates faster decision making, resolution and adjustment.

Sharing a vision

People perform best when they understand not just what they need to do but why they need to do it. So, once again, communication and collaboration is key to ensuring that your people are buying into your vision. By facilitating and nurturing a unified sense of purpose, employees and workers are far more likely to be focused and driven towards achieving company goals, which translates to a more effective – leaner – way of working.

Adopting lean in construction

While the goals of lean are similar across industries, the construction industry work process is notably different, i.e. it moves project to project rather than establishing an ongoing programme. That being said, there is certainly room and need for lean adoption within the construction industry. By adopting lean techniques, the industry can:

  • Communicate more effectively
  • Produce less waste, make fewer mistakes
  • Improve planning and forward scheduling
  • Determine value from a customer perspective, identify processes that deliver value and eliminate those that do not
  • Drive immediate and apparent change
  • Provide a cleaner, safer, more effective work site
  • Continually improve from one project to the next

How to begin 

In Implementing Lean Construction: understanding and action, LCI founders Glenn Ballard and Greg Howell cite some general advice offered in both The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Senge and Kleiner, 1994) and Lean Thinking (Womack and Jones, 2003). This advice has been adopted by many lean construction champions within the industry. It includes:

Find a change agent. Changing a culture can be difficult because people are resistant to change. Think of the uproar on Facebook or Twitter every time a colour, font or layout gets changed. So, one of the first steps in adopting lean is identifying who can best serve as a champion for change. This needs to be someone who is strong enough to withstand the inevitable backlash from those who like to keep things as they are, whether they’re working or not. Once identified, this champion should take immediate action with the full support of management. It also helps to identify early adopters and get them on board as soon as possible.


“Action is a must because it develops a new mind and gives people confidence that changes can be made. Above all, the change agent must have the courage to cause principle driven action, and to stand against attempts to dilute lean.”

Womack and Jones,

Lean Thinking: Banish waste and create wealth in your corporation


Get the knowledge. Gather information on how to begin the lean journey and then continue with learning throughout implementation.

Find a lever by seizing a crisis or creating one. The focus here is finding something that convinces people that change is needed and using it to introduce lean. Since ‘crisis moments’ tend to be fairly abundant in construction projects, finding one suitable for introducing lean shouldn’t be too difficult.

Forget grand strategy for the moment. Keep the grand strategy in mind, but focus initially on the day-to-day implementation until the culture change has started taking firm hold.

Map your value streams. In construction, the value stream involves multiple organisations, so they need to be taken into consideration during the implementation process.

Begin as soon as possible with an important and visible activity. One of the best ways to accomplish this is with a production and assignment planning system. Measuring and improving planning performance can highlight problems, which can lead to visible, almost-immediate improvements.

Demand immediate results… but make sure you’re demanding the right results. Avoid focusing on things like cutting costs or doing things faster; this will lead to cutting corners and additional waste. By collecting qualitative feedback and measuring quantitative KPIs, you can identify areas of immediate improvement in the planning process or reduction of backlog between actions.

As soon as you have momentum, expand your scope. Ballard and Howell (1998) identify rate of change as the most important metric when determining if your lean strategy is working. As mentioned earlier, everyone needs to be working towards the same goal at the same time. Your employees' efforts should be causing actions in every facet of the company. People should be looking for, finding, and making changes under their own steam. When lean is implemented properly, new opportunities for improvement are always being discovered.

Overcoming barriers 

In their article, The psychology of change management, Emily Lawson and Colin Price rightly point out that workers will only buy in to culture change if they see the point of the change and agree with it – at least enough to give it go. They identify four key conditions that facilitate that mental change:

  • Give them something to believe in. Help them to understand their role in change and show them why it’s worthwhile for them to help make the change happen.
  • Provide reinforcement. Create a rewards and reinforcement system that is in tune with the new behaviour you want to encourage.
  • Make sure they have the necessary skills to make the change. Adults don’t learn just by listening to new instructions, they must experiment and integrate new information with existing information.
  • Provide consistent role models. From earliest childhood, we model ourselves after the ‘significant others’ around us. In an organisation, not only should influencing individuals serve as role models, groups surrounding those individuals must confirm the behaviour.

Final thoughts 

In The Two Great Wastes of Organizations, Hall Macomber and Gregory Howell cite “failure to speak and failure to listen” as the two great wastes of construction. At the very core of lean construction is regular and meaningful communication – collaboration across levels, across disciplines, and across the supply chain. People working together towards a common goal at the same time. To this end, lean champions decentralise decision making and encourage the workforce to speak up, as they are in the best position to identify waste and redundancy and develop better working practices. Openness is essential.

For the construction industry, working this way is another step-change away from tradition. Like BIM, lean construction practices lead us down a new path; a path some are more eager to follow than others. But while we sit clinging to old ways, the world is moving on. They’re embracing digital, they’re working collaboratively, they’re focusing on eliminating waste… and they expect others to do the same. As these new expectations and demands continue to drive change, we must be prepared to change too. Adopting a lean construction philosophy is part and parcel of that change.

This short article was repurposed from 'What is lean construction and should you adopt it?' written for the Construction Information Service.