Lean thinking in construction

July 15, 2018

By Moritz Miller, Project Partner and Senior Consultant at Drees & Sommer ME

Lean thinking is a methodology which, when applied in construction, has allowed thousands of buildings to increase operational efficiency in the construction phase of projects, saving time and resources by following a standardised system to mitigate waste of all types.

undefinedDubai’s recently announced federal budget highlights the emirate has upped its infrastructure spend by 46.5% as compared to 2017 in preparation for Dubai Expo 2020. As a result, there is significant potential for excessive waste in both physical and financial resources and a greater need for a unified system to boost efficiencies.

While numerous advanced technologies have been introduced over the last 40 years, the overall efficiency of the industry has remained substantially low according to a report by construction intelligence platform ProTenders.

Within the last five years, the materialisation rate of proposed projects has also been relatively low, with only 30% of proposed residential projects and 45% of proposed commercial projects being handed over by the scheduled completion date. The time taken to deliver a project, the allocation of excessive human resources, the over-ordering of materials and time wasted due to miscommunication are all major factors that can hinder operational efficiency and lead to cost overruns and project delays.

Lean thinking anchors itself to the principle of minimising or completely eradicating the misuse of resources in as many areas of operation as possible by following a standardised system. When applied in the construction sector, lean thinking requires all areas of waste to be identified and eliminated through incremental improvements, without compromising on safety or quality.

Applying lean thinking in construction management makes way for better communication, improved schedule transparency, efficiency in collaborative project execution, enhanced visualisation and the overall simplification of processes. Every aspect of the construction process is analysed in great detail. New micro-processes are created to maximise timeliness, avoid the over or under-production or allocation of resources required to complete a job, and identify who is responsible for each task and the required completion dates of those tasks.

Looking further afield, there are numerous examples demonstrating that applying lean thinking in construction management can significantly increase project efficiency, assist in the early detection and avoidance of risks, and lead to the achievement of all scheduled milestones, cost targets and quality goals.

The construction of the Waldhotel as part of the Bürgenstock resort in the Swiss Alps is a good example of a proven case in which lean thinking was applied to achieve efficiency throughout the entire construction process. Among the benefits achieved as a result of lean thinking were; improved profitability, reliable implementation, significant return on investment, smooth and coordinated project execution and energy savings of up to 50%.

With the application of lean thinking in construction management, UAE contractors stand to achieve savings of 10 to 30% at activity level, and 10 to 20% at project level, in addition to fewer wastage costs, greater profitability and a reputation for both consistent and efficient execution and delivery.

Five basic principles are vital towards ensuring a lean construction process when undertaking a new project. These include:

Defining a clear value stream: A value stream identifies all of the processes necessary to deliver that value. For each activity, the necessary equipment, labour, information and equipment are defined. Any steps or resources that do not add value are removed.

Eliminating waste: When applied in the construction sector, the main objective of lean thinking is to mitigate waste at every possible opportunity.

Establishing a clear flow of work processes: Clear communication between all parties is essential to achieving efficient flow. When one part of a project is ahead or behind schedule, it is essential the whole team is informed so adjustments can be made to avoid wastage of time and resources.

Cohesive planning and scheduling: Creating reliable workflows is dependent on work being released based on downstream demand. Project participants should communicate closely with one another to determine the scheduling of tasks.

Continuous improvement: It is necessary to continuously improve processes and eliminate waste. Improvement opportunities are identified and acted upon throughout the construction process. For example, case studies are written and used to improve processes in future projects.

Delays in the construction industry can be caused by a number of factors and will remain inevitable in many cases, however, greater adoption of lean construction management will allow for improved efficiency and more opportunities to boost labour productivity, saving vital resources and allowing contractors to remain within budget.

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