How Lean Construction Practices Help Subcontractors

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Construction workers walking into building

The phrase “lean construction” has been tossed around a lot lately when referring to construction productivity, but what exactly is lean construction? Essentially, lean practices are all about reducing waste and being as efficient as possible through planning, organizing, and communicating. Perhaps, if the Leaning Tower of Pisa had been built using lean construction techniques, it wouldn’t be leaning!

Lean principles were actually originally developed by Toyota for manufacturing auto parts in the mid 20th century, but have since made their way into several industries, including construction. The same methodology that revolutionized efficiency and sustainability in factories can also be applied to jobsites, albeit slightly altered due to the rather unpredictable nature of construction projects. The combination of lean construction techniques and modern construction technology can create an ideal environment for efficient project management.

With proper execution and the right tools, lean construction can help projects move along smoothly, and for subcontractors, this can be a huge benefit. Lean construction kicks off communication between subcontractors, general contractors, and project owners right from the start. This means that fewer disputes arise, and there are thus fewer delays caused by miscommunication. Then, projects are finished with less strain, which can help guarantee repeat business.

According to the Lean Construction Institute, projects utilizing lean practices are twice as likely to be completed under budget, and three times more likely to be ahead of schedule. Safety and construction quality are both increased, and waste is minimized. We found this great infographic created by McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. displaying the benefits of lean construction:


The Five Principles of Lean Construction

The goals of lean construction practices are to maximize efficiency by avoiding unnecessary, unexpected costs. Lean construction follows five key principles: defining value, identifying value streams, establishing flow, pull planning, and continuously improving. These techniques are applied throughout the different stages of a project and involve all project members.

1. Define Value

Before beginning a construction project, it is important to not only consider what the customer wants to build, but also why they want it built. The easiest way to figure this out is to simply ask the customer what they deem valuable about the project. When your customer tells you exactly what they are looking for, and what they are hoping to gain from the building, you can focus on ways to get there rather than trying to guess what they meant. This sets the stage for communication with the client from the very start and shows them that you aren’t just getting the job done, but that you actually care about providing a quality, satisfactory finished product.

2. Map Value Stream

Following the first step of discovering what your customer values, you can plan your project around that value, and make sure you are going to reach the end result that the customer was hoping for. Mapping a value stream includes gathering data from project participants, and studying that data to create a visual plan that will efficiently make use of resources and time. When mapping the value stream for your project, you have to make note of any possible waste factors that could affect your schedule. When you address potential problems before they ever come up, you can establish processes to avoid them and stay on track.

3. Establish Flow

Once you map your value stream, you can get started on a solid, ongoing flow of progress throughout the duration of a project. A major component to flow is ongoing communication between subcontractors. When subs work together to keep projects flowing smoothly, the end result is reached faster, and with fewer issues. When a flow is created, processes are optimized to work as quickly as possible.

4. Pull Plan

Pull planning is arguably one of the most significant parts of lean construction. A pull planning meeting gets together representatives of every team involved in a project - including all the subcontractors. With sticky notes, these individuals mark down important milestones and phases for a project, working backward from the ideal date of completion. By using pull planning, it’s easier to make more realistic estimates of when certain milestones will be reached, with logical timelines for completion dates.

5. Continuous Improvement

The last element of lean construction practices embraces the concept that there is always room for improvement. Even if everything ran smoothly, reflecting on a project upon its completion helps you identify ways to improve for future projects. If lean construction practices are utilized throughout a project hopefully the job is completed according to plan. But sometimes, delays or minute details are omitted from plans, causing setbacks. If you acknowledge that there is always space to learn or grow, you can continue to achieve great results.

Modern Thinking Meets Modern Tools

If the aim of following lean construction practices is to maximize efficiency, it only makes sense to adopt tools that can assist with the process. New innovations in construction management software assist with communication between subcontractors and general contractors and from the field to the office. Subcontractor software with capabilities to track production, take photos and videos onsite, and log any delays or issues complement lean construction methods and the combination helps companies work toward finishing projects on time and on budget. As more and more big players in the construction industry adopt lean techniques, and subcontractors subsequently jump on board, we will see improved productivity, fewer disputes, and higher quality results. Plus, you can make sure that none of your buildings will ever have “The Leaning,” as part of their title.