What Is Lean Construction?

We can probably all agree that the construction industry is not known for its efficiency. Lean construction works to counter that reputation. Read on to find out what it’s all about.

What does “Lean Construction” mean?

Well for starters, “lean construction” is NOT A TYPO. We’re not talking about liens.

We’re talking about the word “lean,” as in: efficiency, avoiding waste, minimizing costs, maximizing value, collaboration, and continuous improvement.

The lean concept, which originated in the manufacturing industry, is still relevant to almost any type of business where things are built (including for us here at levelset, where we “build” technology).

As mentioned above, the goal of lean construction is to maximize efficiency. On some level, most parties to a project are already trying to do this. After all, the less time or materials you spend to complete your work, the more room there will be for profit. However, lean construction takes this to another level – rather than trying to make each phase of the project become more efficient independently, a holistic approach is taken.

On a construction project, though the work may be segmented, there is one final product that stands as a result of collective efforts. Under lean construction, an emphasis is placed on the fact that all work is interrelated. By aligning each job and phase of construction, there is less waste.

While fully implementing lean construction can call for a serious overhaul of project processes, adopting some of the principles of lean construction can still make a big difference.

Cornerstones of Lean Construction


Construction projects are segmented in nature. Lean construction places a lot of emphasis on getting everyone on the same page. Before the start of the project, lean construction methods prescribe a meeting in one big room to let project participants interact face to face and plan out the project. Setting out time to discuss how different parts of the project will be completed and handed off between parties sounds tedious, but a proactive approach pays dividends. Opening a dialogue between all parties promotes a collaborative, team atmosphere.

Avoiding Waste

The term waste means more through the lens of lean construction. Waste can be wasted material, time, or even potential. With lean construction, extra care is taken to avoid lag time. More than just one planning session at the start of the project, a lean construction plan adapts throughout the life of the project and adjusts at every step of the way. When no one has to sit around and wait to perform their work, waste is reduced.

Lean construction aims to even eliminate wasted potential – when a project adheres to lean construction principles, knowledge is tapped from workers on every level of a project. Construction workers often have a wealth of experience on a wide variety of construction tasks. If each party merely provides insight and advice to their portion of the job, some efficiencies will be missed out on.

Pull vs. Push

Traditionally, in construction as well as most other industries, direction for a project comes from the top (think: an owner, GC, or developer), and everyone else adjusts to meet with the requirements. On these traditional projects, as a need is identified, a fix is implemented. This is what’s referred to as a “push” scenario.

However, lean construction takes the opposite approach and “pulls.” Rather than thinking “Ok, what’s next?” a pull planning approach starts at the finished project and works backwards. It’s sort of like mentally reverse-engineering the project. To complete X, Y, and Z portions of the project, jobs 1, 2, and 3 must first be complete. Using this process, a more efficient schedule can be created rather than tackling obstacles as they come up.

Further Reading: The Lean Construction Institute explains this concept incredibly well here: Introduction to the Last Planner System®. 

How does “Managing Payments” fit into Lean Construction?

While there are countless inefficiencies in the construction industry, managing payments is probably the most significant. After all, that’s the reason everyone’s working – to get paid. Many delays come from payments, and it’s not just the payment disputes themselves that lead to delays.

In fact, it’s just the time spent managing the risk of payment disputes that is the biggest source of payment-related delays on construction projects. The tools that have been devised to manage that payment risk — onerous construction contracts, complicated payment documents such as notices and waivers, and even the way the disputes themselves are handled — all create a huge drag on the progress and efficiency of a typical project.

One of the best ways to decrease payment risk is to increase the collaboration between all of the parties participating on a construction project. And it makes sense that the best way to avoid payment disputes is to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Editor’s Note: For a deeper dive into Lean Construction, Lean Project and the Lean Construction Institute are both fantastic resources. Also, the AGC has a lean construction educational program.

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What Is Lean Construction?
This article is a discussion about lean construction including some of the key ideas and goals involved and how it may help construction companies get paid
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