A New Way to Manage Construction

Lean Construction Institute (LCI)


Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) is a non-profit organization with 190 members across the nation including contractors, design professionals, trade partners and owners. It also has a growing number of international members.
To challenge the status quo is no easy undertaking. There are many reasons why leaders, organizations and movements challenge an existing state of affairs: to encourage improvements, to present advancements and to delve into the innovative and crucial fields of new development. It takes an open mind, a deep understanding of what needs to change and a commitment to inspire and encourage open communication. In other words, challenging the unchallenged for the betterment of the whole.

Challenging the status quo is exactly what American engineers Greg Howell and Glen Ballard did in the late 1990s to address the state of the nation’s construction industry, which they felt was a fragmented and dysfunctional one. In fact, productivity in the construction industry has seen a decline worldwide in the past four decades.

From Howell and Ballard’s studies was borne the philosophy of lean thinking as it applies to the construction and design industries. For both Howell and Ballard, lean is the “new way to manage construction … Implementation requires action be shaped by a deeper understanding of the goals and techniques,” It acknowledges that desired project results are essentially affected by the methodologies to achieve those results. Lean construction incorporates strong relationships, common goals and perhaps, more importantly, exchanges of knowledge. Through their efforts, the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) was established in 1997.

Executive Director Dan Heinemeier explains that for the co-founders, “it started off as a kind of think tank with a consulting arm.” Through video studies of productivity in projects, both Howell and Ballard realized that “the average productivity on a project was about fifty-four percent. Their goal and their felt need was to try and help the industry do better.”

Of the countries with an LCI presence, Dan relates that “some of them are less formal than others. But we know that there are expressions of interest in lean in dozens of countries around the world … We’re constantly interacting with them in various levels and encouraging them.” LCI does not directly manage these international institutes but rather leaves, “them to themselves since they know their markets better than we do.”

Canada established its own Lean Construction Institute (LCI-C) in 2015 as a special committee of the Canadian Construction Association (CCA). Dan says of the Canadian LCI that, “we’ve actually had a lot of contact with them and interaction with them since they started.”

Six tenets guide lean construction principles and objectives in the project delivery process: a focus on process and flow; the removal of waste; optimizing the whole; continuous improvement; and generating value.

Dan explains that people are encouraged to optimize tasks based on a true concern for the success of projects as a whole and not just elements of the individual task. “Over time, people begin to see the need to work so that the project as a whole succeeds, not just their particular piece of it is successful.” He emphasizes that flow is important in enhancing productivity in lean construction and that the concept of effective handoffs between project participants and improving workflow with little to no interruptions is, “critically important to realizing the benefits of lean.”

Value generation is equally important for successful completion of projects. It involves a total understanding of specifications of what the customer wants or needs. “That’s kind of the North Star that has to continually steer folks in the lean world to realize the full benefits,” Dan adds. There is a need to pick performers that consistently contribute to the flow and eliminate waste. “That can be more important than the upfront costs in determining who an excellent performer is on a project.”

Dan believes that the real cornerstone for lean construction principles is, “respect for people. That’s where I would start to describe lean.” He notes that there is a catchphrase in the industry: ‘With every pair of hands, you get a free brain to work with.’ I means that peoples’ suggestions need to be taken seriously. “That’s one of the hallmarks of lean practice.” Much of this belief rests on convincing people that their input is really wanted; that action will be based on that input. “That’s counter-cultural in many cases to what happens on projects.”

Building information modeling (BIM) and lean construction have existed as two separate initiatives for successful project delivery for quite some time. However, there is an ongoing trend toward incorporating the two into practice. BIM is an important tool not only for lean projects but any project. “You want to maximize the effective use of BIM, and lean projects are no exception to that,” Dan notes.

The BIM process is increasingly garnering interest and being implemented more in the lean construction process. “I think more and more owners and major project participants are embracing BIM, absolutely,” he adds, affirming that, “It offers so many productivity advantages and planning advantages.”

With respect to integrated project delivery (IPD), Dan explains that its intended outcomes are comparable to design to build (D2B) or design-build solutions. “It’s probably the best delivery method you can use if you want to realize the full benefits of lean.” IPD is certainly not the only method that can be used but, “It inherently encourages collaboration on projects,” he adds. “It gives people profit incentives and other incentives to actually collaborate effectively. So, you can see why that would be an environment in which lean techniques would flourish.”

Lean construction, at its very core, is a means to decrease waste while increasing the value delivered by projects. “Waste is anything that doesn’t maximize value for the owner on the project,” according to Dan. This may include excessive trash on site, delivered materials not being used promptly, time lost in transporting materials or underused workforce, for example. Such things create waste in terms of time, motion and safety and lead to less value for the customer.

Dan suggests that value is established by focusing on what a customer wants and helping that customer achieve that. “On traditional projects, everybody comes to the table looking to maximize his piece of the project … This is instead a way of helping everybody see the connections between their work and encouraging them to work as teams to have effective handoffs between themselves and a very smooth flow in terms of project delivery.”

The Last Planner System was developed by Glen Ballard as his doctoral thesis. He then provided it to LCI to, “use as a tool for driving transformational change in the industry,” continues Dan. Although many equate the Last Planner System with pull planning, “that’s not the case,” he says, although pull planning is part of Last Planner.

What Last Planner does is look at a project six weeks ahead to discern what is going to happen and how individual players achieve their directives at each phase. Weekly planning meetings have all involved examine what is called PPC or percentage plan complete. This represents the total number of goals to be attained in a given week, divided into the number of goals accomplished.

“That gives you percentage plan complete or your productivity rate,” explains Dan. “By utilizing these focused meetings and looking at constraint logs of problems or glitches that have occurred on projects and addressing those glitches and problems, people can rapidly begin to drive their productivity back up into the seventy, eighty or ninety percent range. That’s really kind of what Last Planner is all about.”

Essentially, the Last Planner System is a collection of tools and techniques that focus on improving flow and eliminating constraints on one’s ability to work more efficiently. It also encourages smooth handoffs across the whole spectrum of a project.

LCI’s Knowledge Transfer Learning Centre contains forty papers from over fifteen construction practitioners who offer both advice and insight into the implementation of lean construction. The centre is open to members specifically for research findings and educational materials, and these are also sold to the general public. “It’s a member service and a means of getting the word out of our website to the wider linked community,” summarizes Dan.

So, roughly what percentage of overall project costs are minimized using lean? Dan says he is asked this question often. “It really varies greatly, depending on the extent to which you’re able to utilize lean based on your delivery method [and] based on the various aspects of the project or characterization of the project.” For large, complex projects, savings could be ten to fifteen percent or more. He says that the other aspect of savings is time. On larger projects, it is not unusual to save two to three months of the project schedule, “if you do it right and if you have the folks working on the project who are dedicated to a collaborative approach.”

From its beginnings as a consulting group, it has now developed to try to change the industry through research and education. “In the ensuing twenty years, we’ve become a member-based organization, thinking that would be a better model for reaching out to the wider community.” The LCI now has local communities of practice (CoPs) which service chapters that reach out nationally, “to a broader membership base than we’ve ever had before.”

The LCI is the only association in the U.S. with a primary focus on the promotion of the lean philosophy, practices and methodologies. The driving force behind all of its efforts is to make an impact in the industry, with the message that lean principles can and do enhance productivity. “It’s a huge task,” and something in which the company aims to excel.

As for the future, the LCI will continue its mission of national outreach on lean construction. “It’s a constant requirement to demonstrate the benefits and communicate those benefits effectively,” Dan concludes.

Pull Planning vs. Pushing Control
The LCI believes that the pull planning methodology is more efficient than the traditional pushing control process, which, in its simplest interpretation, is dependent on a supervisor or foreman dictating details of what should occur on a project on any given day.

Pull planning’s production system is a collaborative approach conforming to lean principles and involves all participants responsible for supervising projects. This type of planning engages everyone in the planning process, at the onset, and, “encourages people to think creatively and systematically about how to improve handoffs between teams performing on projects,” explains Dan.

The pull planning process is systematically mapped backwards in terms of processes and functions that have occurred at each stage of a project, “in order to create a successful handoff between those functions,” he adds.

“It engages everybody up front from the smallest or least involved trade partner all the way up to the designer, the general contractor etc., about how to improve handoffs between those teams … It’s really a means to get everybody’s minds and experience base applied to the set of tasks that it takes to create the project.”