The concept of lean practice isn’t new. Manufacturers have been eliminating waste from their highly repetitive production processes for decades. However, until recently, the construction industry has been slow to translate lean manufacturing into lean construction.

Lean isn’t a cute acronym, and it isn’t a trademarked program. Lean is a simple concept that can have a significant impact on the bottom line. However, its greatest enemy is one of the most powerful forces in business — status quo.

The core principles of lean practice are simple. Eliminate waste. Add value. Respect people.

1. Eliminate Waste

There are eight organizational wastes leaders must try to detect and eliminate.

  • Underutilized talent. The best ideas don’t always come from the corner office. Often, the best ideas originate at the front lines, from the employees performing the work. How does your company tap into employee knowledge and innovation to seek new ideas or develop innovative improvements?
  • Excess inventory. In a society that loves to “stock up” at big-box wholesalers, it seems counter-intuitive to limit your inventory to only what you need to perform the task. But excess inventory takes up space, resources, and capital that could be deployed more appropriately elsewhere.
  • Unnecessary motion. How much pre-planning do you put into the efficient execution of the tasks you perform? Do you position your trash container to capture scraps off the sawblade rather than sweep them off the floor later? Do you bring your tools and materials with you on a rolling cart rather than walk back and forth to the tool crib?
  • Waiting. When a crew can’t start because they’re waiting on the crew before them, your workflow suffers, your project loses momentum, and dollars fly out the door, wasted on unproductive downtime. A schedule should be a series of commitments kept out of respect for the entire project team.
  • Excessive transportation. How many times have you moved a pile of stored materials because they’re in your way? How many times do you call for a special delivery from the yard because you forgot about it that morning? Even the most basic pre-planning effort eliminates excessive transportation and gets your task done quicker and more efficiently.
  • Defects. We know intuitively work done a second time costs days and dollars that can be devastating to schedules and budgets. But rework is a morale killer as well. Do your job right the first time.
  • Overproduction. Overproduction looks a lot like excess inventory. Why make 100 widgets when your project only needs 75? You’ve invested resources, time, and capital on widgets that now just take up space and, depending on the widget, may not be usable on the next project.
  • Over-processing. The process should be as simple as possible. Why run through 12 steps when you can achieve the same result in eight steps without sacrificing safety, quality, or risk management? Technology can certainly help, but technology isn’t always the answer. Look for opportunities to collaborate and share information in real-time, while also identifying steps that just don’t add value to the process.

2. Add Value

The second principle of lean practice is to add value. You’ve likely heard the phrase “continuous improvement.” Who wouldn’t want to improve? The problem with improvement, though, is that it usually requires change. You may be comfortable with “the way we’ve always done it,” but is that truly the best way to do it? Does every step in the process add value? Identify steps that don’t add value or quality or ensure safety and mitigate risk and eliminate those steps or find alternate ways to execute them.

3. Respect People

The third principle of lean practice is perhaps the most important. Respect people. Lean practices shouldn’t increase workload or create a new landslide of paperwork. Any new lean practices implemented in your organization should show respect for the people who have tasks to accomplish. You’ll never have the buy-in from employees to implement these practices unless they actually help them to accomplish those tasks quicker, easier, or safer — always with the end goal in mind.