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Why Lean is so important for the future of construction: interview with Professor Christine Pasquire

In its original guise, the principles of Lean production were designed to improve efficiency in car manufacturing. Now, Lean techniques have been adopted and developed by a range of industries around the world, including construction.

So, what makes Lean such an effective set of practices and what are the benefits it can offer to the construction industry? We spoke to Professor of Lean Project Management and leader of the Lean Project Production module of our Online MSc Construction Project Management, Christine Pasquire, for her expert take on this progressive philosophy-based approach.

How would you describe Lean in your words?

“To me, Lean is value driven and people-centric,” Professor Pasquire explains. “It’s about continuously delivering better quality from the customer perspective. Traditionally, construction can be very fragmented, with a whole series of contracts, sub-contracts, supplier contracts and designer contracts. But in a Lean system, there’s synchronisation and harmony across all processes.”

Lean was pioneered by Toyota for the car manufacturing sector after WW2. When was it first adapted for construction?

“The term ‘Lean construction’ was coined in 1992, after the industry realised there was something different about the way Toyota achieved quality for the customer. The International Group for Lean Construction has been running since 1993, so there’s now a huge body of theory, practical examples and case studies. There’s also a dedicated bunch of Lean construction academics and practitioners around the world.”

“Having said that, the Lean approach wasn’t really ‘adapted’ for construction, per se. It was more that the Toyota principles of Lean were incorporated into construction processes, to combine with thinking from construction itself about planning and coordinating workflow.”

What are the main benefits of the Lean philosophy for construction companies?

“The benefits are enormous. Lean can literally achieve better quality results a third quicker and a third cheaper than traditional practices. Construction companies can share and realise benefits across the entire supply chain.”

Can you give a real-world example of Lean processes in action within construction?

“Yes, absolutely. In the UK, Heathrow Terminal 5 was one of the earliest applications of the Last Planner® system (LPS), which is an underpinning and foundational approach for Lean construction,” says Professor Pasquire. “LPS is a way of collaborating and controlling production processes for greater predictability and reliability of construction production.”

“The building of the Athlete’s Village for the 2012 Olympics in London is another example,” she adds. “The project team implemented a NoWaste Lean Construction training programme during the build, which resulted in 13% less waste production over a six month period, and saved an estimated £94,000 in waste disposal costs.”

How can Lean practices affect the sustainability of construction projects?

“It’s a method of delivering value in the most effective and efficient way. If making environmental and economic factors are your value proposition, then Lean is the best way to do that,” Professor Pasquire explains.

“As the London Olympics Athlete’s Village example shows, it enables you to codify, collaborate, improve transparency, bring in the right people at the right time and change your contracts so that you’re getting better sustainability benefits, as well as cost-driven solutions.”

Would you say it’s the responsibility of the Construction Project Manager to adopt Lean practices and embed them into a project? How does this usually happen?

“Yes, the Construction Project Manager is instrumental when it comes to ensuring that all the fragmented parties involved in a construction project come together to align under Lean principles.”

She continues, “[I]n my experience, the thing that drives a sustainable adoption of Lean is actually a crisis. One of the best examples of that comes from Northern California, where legislative changes meant that all hospitals and medical facilities had to be majorly and swiftly upgraded. Of course there was only a certain amount of budget with which to do this so, in 2000, the team proposed a Lean approach. It was a leap of faith really, they had no way of knowing if Lean would help them achieve the upgrades within budget, but they knew that traditional processes wouldn’t.”

“It worked and it has continued to work. In fact, the hospital upgrades became a tipping point and other healthcare providers have now picked up Lean practices. In Finland too, they’ve realised that to really get the benefits they have to set up construction companies who are Lean from the start.”

The Lean Project Production module includes project simulations to demonstrate the principles of Lean. Why does it use these and how do these work?

“Seeing is believing! The simulations provide a real, experiential demonstration of the principles via the virtual learning environment. I also use case studies and videos from the construction industry alongside the simulations, all of which feature interactive elements that get online students involved and engaged with the material.”

“The module is very much informed by my work leading the Lean Project Management research group, so all the content is based on the latest developments and findings in the field.”

What can online students expect to gain from the Lean Project Production module?  

“A cutting-edge exploration into one of the most impactful working philosophies in contemporary construction. Lean is a 21st century business model that’s changing the way construction is carried out, and the Lean Project Production module can give online students an introduction to its principles that will enable them to navigate the challenges of its adoption and capitalise on its benefits.”

To find out more about this module and other modules on the Online MSc Construction Project Management, simply request more information.