Lean production (sometimes referred to as lean manufacturing) was pioneered by Toyota in Japan after the second world war. The Toyota Production System was considered to be the most efficient in the world, and it was recognised that their lean production principles could be applied not only to any other manufacturing process, but also to other business activities.
The term 'lean construction' is an adaptation of lean production techniques applied to the construction industry. Very broadly it can be characterised as techniques aimed at maximising value and minimising waste.
The construction industry in the UK has consistently performed in a way that is thought to be wasteful compared to other industries. There is a general perception that it does not deliver good value for its customers. In part this is due to the unusual nature of construction, where, unlike a production line, each building is a one off. But in addition, the nature of contracting arrangements means that it can be adversarial, with significant potential for disputes.
In 1997, the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott set up the Construction Task Force, chaired by Sir John Egan. In 1998, the task force published ‘Rethinking Construction' (the Egan Report), on the scope for improving the quality and efficiency of UK construction. Amongst other things, Egan advocated lean thinking, suggesting that it “…presents a powerful and coherent synthesis of the most effective techniques for eliminating waste and delivering significant sustained improvements in efficiency and quality….We recommend that the UK construction industry should also adopt lean thinking as a means of sustaining performance improvement.”
Other countries around the world have also made attempts to apply lean thinking to construction, notably Denmark, USA, Chile, Brazil and Australia (ref Lean Thinking in Construction).
 Lean construction
Lean construction is a broad philosophy that has been defined in many different ways and includes a range of different approached, tools and techniques.
It is defined by the Lean Construction Institute as “…the application of lean thinking to the design & construction process creating improved project delivery to meet client needs and improved efficiency for constructors.” Other definitions include, "...a philosophy for working based on continuous delivering of better value to customers whilst increasing business profitability and competitiveness" (ref Lean Thinking in Construction) and "... managing and improving the construction process to profitably deliver what the customer needs" (ref Constructing Excellence).
Whilst the goals of lean construction and lean production may be similar, the approaches are necessarily different, due largely to the fact that developing a building is a ‘project’ rather than ‘programme’ (ie it has a start and end rather than an ongoing activity such as a production line) and the product is is often a one off.
Lean construction is a continuous process that applies through design, procurement, manufacture and construction. It is an integrated process in which clients, designers, contractors, and suppliers must be committed to working together, focussing on delivering value (as seen by the ultimate customer) rather than low cost, and striving to get it ‘right first time’.
Some of the varied principles underpinning lean construction include:
- Improving communication.
- Eliminating waste and errors.
- Direct intervention to drive immediate and apparent change.
- Improving work planning and forward scheduling.
- Specifying value from the perspective of the customer.
- Identifying the processes that deliver customer value (the value stream).
- Eliminating activities that do not add value.
- Ensuring the working environment is clean, safe, and efficient.
- Continuous improvement.
Some of the techniques that can be adopted include:
- Using modelling and visualisation techniques to improve planning and communication.
- Early planning, to improve workflow, focussing on defining achievable tasks and avoiding mistakes, duplicated effort, out of sequence working and activity that does not add customer value. The objective is the maximisation of workflow and the minimisation of performance variation rather than point speed.
- Look-ahead scheduling.
- Pre-fabrication and modular building to reduce activity on site and better distribute the workload.
- Just-in-time deliveries.
- Value management techniques.
- Integrating the supply chain through partnering and collaborative practices.
- Benchmarking techniques and the use of key performance indicators.
- Last Planner System
- Critical path analysis and management.
- Risk management techniques.
- Continuous improvement from one project to another.
There is some suggestion that the adoption of lean construction has not been entirely successful. To a certain extent this is because some of its techniques are already part of best practice, however successive reports assessing the industry continue to be highly critical. Notably, the Government Construction Strategy, published in May 2011, suggested “..the UK does not get full value from public sector construction… “ and that “…there is broad consensus, spread both across the industry and its customers, that construction under-performs”, advocating a “leaning” of the procurement process.
The Egan report itself was not entirely welcomed, and there was some suggestion that applying experience in manufacturing to construction was unrealistic (Sir John Egan was chief executive of Jaguar Cars from 1984 to 1990, and chief executive of BAA from 1990 to 1999). In May 2008, ten years after publication of Rethinking Construction, Sir John Egan stated that "...we have to say we’ve got pretty patchy results. And certainly nowhere near the improvement we could have achieved, or that I expected to achieve…..I guess if I were giving marks out of 10 after 10 years I’d probably only give the industry about four out of 10" (ref Egan: I’d give construction about 4 of 10).
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Advanced manufacturing.
- Block planning.
- Briefing documents.
- Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA).
- Egan report.
- Government construction strategy.
- Latham report.
- Lessons learned report.
- Mean lean green.
- Output-based specification.
- Performance in use.
- Post project review.
- Soft landings.
- Value management.
- Whole life costs.
 External references
- Lean Construction Institute
- Lean Construction Institute UK
- For recent papers search iglc.net, Lean Construction Journal
- Constructing Excellence: Lean construction.
- The Construction Lean Improvement Programme (CLIP)
- Egan: I’d give construction about four out of 10, 21 May, 2008
- Centre for Lean Projects, Nottingham Trent University
- European Construction Institute Lean Task Force
- Lean Construction Network on LinkedIn
- Lean Construction Glossary LCI
- Lean Construction Glossary
Featured articles and news
What is Modernism?
Modernist architecture and its many international variations explained.
BRE support Europe-wide strategic heating plans for local and national authorities.
Work set to begin on 'one of America's greatest parks', which will be 10 times bigger than Central Park.
One of our most popular articles - RSHP's Mike Davies writes about the concept design process.
As Cuba mourn the death of Castro, major renovation of this symbolic landmark may be a reflection of the country's fresh start.
How cannabis plants are used to create an alternative building material with plenty of advantages.
What does Mayor Sadiq Khan's first policy statement mean for London's infrastructure?
Bjarke Ingels Group announced as winners of design competition for new residential landmark in Amsterdam.
Designing Buildings Wiki has reviewed a well-designed and researched set of architecture city maps.
Designing Buildings Wiki attended the second annual Building Live conference, tackling the challenges facing construction.