On-Site Magazine

Lean Construction: Getting past the silos

By Jacob Stoller   

Construction Infrastructure Labour Risk Management Skills Development

It’s still unfamiliar territory for most firms, but Lean construction may be the solution as projects get more complex and owners demand better dialogue between stakeholders. PHOTO: Getty Images

Toronto’s Humber River Hospital, completed in 2015, is an award-winning facility featuring fully integrated digital infrastructure, compliance with LEED, a natural people-friendly environment and floor layouts that support Lean workflows.

What’s not immediately obvious is the project’s diverse input from stakeholders including community members, healthcare workers, environmental experts, as well as a wide range of engineers and other technical specialists.

Creating this degree of dialogue is a key strength of Lean construction, which Edmonton-based PCL Constructors employed on the project. The building strategy is now a focus for the company.
“Lean is looking at the entire value stream from the perspective of the owners, the users, and the occupants,” says Chris Gower, chief operating officer of Buildings at PCL. “It’s about being respectful of everybody’s position at each of the different stages.”

Lean was pioneered in the 1950s by Toyota, which, in the dire circumstances of post-Second World War Japan, needed to substantially increase output with very limited resources.


What Toyota ultimately developed was a revolutionary way of organizing work based on eliminating waste and building a culture of continuous improvement. The approach was so successful that it led to Japan’s stunning industrial turnaround and is now practiced globally in virtually every sector, including healthcare, hospitality and government.

Construction, however, has been late to the game, in part because of the way the industry is structured. “The impediment in the construction marketplace,” Gower says, “is that we aren’t in control of all aspects of any projects, with architects, engineers, suppliers, subcontractors, and the like. I think one of the reasons why Lean is so slow to be adopted in construction is that we are so fragmented.”

Adapting Lean for Construction

A central tool of Lean construction is a scheduling method called Last Planner, which was developed in the 1980s by the Lean Construction Institute, a global non-profit corporation dedicated to promoting Lean practices. The approach provides a framework for collaboration among general contractors and trades based on mutual accountability.

In construction, for example, a drywaller is accountable to the painter, because delays or quality problems with the drywalling can disrupt the painter’s work. So, the painter is referred to as the drywaller’s customer.

Last Planner works backwards from the completion date to day one, with the finishing date of each phase determined by the requirements of the phase that follows it. Time frames are not dictated by the GC, but are established by consensus in planning meetings where all players are required to be present.

During construction, all of the on-site players participate in daily in-person meetings that last 20 to 30 minutes. Here, progress is reviewed and problems resolved.

The approach requires a significant time investment, but contractors find that it consistently pays off. “When a scheduler suggested this to me back in 2009, it seemed ridiculous at the time to have a meeting a day when we already didn’t have enough time,” says Wayne Leduc, director of operations for the Mission Critical & Pharmaceutical Sector at Toronto-based EllisDon. “But I agreed to try it on the next project, and I found that it really saved me time.”

These time savings often come from eliminating re-work, such as adjusting schedules and activity whenever something goes wrong. “Rather than chasing people all the time,” Leduc says, “they come to you every day for 20 to 30 minutes, and you have their total attention. Then you’re coordinating them in that room. So it’s streamlining the process, and then there’s collaboration on their part, and they become bought into the program.”

The approach calls for the GC to step back from the enforcer role. “You need to be able to promote that collaborative conversation so you’re not hammering them every time they falter,” says George McGrath, superintendent at Mission Critical & Pharmaceutical Sector for EllisDon. “So you’re all working as a team to get the project done.”

“We’re leading the way, but the trades are telling us what they’re going to do,” Leduc says. “They’re also bringing up the roadblocks for them — things they need us to remove. So they have a total say in the meetings.”

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the approach is that it creates an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. “Step one of Lean is it forces people to be in a room together and solve problems,” says Justin Bova, CEO of Winnipeg-based contractor Pretium Projects, which specializes in Lean construction. “That increases teamwork, morale, and project momentum.”

“I tell the trades, ‘The GC’s not your client. It’s the guy behind you. If you’re the drywaller and your walls have pockmarks or aren’t level, he can’t do a good paint job, so he spends hours that weren’t included in the budget to fix your problems.’”

Although it takes some convincing to get trades on board, those who have worked with Last Planner see the process positively. “Trades love it,” Leduc says. “If you roll it out properly, train the trades, run the meetings, let them collaborate, and let them be part owner in the meeting, they totally support it.”

Industry trends

In 2015, the Canadian Construction Association established the Lean Construction Institute of Canada to promote higher productivity through Lean practices. The institute now hosts an annual conference and supports practice communities across the country.

One of the major drivers for Lean construction has been the growing number of Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) projects, where designers, engineers, and constructors are bound by a contractual agreement to collaborate throughout the planning and building process.

“Lean construction has been attractive for quite a few years,” says Eric Lee, vice-president of Industry Practices with CCA. “Lately with IPD, it’s become a central focus for our members. That’s the reason why it’s an issue we want to be on top of.”

That said, Lee cautions against confusing the two. “I think there is a misconception that Lean is only applicable for IPD. Lean construction is an important element of IPD, but any project can benefit from Lean construction principles.”

Another important distinction is that Lean’s “big room” approach creates an inter-dynamic that is very different from what is achieved through the deployment of Building Information Modeling (BIM) systems.

“The emphasis with BIM tends to be on highlighting discrepancies, errors and omissions in drawings,” Bova says. “BIM is a wonderful tool, but it can create adversarial situations as opposed to collaboration.”

“The benefit of the big room is that it forces human beings — the experts, the trade foremen — to work on the problem together. We need to work around things, and sometimes having a chat is better than critiquing every square inch of the building.”

Building a lean culture

Collaborative projects that employ Last Planner are a welcome change from the status quo, but they are only one aspect of Lean’s potential to improve a construction company’s operations. When adopted across the enterprise, Lean creates a culture of continuous improvement that can transform work and management practices in every functional area of the business.
“Lean involves a cultural change, and you can’t force that,” Lee says. “It has to be willingly adopted within the organization.”

PCL began experimenting with Lean a decade ago and has now embarked on a journey to take the principles corporate-wide. “In the past few years, we’ve made it a strategic initiative to implement Lean more consistently across all of our operations,” Gower says.

Rather than forcing people to use various Lean tools, the company promotes a general awareness of Lean principles, and then provides training resources and communications platforms to make it easy for local offices to acquire and share knowledge and techniques.

“It’s much easier to change and introduce new concepts when people see the value in it themselves,” Gower says.

While the field is the primary focus, the company is also applying Lean to in-house processes such as RFP responses, accounting procedures and the implementation of new technology.
Will owners step up?

Lean construction requires owners to depart from the traditional methods of tendering work. This remains a sticking point.

“The adversarial relationships on a project really begin with the promises contractors feel they have to make to get the job in the first place,” says Larry Coté, president of Lansdowne, Ont.-based Lean Advisors.

“We need the buy-in from owners,” says Helen Zhuang, a professor at the Angelo DelZotto School of Construction Management at Toronto-based George Brown College. “They should consider more investment in pre-project planning to obtain the full value of Lean construction.”

The benefits of the Lean approach, however, are tough to quantify. “In a manufacturing facility where everything’s highly contained and repeatable, it’s easy to measure,” Gower says, “but building a hospital in North Bay is not the same thing as building a hospital in Orlando, so it’s hard to judge one against the other.”
That will likely change as the evidence grows.

In the meantime, contractors who practice Lean will have to be content with the oldest persuasion method in the books: delivering excellent value to clients and letting the results of their work do the talking.


This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of On-Site. You can read through the complete issue here.


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