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October 19, 2022

Many of us have likely heard the quote – “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

?By using lean principles to sharpen our metaphorical ax, we can effectively and efficiently execute a construction project, deliver it on time, within budget and minimize waste and rework.

Whether you are an astute practitioner of lean or early on in your journey, lean planning is a philosophy that can be applied to managing any organization or project. 
Fundamentals of lean
Fundamentally, the lean ideal is to give customers, both internal and external, precisely what they need when they need it to accomplish their purpose with no waste.

Customers can be both upstream or downstream, external or internal or end users.

It’s a good idea to consider managing the whole client, not just the next step in a process.

By taking a holistic view of what we need to deliver and to whom, we can ensure that we precisely provide the right deliverable to keep a project flowing.

While construction is not a continuously moving assembly line, and every construction project is unique based on location and specifications, flow is typically critical to the success of a project.

When a project experiences a blockage in flow, it can result in waste.

In its basic form, waste is anything associated with a cost, whether monetary, material, time or even stress.

If the goal is to give customers exactly what they need when they need it to accomplish their purpose, there should be no waste.
Preconstruction planning + BIM
This is where it gets exciting.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) and cross-functional teams collaborating during the preconstruction process seems to be changing the construction industry and how we plan.

Historically, blueprints were two-dimensional graphics printed on massive rolls of paper.

When it was time for trades to be onsite and install mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems, often there would be disagreements over which trade went first, leaving a higher risk for clashes, rework and waste.

Today, most use 3D digital models that are updated in real-time.

These interactive 3D digital models allow us to look at every part of the project individually with precise measurements, and as a result, we can identify clashes that would cause rework, RFIs (request for information), wasted product and lost time before they ever happen.

Furthermore, we can sequence schedules to ensure each trade has exactly what they need when they need it.
Phased master schedule + pull planning
By creating a phased master schedule, we can help ensure work is performed in the correct sequence at the right pace, so the next scheduled task is ready to be executed.

Pull planning is a lean practice that works backward – from a target completion date or milestone.

By working backward, tasks can be defined and sequenced so their completion releases work for the next phase in a project.
Pull scheduling will often expose the need for smaller batches, just-in-time delivery, improved leveling of resources and reduced lead times.

This can create a reliable workflow and can keep the project cycle moving.

However, lean goes beyond creating a phased master schedule.

A pivotal element of lean is engagement from all stakeholders throughout the construction life cycle.

Collaboration ensures each team member plays an active role in innovation, continuous improvement and waste elimination.
Network of commitments
A common misconception about lean is that it is solely about reducing waste.

While waste reduction is a key focus of lean, it is not the only objective.

Lean principles focus on generating value and increasing benefits through innovation, which can be made possible when all stakeholders collaborate, respect each other, focus on flow and optimize the whole project.

When stakeholders have mutual respect and shared experiences, they can build a network of commitments.

Relationships are then formed within a project and can add an immeasurable amount of value to the success of a project.

After all, it is easier to miss a deadline to a faceless schedule than to miss a deadline for someone you’ve committed to.
Value generation = innovation
When cross-functional teams are involved throughout the construction lifecycle, various scenarios can be evaluated to determine which approach generates the most value.

Project innovation can range from physical building design elements, such as orientation or density to functional material selection or incorporation of prefabrication.

In return, value is created by applying novel solutions to challenges encountered on a project.
Cycle of continuous improvement 
Rooted in a continuous improvement cycle, lean is a constant flow of planning, executing, evaluating, responding and repeating.
When carried out, value for the customer can be generated while simultaneously eliminating waste.

When teams focus on continuous improvement, projects can be collaboratively managed and delivered on time and within budget while minimizing waste and rework.

So, the next time you have a project you are working on, ask yourself if there are opportunities to sharpen your ax before striking and apply a lean principle or two.

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