Lean construction—from dissertation to real life practice

Robert Young
For undergraduate surveyors, the dissertation is a great opportunity to explore an interest further—and lean construction practices is a very timely topic.

When I started my career in the built environment as an apprentice electrician, I did not envisage that one day I’d be doing a university degree and working late into the nights on a lengthy dissertation. After my apprenticeship, I worked in offshore wind development as a maintenance and inspection technician, followed by a year at college doing an HNC in Engineering Systems Management.

I knew I wanted to move into project management so I was pleased to secure a position as a trainee project manager at Faithful+Gould in 2015. My previous experience is proving useful, and skills from my HNC have allowed me direct entry into the second year of my Construction Management degree at Glasgow Caledonian University. It is a great if challenging experience, and Faithful+Gould has supported me with study leave. 

My Dissertation

The title is Identifying obstacles & proposing a strategy to enable the successful implementation of lean construction practices in the UK. I defined lean construction as a technique which identifies and removes unnecessary waste/steps from a construction activity, to reduce cost and improve quality. Lean principles can be applied to any construction process, including design, installation, maintenance and the management of projects.

This is an area that I became interested in when I was working offshore. My first-hand experiences of the efficiencies gained when Siemens introduced lean working practices to the project I was involved with really stood out to me. Other countries register considerable benefits when lean practices are introduced into their built environment industries, yet the UK uptake has been limited.

My dissertation reviews the literature and included primary research— including questionnaires completed by 60 professional services respondents. I discovered that, despite the benefits, the UK is hindered by deep-rooted misconceptions around lean practices, a lack of training and a lack of understanding of how lean principles can be applied to construction projects.

Faithful+Gould and Lean Practices

Here at Faithful+Gould, we typically seen lean practices used most when our client has a lean approach to their own core business—these are often manufacturing or energy clients. However, our in-house lean working group reports growing interest from other sectors, and I predict that we will see a future shift towards a new form of project management for appropriate projects. Greater standardisation, not only in techniques, but also supply chain, communications and project delivery/administration, will drive greater efficiency and bring cost/time savings into the project delivery.

The key to Lean Construction

Lean project management challenges the belief that there must be a trade-off between time, cost and quality and I’m keen for this ethos to permeate our industry. We should also value the way the lean approach tracks items which are not completed well, allowing a root cause analysis to be undertaken—and subsequent improvements in processes or policies.

Key differences between lean construction and other forms of project management:

  • Control is redefined from "monitoring results" to "making things happen." Planning system performance is measured and improved to assure reliable workflow and predictable project outcomes.
  • Performance is maximising value and minimizing waste at the project level—rather than optimising each activity and thus reducing total performance.
  • Project Delivery is the simultaneous design of the facility and its production process. This is concurrent engineering, avoiding a sequential process unable to prevent wasteful iterations.
  • Value to the customer is defined, created and delivered throughout the life of the project—not just at the outset—, taking account of changing markets, technology and business practices.
  • Coordinating action through pulling and continuous flow, as opposed to traditional schedule-driven push with its over-reliance on central authority and project schedules to manage resources and coordinate work.
  • Decentralising decision-making through transparency and empowerment. Providing project participants with information on the state of the production systems and empowering them to take action.

My current work with the University of Glasgow’s campus development has given me very useful experience of lean methods. On this programme, the contractor Multiplex and their subcontractors utilise just-in-time materials delivery, off-site manufacturing, enhanced monitoring of defects, and motion monitoring/hook-time analysis (eliminating unnecessary movement of cranes/materials. My July graduation will be the culmination of four years’ study and something to celebrate. In many ways it’s a beginning too, as I’m keen to put my dissertation thoughts into practice as an assistant project manager, and incorporate lean construction into as much of my work as possible. I’d like to encourage my clients to reap the benefits.

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