Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Lean Construction: Forceful application of JIT & TQC into the construction industry?

'Lean Construction' is one of the latest buzzwords in the construction project management. What is 'Lean construction' ? Is it building structures which 'lean' in some angle like 'Tower of Pisa' ? Or , is it making tall and slim structures like 'Burj Al Arab' in Dubai ? Lets discuss what 'Lean Construction' is all about, its evolution and present status. I would also like to do a critical review of this philosophy in terms of its effectiveness & relevance.

Where JIT , TQC and lean manufacturing are originated?

All these philosophies originated in controlled environments were activities and scenarios are repetitive and more ‘predictable’. The basic concept of all these philosophies is process quality improvement by eliminating waste (Manpower, time & materials). These philosophies are applied on the conventional manufacturing process of Raw material passing through a process and get converted into a finished product. The following are more or less known and are fixed:

1) Available manpower, their skill level
2) Availability of raw materials (Known in advance & mostly stored in advance)
3) Work environment (Closed and mostly fixed)
4) Scope (End product is clearly defined and there are hardly any in process changes)

Micro planning and time-motion study analysis are very popular in industries which follow such production philosophies. Each minute/small action is subjected to critic and ways are sought to reduce the cycle time / execution time. Lay out of the plant is revised and finally optimized for a product or set of product to minimize production time. Read all these in conjunction with the fact that Japanese are hard workers (or allegedly workaholic!)

Such production philosophies found instant success in many mechanical production companies, especially Automobile industry. Most of these Japanese production philosophies heavily banked up on the repeatability of the job being carried out.

The star of the Japanese production philosophy is none other than TOYOTA. Many people celebrated its success and competitors envied. Industries outside of car manufacturing also started thinking about implementing same / similar philosophies in their production facilities.Many companies successfully implemented these techniques and benefited.

It was then, Mr.Lauri Koskela a researcher at VTT building technology-Finland , came up with an idea of extending the much celebrated ‘Japanese Production Philosophies’ into rather ‘unorganized’ construction industry in a seminar which was presented in 1999-2000 period.

He argued that the conventional construction project management is useless / insufficient and the CPM / networking methodologies do not represent the actual work. Major argument used by him in defense of the much established network scheduling based on CPM was , it does not cover many sub activities like waiting, moving and checking which consume considerable amount of manhours. 90% of the paper Mr.Koskela is talking about the definition and evolution of Japanese productions philosophies (JIT, TQC,TQM, Continuous improvement ..etc) in the manufacturing industry. Towards middle of the paper he is starting to talk about the construction industry and possibilities of implementing the Japanese productions philosophies in that.

I am not going in-depth review of his paper, which you may access online.
How ever this paper attracted huge attention in the industry and resulted in the origin or a new terminology ‘Lean construction’!

This gave birth to a new organization ‘Lean Construction Institute’ , a non-profit research organization in 1997. The founders were Mr.Glenn Ballard and Mr. Greg Howell who are considered to be pioneers in this philosophy.

LCI has generally been observed as a critic to, much established PMI (Project Management Institute). How ever, while PMI is being aggressively engaged in spreading its philosophies globally through creation of standards, education and certification, LCI is yet to make a good impact in the construction industry.

Generally all will agree to the fact that ,certain facets of Japanese production philosophies are directly applicable anywhere, which includes good house keeping and reduction of waste (Time & resources). But scrapping the age old project management philosophies followed in construction along with much established CPM –networking method does not seem to be very easy unless the ‘Lean Camp’ is able to convince construction professionals with the shortcomings of the existing methodologies.

So , where I am standing in the debate ?

Well, I feel the ‘Lean’ methodology is more ‘Micro planning’. Typically the number of activities involved in a construction project of decent size is millions! Spending time on tweaking & optimizing each is nearly impossible. Good hygiene & 5S can be implemented at site. Supervisors can be instructed to plan their activities in more detail in such a way that labour & tools are not idle. Changing the lay out is not very easy since it s ever changing in the construction scenario and the same sequence or ‘cycle of operations’ are not repeated. In construction, at one place, a series of activities happen only once. An area is set up, equipments are installed, piping is connected and other commissioning activities are followed. This area is not again empty for repeating the task. Scope change is also very common phenomena in construction projects. This is because of the fact that micro engineering is not a viable option in construction projects. As the project is progressed changes can be made if it is favorable to the end product.

Each project is unique even if it is a similar kind of plant/facility built before. This is due to the fact that environmental factors changes from project to project. Managers, engineer and labours involved, location, technology, funding, local community influence, government regulations..etc varies from project to project. While millions of identical cars are produced in a car factory, even the leading construction companies might not have done more than 100 projects of similar kind! All these facts write off the possibility of ‘optimizing the flow process’ as done in manufacturing. The only thing can be done is strict supervision and better day to day & weekly planning.

I strongly feel that we should not adapt to some new philosophy in construction just because it was successful in bulk manufacturing. More and more structured planning (Top down approach or ‘progressive elaboration’). That is what we need to enhance in the construction project management. Supervisors are to be equipped with PM concepts and should be able to plan their activities. Also people working in the construction industry are to be more cost oriented apart from being quality & safety conscious. Each and every action must be viewed in a ‘cost’ angle as well. An idle tool or employee is loss of money. Rework will disturb schedule and eventually pull profit down.

It is impossible to define optimized set of actions for construction projects as in manufacturing. We can adopt a philosophy of reducing waste and implementing good house keeping hence reduce idle time and improve safety. It’s all about creating a positive mindset among those who work at site!

Hey pharaohs of Lean please don’t scare poor construction professionals with ‘Hi-Fi’ buzz words. They are working hard and fighting with the harsh environment to make dreams real. They don’t have the security and comfort of a modern machine shop. They are stressed since they have to satisfy the needs of people, technology schedule, cost, quality and safety! Please don’t do ‘Time-motion’ study on them! You may be damaging the ‘Big-Picture’ by doing that!

(The views expressed in this blog are absolutely personal opinions and terminologies used are properties of respective trademark and registration owners. The objective of this article is to have a constructive criticism of Lean Construction philosophy with a stint of humor.You are free to post comments no matter you agree or disagree with my views!)

Lean Construction Institute (LCI) : http://www.leanconstruction.org/
Wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_Construction
Lauri Kosklea : Application of new production philosophy to construction

Image courtesy  : http://www.onlineweblibrary.com/


  1. Interesting topic.
    Keep up the good work
    I use most of the things discussed in my professional life.


  2. Thank you Sharat..
    Keep visiting and keep the discussions alive.


  3. Interesting, Sreejith!

    However my agreement with some points, I am sure that, as a philosophy, Lean can offer more than just house keeping or waste elimination to the construction sector.

    Fernando Heinke

  4. Hi Sreejith,

    I'm a little confused after reading this.. or in fact, I think maybe you are the one who is a little confused.. No offence! Your oppinions are good and I totally agree with them, but for me it seems that your ideas already are a part of Lean Construction.
    F. ex. you say, "The only thing can be done is strict supervision and better day to day & weekly planning", isn't this covered in Lean Construction via the Last Planner System?

    Looking forward for your reply.



  5. I am a masters degree student in Quality, can any body please give me any suggestions for recommendations and conclusions on the quality factors that contribute to the generation of construction waste. What Quality improvement tools can I use? JIT or lean construction? Regards Caron

  6. I really enjoyed this Sreejith...seeing how you took a Forceful application of JIT and TQC niche and made it into a viable business...awesome. Thanks for sharing!

    Lean Construction


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