Lean Construction – Efficiency AND Efficacy

iStock_000004904224MediumLean Construction – Efficiency AND Efficacy

Newton’s second law of motion states that ‘A body will stay at rest or in a constant line of motion until a resultant force acts upon it’, i.e. force applied to a mass will change its speed and / or direction.

In other words, if you want to get something accelerating in a particular direction, then the size of the force you apply, the time in which you spend applying that force and importantly the direction of that force will determine the future direction of the ‘body’.

Well Newton’s second law could have been written to apply to Lean Transformation! For effective continuous improvement and waste elimination, it is not merely about how hard you work at it, but as importantly, where that effort is applied. A very common problem, when considering lean construction is to concentrate on making things as efficient as possible i.e. ability to do something well without a waste of time or money. This can on many occasions lead to huge efforts to making a wasteful process more efficient.

Some times, more effort and time needs to be allocated to systems and root cause analysis to achieve overall efficacy i.e. effectiveness for long term and sustainable improvements. With this in mind, the diagnostics phase of any improvement projects should not be rushed, foreshorten, bodged or compromised; this is a real risk in an Industry that is always eager to get to the “doing” bit.

Without the science and giving more thought to efficacy of efforts invested, there is a good chance that the industry will remain in the “doing” mode making recurring issues more tolerable.

Careful thought given to identifying the key issues, then application of targeted improvements, can be far more efficacious; even a large oil tanker with a small force applied in the right direction will eventually change course!



Common Misconceptions Construction Managers have about Lean

Of course this could work if every job we did was the same, you know, like they have in manufacturing, but all our projects are different” —   A.Projectmanager

“Well you know, we have lots of peaks and troughs in our workload, feast and famine, sometimes we don’t have enough staff and other times there is not enough to do and we have guys sitting around, I can see how this lean stuff might work when you have a predictable workload, but it wouldn’t work here” —– A.Director

These are the kind of statements we hear all the time and are representative of some of the most common misconceptions about lean thinking.

In construction, there appears to be a perception that all manufacturing is lean. Also that manufacturing is totally predictable and simple, with essentially identical repetitive tasks taking place and so “of course you could do lean” under these circumstances.

Lets look at some of these common perceptions surrounding lean, manufacturing and construction.

Perception 1.

Manufacturing is Lean.

Wrong! – should read:- Some exemplars in the manufacturing sector are Lean but there are very many companies that are far from it!


Perception 2.

Manufacturing is simple compared to construction

I once visited Rolls Royce in Glasgow. This factory makes a few rubber seals and some small high tech pieces of metal called stators that form the outer ring of a jet engine. The factory is about a mile long and contains machines as big as houses, all very high tech. The startling fact is that this is only one of seven factories across the UK that are needed to make just a jet engine, let alone the rest of an airliner. – Really simple then!


Perception 3.

Offsite is lean isn’t it?

Oh no it isn’t! – it just happens somewhere else!


Perception 4.

Lean means doing BIM doesn’t it?

Well it depends what BIM is nowadays. It started off as 3D cad. Well it’s certainly lean to be able to visualise process. However there were exemplars of lean in existence in the 1980’s, about the era of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, so no 3D cad back then. The new PAS 1192 calls for collaboration and joined up thinking in the design process and this is BIM. Isn’t this evident in a lean organisation anyway? Trying to mandate collaboration may be akin to herding cats.


Perception 5.

Lean doesn’t suit bespoke projects like ours.

This is maybe one of the most prevalent. The idea that lean will only work when you have stable and repeatable tasks that is. Actually the opposite is true. The real key to lean is flexibility and the ability to adjust very quickly to changing conditions. This includes being able to easily flex the workforce by 30% to cope with varying demand, multi-skilling, having processes that are transparent and visually managed so that the thread can easily be picked up by a colleague or anyone else involved when necessary.

Leadership and Management – Which one is more important in a lean construction?

Is there a difference between leadership and management? Many will say “yes, huge difference”, if so, why do most lean construction improvement projects lose momentum, not follow through, not achieve longer term benefits or sustain changes? According to a McKinsey report, 70% change programmes fail in some way.

Good leadership is required on all levels. But what differentiates leading from managing? A few collated answers from companies and peers clears the picture and stimulates personal debate on whether we, as individuals or companies, are managers or leaders, a bit of both or more so one than the other?

  • Managers have subordinates while a leader have followers (following being a voluntary action)
  • Leaders have vision while managers have objectives
  • Leaders gets followers to transcend self-interest for the sake of the team while managers is responsive to immediate “self-interest” (immediate dept/project/activities) if it can be met by getting the work done
  • Leaders seek change while managers seek stability
  • Leaders pave the way and sets directions while managers plans details
  • Leaders facilitates decisions while managers makes them
  • Leaders sells and induce actions while managers tell

Many people lead and manage at the same time. Leadership alone without good management will not help achieve the vision. Good management alone only allows achievement of established objectives. In the era of true innovation, only companies with a balanced proportion of good leadership and good management will be able to truly differentiate themselves in the industry.

6ix has and is now working with hundreds of companies and projects. With increasing demand for lean thinking in the industry, we can now, to put it bluntly, identify the wheat from the chaff. With experience we are now able to identify companies that have leadership and management, lacks leadership but have good management, have leadership but lacks good management, lacks leadership and lacks good management (with variable gradient dependent on company as a whole or individuals). So, what makes a good company (macro view) or project (micro view)?

We want and need leadership qualities in all levels of the company. Most people when asked who the leaders are, more often than not the reply will be “higher ranking” people, not understanding that we are all leaders individually on all levels. From a simplistic point of view, we need leadership from Director level to make decisions to implementing change, we need leadership in upper and middle management to pave the way to make changes and we need leadership in lower management to sell and action the changes. We need the people we come into contact with during activities, whether it’s business or construction processes, to have the vision, to facilitate decisions, to set directions, to seek change, to challenge or sell ideas and close actions i.e. lean doing. Lacking in good management? No problem, we have tools and techniques for that. Leadership however, requires fostering. The culture of the company and its supply chain, is dictated by the people working within it. Leadership is borne from individuals at all levels.

01/00/1998. File pictures of Mahatma Gandhi

“We must become the change we want to see” – Gandhi.

In a nutshell, good management is good enough for short-term gains but leadership is critical to longer-term sustainability of improvement and change. Most of us (the managers in us) believe we already “are the change”, we already “are good leaders”. Hence critical self-analysis is vital to continually moving us from good managers to great leaders with good management skills.

Goals versus Lean Doing

We all want to have successful businesses and projects. To do this, good practice dictates that we start by setting SMART goals. This is an absolutely sensible approach for life in general but what if we look at things a bit differently? It is as, if not more, important to focus on getting good systems of processes in place to get things done i.e. Lean Doing.

Hypothetically, if one completely ignored the goals and focused only on the system of processes, would one still get results?

If you are a business owner, your goal is to build a million pound business and your system to do so is your marketing and delivery process. If you ignored your goal (not, not have one) and focused on what your team does to sell and deliver, would you still get results? I believe you would.

This concept is similar to keeping a diary and realising after a few eventful years of your life that you have enough for a bestselling book. This is without setting out to write a book, which will have been a totally different journey. Your sole focus was on diary entries each day, every day and not a book in the end. Just thinking about the amounts required to fill a book will stress one out even before one has begun.

Sometimes, goals can be counteractive to longer-term advancement. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it…or not achieve? Set even higher and tougher goals, when achievements has been attained or try harder, if not achieved. This contributes to huge motivational issues and the type of cycle that makes it difficult to further pursue progress for the long-term. This is a huge factor in many failed “initiatives”. Stopping the need for immediate results helps. Sometimes it is not about hitting a specific number but more about sticking to the process, a longer-term approach.

So, instead of just focusing on delivering the project on time and on budget, one concentrates on Lean Doing; putting things in place to deliver a good project e.g. strict adherence to look-aheads, weekly planning sessions, up-to-date procurement programmes in line with build sequences etc., and more often then not will one deliver on time with goal attainment to follow.

Goals are good for formation of progress but commitment to a good system of processes is good for actually making progress.

Goals can provide direction and goad you forward within a short time frame, but eventually a well-designed system of processes will always prevail. Having this system is vital and commitment to its processes is what will make the difference. Discipline and continuous improvement is the name of the game.

Visual Management cracks the Wall

Visual management is often proposed as one of fundamental tools in the philosophy of lean thinking and the successful use of visual management as one of the key differentiators of lean thinking over other improvement methodologies. Yet when lean thinking is applied to the construction environment does anyone really understand the concept of the visual workplace?

There are some very profound definitions for what we mean by visual management but for me its what we use at 6ix, “A signal that needs no interpretation and provokes a response”.

The term visual management for me can be split into the two areas of visual controls and visual displays. Visual controls are the signals that assist the delivery teams in clearly establishing their performance status and identifying any abnormalities that need to be addressed, coded in a way that expresses urgency. Visual displays are the signals that allow the teams to track and analyse their performance and improvement activity and communicate this to wider business units.

I have been fortunate to have spent many years working in manufacturing supply chains and have witnessed first hand how simple visual signals can out-shine complex computer planning systems and empower workforces to take control and ownership of their production environments, leading to higher performing teams enjoying greatly enhanced job satisfaction. Yes I have often endured the endless factory tours, which focus on huge team boards with endless graphs of production performance and team skills matrices. But I have also been privileged, often in small businesses, to witness how teams have visualised their workplaces to meet their customer needs, on time and every time. Simple max/min lines, clear stock identification areas, kanban signals, effective shadow boarding, I have witnessed as powerful signals to enable work teams to understand and control their production outputs and the demands of their ‘next customer’. These control signals allow production to flow with limited reference to higher management and interpretation of complex computer outputs.

To date my observations of visual management in construction have been mainly of visual displays, mostly boards showing out of date gantt charts and KPI’s that nobody responds too. More often than not these KPi’s focus on health and safety and waste management issues with little on reporting on QCD performance. Displaying team performance is taboo in an un-collaborative construction environment and the priorities advocated in PAS1192 and the Construction Strategy 2025 need to be taken on board by all if we are to progress here. If we are to make advances in lean thinking in construction then we need to develop visual control that will support design development and construction activities and will provide the transparency needed for construction teams to become high performing.

Professional football has for some time presented visual displays of team and individual performances for us all to discuss; league position, yards run, goals per game, shots scored within the box etc. However at the world cup in Brazil this year we were all able to witness how a simple visual control can overcome a perennial abnormal situation. The results are extraordinary. The introduction of the ‘vanishing spray’ appears to have virtually eliminated all issues in getting the wall at a free kick back 10 yards.


Remember the problems and frustrations for us the viewer:

  • Walls creeping forward when the referee moved away
  • The kicker moving the ball ever closer to the goal when the referee turned away
  • Kicks being taken and sometimes blocked when the wall was never anywhere near 10 yards
  • Free kicks often being retaken
  • Undermining of the referees authority
  • Delays to the flow of the game
  • Opportunities for confrontations between players

With a simple can of vanishing spray so many issues and abnormalities were eliminated from the game and are now I see being adopted in the British Premier League. The dramatic antics of the professional footballers seem to have been cured by a simple can of spray and a line on the floor. No more fights and yellow cards.

Well done FIFA or whoever introduced the idea. Unfortunately it was not 6ix. However it is a real life endorsement of what we preach and what we challenge construction teams to consider. Visual displays are great and important but it’s the visual controls that drive the real improvements.

BIM is NOT about 3D Modelling Software but about Collaboration and Lean Processes.

BIM is not just about 3D Modelling; it represents a far more fundamental reform of our approach to the built environment and has its origins in the now 20-year-old Latham Report “Constructing the Team”.

Some of the key recommendations from Latham include:

  • A checklist of design responsibilities should be prepared.
  • The use of coordinated project information should be a contractual requirement.
  • The responsibilities for building services design should be clearly defined.
  • A set of basic principles is required on which modern contract should be based.
  • A complete family of interlocking contractual documents is required.
  • The role and duties of the project manager to be more clearly defined.

These recommendations have been taken forward in the Government Strategy 2011 and underpin the definition of a BIM Level 2 environment, as set out in PAS1192-2.

Information Management in a common data environment offers the opportunity and mechanism to improve collaboration and eliminate design defects at the point of information production.

PAS 1192-2, soon to be the International Standard (ISO), sets out the requirements for Level 2 BIM and, deliberately it seems, hardly mentions BIM or 3D modelling but instead focuses heavily on lean processes, collaboration, robust design, information management and a clear definition of the design development process and stages.

Businesses and clients that focus only on software training and investment will find that they will not meet the BIM Level 2 standard and will indeed not meet the Government objectives to reduce cost through elimination of defect waste by 20%.

Arguably, far more important than investment in the latest 3D modelling software is for designers and contractor businesses to undertake a realignment of their own business processes to meet the requirements of PAS1192-2.

The real challenge in delivering Level 2 is in the up skilling of all key staff. There will be a requirement to fulfil newly defined roles, staff will require training to understand their own responsibilities in a BIM environment, in addition to also understanding the obligations and expectations they should have of other team members; this will be critical in successful implementation of BIM Level 2. The biggest challenge to all is that of “constructing the team” to truly and effectively collaborate; collaboration will need to be the ethos of all in the process and not just a ‘buzz’ word or the philosophy of the select few.

Without true collaboration and a rigid adherence to the processes set out in PAS1192-2 the ability of the construction industry to deliver better value will not be realised; there is in fact a genuine risk of waste increasing if processes aren’t followed as companies invest more time in the ‘wrong things’ and reduce value added work undertaken with available resource.

Collaboration and robust information management offers a golden opportunity for the UK Construction Industry to bring the reforms identified by Latham and Egan to fruition and to revolutionise the procurement, design, construction and operation of our built environment.

The parallels of Aviation advances in teamwork with UK Construction

“The moment a flock of Canada geese hit the aircraft and we were forced to land US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, on January 15, 2009, I knew that my life would change forever…” These are the opening lines in the foreword to a fascinating book entitled ‘Beyond the Checklist – What else health care can learn from aviation teamwork and safety’. Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger introduces the book and its concepts of crew resource management (CRM) and its application to the health care sector. What is also obvious when reading this book are the parallels in the teamwork dynamics within aviation, healthcare (the intended topic) and the UK construction sector.


The authors of the book point out that it was a taught approach to teamwork that enabled the crew, which included pilot, first officer and three flight attendants, to land on the Hudson River that frigid January day and then safely evacuate 150 passengers without a life-threatening injury or fatality. There was a method behind this “miracle”, largely as a result of changes to aviation industry practices relating to teamwork, communication and co-operation among all members of the crew, regardless of rank or job responsibility.

Captain Sullenberger continues, “ Not long ago, there were captains in our cockpit who acted like gods… you questioned the captain’s authority at your own peril.” I think that we can all recall sites where the same is true of site managers or agents and the tense atmosphere that often results. Construction still largely remains the domain of testosterone and getting the job done, and I know best how that’s going to be done! The result is, that according to industry statistics this approach delivers 50% of projects land on time and 50% on budget (UK Industry performance report produced by the department for business, innovation and skills).

Aviation is now heralded as the safest form of transport, it is now considerably safer to fly in an airplane at 36,000 feet than drive a car at sea level. This has not always been the case and on December 29, 1972 eastern Airlines Flight 401 carrying 176 passengers and crew on board crashed resulting in 101 fatalities due to a burned out landing gear light. The crew inadvertently put the plane into a very slow shallow decent and eventually crashed in the Florida Everglades. This was despite air traffic controllers recognizing that the plane was going to hit the ground but only vaguely asking, “How’s it goin’ out there, Eastern?” The same question could be asked of the trades working on sites where they know that things are not progressing as they should but are unable to make changes to affect the outcome.

The advances in aviation safety has taken place over many years and decades and beyond the checklist argues that CRM has played an integral part in this. It considers the major building blocks and its application to healthcare but I wonder whether the same could be applied to construction. I have paraphrased these concepts outlined in the book and, although there is still much to be done to convert aviation CRM to better construction team performance I feel there may be something in it…

  • The captain is not king – and neither is the site manager?
  • Knowing the team – how many names of the people on site do we know?
  • Conducting appropriate briefings – concise and inclusive or none at all?
  • Establish a common language – Is that your riser 6 which is our riser 3 or the other one?
  • Inviting participation – I would but we haven’t procured them yet and you just tell them where to go and they get on with it anyway!
  • Manage the workload – I’m sure that we can fit that in as well…
  • Admitting error and asking for help – or find someone to blame
  • Training and recurrent training – commonplace now in health & safety but little else

As always perhaps the biggest barrier to implementing a teamworking programme for construction will be money and time it takes to implement. It is worth considering however that construction projects have delivered 50% of projects on time and budget for years now with little sign of improvement. Without doing something different it is unlikely to change the opportunity for recouping any initial outlay is considerable.

BIM is a recent addition, and seen by some, as the saviour of the construction sector and no doubt it will help. Without effective teamwork however technology alone will never be the complete solution. To finish on a final quote on technology, “in terms of navigational errors, automation enables pilots to make huge navigational errors very precisely.”

The Design / Procurement Paradox

It will be widely recognised that over the last 5 years we have seen a slide back to ‘lowest cost’ dominating the procurement thinking in both Client organisations and, naturally therefore, contracting organisations.

Even for those organisations that philosophically support collaborative working, their systems and staff aren’t equipped with the tendering strategies for true collaborative working and aggressive market conditions have ultimately led to the ‘cheapest’ bid delivering most of the UK Construction Industry Work.

ProcurementParadoxThe results are clear to see in UK Construction Industry statistics, with only 34% of projects delivered on time in 2012, compared to a pre-recession high of 58% in 2007, where two stage mechanisms dominated with a relatively nurtured supply chain. (Constructing Excellence & Glenigans)

Whilst transfer of risk in a ‘buyers market’ has led to high levels of cost certainty for clients, 2012 contrastingly saw Contractor profits being the lowest on record at 2.7%, with many organisations burning the last of their cash reserves to maintain this position.

In an attempt to squeeze margins out of projects, contractors have given commercial teams aggressive buying targets.

Contractor QS, and also Client PQS, have typically used the programme time to ‘play’ the market and sought new suppliers in an attempt to drive down contractor costs.  Before placing orders the commercial teams will seek to tie down designs and transfer risk back out to their supply chains.  Reality hits when orders are placed, the appointment triggers Change and redesign to accommodate supplier needs; frequently leading to increased cost and likely delay.

Building Regulations, the sustainability agenda, consultant appointment structures, acoustic standards, changing construction technologies, air tightness demands, renewable technologies have all generated a position where the traditional design team can only progress the design so far before specialist supplier input is required to conclude the building design.

With the advent of Building Information Modelling (BIM) this demand for early specialist input will only increase if the full benefits of BIM to the construction process can be realised.

In a lean world we advocate integrated supply chains and collaborative design and planning to eliminate waste in construction through improved quality, productivity and reduced cost.

In the harsh commercial world of lowest cost tendering the opportunities are limited and the commercial pressure to buy ‘cheap’ generates two key paradoxes:

  • How can the QS get design certainty at order stage on bespoke buildings without key suppliers involved in the design?
  • How can we effectively plan the works and identify and capitalise on programme opportunities if we are mostly procuring to the “latest start time”?

It is generally accepted that the market is starting to recover and with that there are already indications of a stiffening of resolve within the supply chain, and a change in attitude with regards to whom the suppliers will work with and what projects they will price.

Lean encourages us to maximise value added activity, eliminate waste and reduce support activity.  Traditional procurement merely pushes waste and cost from the Client to the Contractor on to the Supply Chain or up the other way, dependent on demand and supply metrics in the market.  Under conventional subcontract procurement routes the Main Contractor does not care how efficient the sub contractor is as long as he is cheapest and he gets the job done on time; this approach typically increases waste as both supply chain and main contractors try to reduce cost by reducing supervision and resource rather than focusing on eliminating waste and increasing productivity. One of the key indicators is the cost of poor quality in the industry, which research indicates is at least 5% of turnover when considering both pre Completion and Post Completion defects.  Real opportunity exists to reduce cost for all by true supply chain integration.

Lean philosophy and systems thinking offer an effective framework for the UK Construction Industry to excel in meeting the industry technological and legislative challenges; this change requires energy and leadership within organisations to implement the transformations.

The creation of new procurement methodologies requires construction businesses to move away from traditional silo thinking; traditional roles such as Estimator, QS, Project Managers and Designers should be challenged and construction managers encouraged to genuinely interrogate their supply chain and their supply chain processes and staff skills.  The tendering process should be considered a genuine preconstruction activity, not merely a mechanism to get work through the door; strategic supply chain relationships and the integration of complex subcontract packages in tender design development should be common place rather than the exception.  BIM will demand this.

If Clients and Contractors are to succeed in delivering projects and generating a sustainable business and industry, new supply chain strategies will be needed and organisations need to consider carefully how they integrate the supply chain early on in the project life and develop the trust and mechanisms to ensure they get a genuine market price.  The Industry needs to up skill the team, from Client to Supplier, to acquire the necessary hard and soft skills needed to work in a genuinely open and collaborative way to compete, consistently deliver and generate profit through the supply chain.

Lean Training: The Start of a Journey

leantrainingAs an approved centre to provide NVQ in Business Improvement Techniques (BIT), we constantly debate among ourselves, how one measures the effectiveness of lean training we provide?

One common debate surrounds whether, through the “learning by doing” method, do we try to achieve a good output on a project that learners take on and out falls an NVQ? Or do we concentrate on delivering a skilled learner regardless of current project outputs?

The majority of our customer organisations want to put their staff through lean training with the objective of increasing productivity and improving project performance, with a reasonable expectation that real improvements will be realised on the current, on going project the candidates are working on.  This expectation can on occasion conflict with the timetable and the rigour of the training programme and requires the consultant to carefully balance training with project related work.  The danger of focusing on purely the project work is that the candidate has no theoretical context to relate his actions to. An important point to bear in mind however is that management development and training can be broken into two general categories: skill enhancement and behaviour change.

Lean skills and knowledge can be improved via training workshops and easily measured but behaviour change will take time to embed and presents some challenges to the candidates’ organisation post programme delivery. Training (short-term) is only a tool to achieve management development but should act as the catalyst for long term behavioural change, provided the environment persists to nurture that change after training is complete.


Measuring management development is a multifaceted task, not only because of the number of management skills and behaviours to be enhanced, but also because skill and behavioural enhancement are different. It’s important to take into consideration that behavior can only change if conditions are favorable. For example, if work conditions do not allow or make it difficult for learners to apply new knowledge, this may stifle initial enthusiasm to improve and change behaviour. Or, learners may have taken in the teachings but have no desire to apply the knowledge themselves as they perceive current status to be too daunting to proceed alone.

For a lean training and development programme to succeed, top management, who put their staff through the training, must play a large role in paving the way for the application of new skills learnt. Then, we can start measuring the effectiveness of lean training through ROI for the organisation instead of just individual projects.