Lean Construction – Not just for fair weather projects

In line with number two of the five lean spirits “Do it now, no excuses!”, there will never be a perfect project to apply lean. 6ix have encountered many occasions when customers have professed that they need to find a suitable project to apply lean and some have commented that certain projects are not suitable as they are too complex and plagued with issues.

“Suitable” projects, with the usual bit of clients changes, design issues, bad weather, not the best quality sub-contractors, etc. can relatively easily be overcome with a dash of collaborative planning, a touch of the visual workplace (VM & 5C) and some sprinkling of problem solving if and when necessary. Having adopted lean, these projects will usually be delivered better or within the predicted programme and client requirements.

What about “complex” projects that are plagued with issues, where the end date and cost is not in sight? In a greater scale, the likes of Millennium Dome, Channel Tunnel, Wembley Stadium etc.

It is projects that are complex and plagued with issues that will benefit most from applying lean. With complex projects, sometimes the objectives may not be to deliver on time, adhere to budget and to the requested quality but to minimize loss and manage risks.

Complex projects have many interrelated variables where management of the process is not over a single moment but over time. Their processes are not transparent and we cannot see all we want to see and neither can we know or see all the inter-relations between all the variables.  With the project plan being uncertain and ‘events’ leading to outcomes different from the originally intent; without collaboration, detailed interrogation of the value chain, management of flow chaos can ensue.

How can lean help? 

There are many debates as to which are actual lean tools or not. For example, brainstorming, problem solving, process mapping etc. These are hard tools and techniques, which from a lean point of view does not matter if it is a lean tool or not. Lean advocates the search for the right tools and techniques required for the situation to achieve right first time. What lean differs from others, is the philosophy and as importantly the structure and methodology to adopting fit for purpose tools and techniques.

Most construction projects are heuristically managed. On even the most efficient construction projects that adopt a whole host of very good tools and techniques (or a strong bullish PM), there are many that lack the structure, methodology or logic of application. These projects can still have very good outcomes, but they may be missing out on great. However, most will just be contented if it didn’t go too bad.

Complex projects are characterised by high volumes of information generated by project complexity and task interdependence. Without a structure or methodology as a framework, team fragmentation, poor decisions/prioritisation, errors and degrading communications can accumulate resulting in additional coordination and rework down the line resulting in project disorder and confusion. This in turn affects the morale and motivation of the project team.

Lean construction provides the structure and methodology required to harness the best of the situation and its unique visual workplace toolset provides a way of communicating the plan, the project status, team and team member performance in a range of project critical areas.

The next blog will dwell on ways lean construction methodology is applicable to “complex” projects.