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Published: March 18, 2024

What Is Lean Construction? Definition and Principles

If you ever get asked to take part in a lean construction project, it may offer a fresh perspective on building. Lean construction principles — and the practices that flow from them — not only transform projects but have the potential to transform entire companies. Let's take a look at the key principles of lean construction.

What is lean construction?

is a relationship-oriented, production management-based approach to construction project delivery that emphasizes the management and design of construction processes, as opposed to just the end product. At heart, its main goals are maximizing stakeholder value while minimizing waste — all while heavily emphasizing inter-team collaboration.

In practice, working lean means you can reliably release work from one construction process to the next. Just imagine being able to turn the building over to whoever is next in line to do their work and know everything will proceed as planned. The authors of Foundations of Lean Construction compare the realization people have when they grasp reliability to the moment when they learn to ride a bike. Suddenly, they feel a new freedom and get a fresh sense of speed and range.

When someone grasps the idea of reliability in construction, they feel empowered by the notion that they can change design, supply, assembly, and control to get better results, knowing it will work.

Lean Construction principles

Construction projects have phases, beginning with design and ending with closeout. Each stakeholder performs their function as assigned by contract.

In lean construction, the focus switches from individual stakeholders focused solely on their individual roles to all stakeholders working as a team. When applying lean construction principles, the project takes on extra dimensions as participants consider its entire life cycle when deciding what to build and how to build it.

Focusing on the process and flow

In construction — and many businesses — each participant tends to focus on their own self-interests. This means relationships can remain transactional, with contracts ensuring that outcome.

But in a lean project, everybody focuses on the construction process. When they follow lean construction practices, they optimize everything for the final product.

If you are a subcontractor on a lean project, you will take part in design with all the other participants. If you are the general contractor, you and the owner will accept design variations suggested by a subcontractor if it’s best for the project. Regardless of your role on a lean project, you have a voice, and it will be heard.

Lean construction also fits the process custom to the product. So, you don’t build a project component in a certain way just because it’s always done this way. Instead, you use a building method and materials that you and the team have optimized for that component.

Planning rather than reacting

With the pace of many modern construction projects, teams are used to thinking in the short term. During the design phase of a lean construction project, on the other hand, the participants consider the entire life cycle of the structure. Not just what happens to it at midlife, but also what happens when it’s reached the logical conclusion of its life.

Lean construction project participants also consider how their individual interests affect each other to align their short-term and long-term interests to the project’s benefit.

Today’s projects foretell success in future projects. What went right and what went wrong is only instructive if you analyze it. In a lean construction project, participants honor the future by incorporating lessons from the past at all levels.

Creating structures to achieve goals

In a lean project, you use a systemic approach when getting ready to begin an activity. Then, people doing the work make a firm commitment to complete it following the requirements. In this way, activities start “at the last responsible moment.” Work is "pulled" rather than "pushed" — this helps increase efficiency and reduces waste.

Learn more: Pull Planning in Construction

As work gets underway, everybody tunes into the lean construction practices in use so they can foresee and solve problems that could potentially threaten completion. Commitment is key, and on a lean project, every participant is already committed if they signed on to the project. Plus, they know that help flows in all directions so they are not in it alone.

Managing the project supply chain

The supply chain on most construction projects is fragmented. Each participant manages their own materials and equipment. Parties to a lean construction project work together to improve supply chain performance, allowing them to free themselves from market variabilities. They can reduce price shocks, shortages, and lead times.

Always working toward continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is a key principle of lean construction. This final principle affects all the others — anywhere things can be improved and optimized can be addressed. According to the Lean Tenets, "Lean encourages teams to come together to create a log of constraints that are limiting or blocking productivity on a project." Perfection is never possible — but constantly striving to improve helps create a more productive environment and enables all the other lean principles.

Benefits of lean construction

If everything on a lean construction project is operating optimally, stakeholder value would be maximized, and waste would always be minimized — as is set out in lean's largest goals. But how have the ideals of lean construction performed in the real world?

In a notable 2018 study, companies using the most effective lean methods completed 45% of projects early and delivered 70% of them under budget.

For more studies and downloadable resources about lean construction, visit leanconstruction.org.

Transitioning to lean construction means growth and transformation.

While few who have studied lean construction would disagree with its benefits, the transition to it requires changes in human behavior. Companies must figure out how to overcome lean’s contradictions with long-held group behavior.

Those who have transitioned to lean construction have themes in their stories of “urgency, leadership, focus, structure, discipline and trajectory,” making this transition nothing short of a transformation.

Where Lean Fits into Construction

So, what’s the need for Lean Construction? Can it really help industries adapt to changing demands and maintain profitability? First, let’s take a quick look at the state of the industry:

While the amount of waste may be astounding, the good news is there’s plenty of room for improvement in the areas of efficiency and consumption.

3 Core Lean Construction Practices to Know

What practices make up Lean? While there are several aspects to the methodology, there are 3 core principles that help drive success:

1. Early Stakeholder Involvement

It’s no secret that stakeholder involvement is critical to project success. However, collaboration between construction crews and contractors often takes place later in the process than is ideal. Lean Construction emphasizes collaboration between these stakeholders from the beginning. Contractors are no longer selected on the basis of cost alone. Instead, the input they can provide during the combined design-build stages drives the selection.

This process helps to eliminate conflicts from the beginning, reducing total project waste and requests for rework. Despite the importance of this process, it’s still relatively under the radar for contractors. In our report, only around half of the global contractors surveyed had a moderate or better familiarity with this Lean Construction process. Integrating it into your operations can give your company a significant leg up on the competition.

2. Pull Planning

Most projects in the construction industry follow a linear planning process. It begins in design and preconstruction, and time frames are only adjusted as issues occur during the process. Despite this planning style’s popularity, it can lead to many issues, including roadblocks, weak profit margins, employee burnout, and poor productivity rates.

Pull planning addresses some of the common issues experienced with linear planning. First, the team defines the final deadline. Then, they work backward to determine deadlines for key milestones, project phases, and handoffs. Teams can prioritize the most critical tasks and determine any dependencies between tasks. Weekly planning sessions and meetings are used to ensure the project plan stays on track.

3. Weekly Work Planning and Percent Plan Complete

Construction companies need an effective way to keep track of deadlines and pinpoint any risks for going over timeline and budget. After all, 70% of construction projects are over time and budget. The percent plan complete (PPC) technique and weekly work planning can help. PPC tracks the total percentage of assignments that have reached 100% completion. The metric is calculated by dividing the number of activities completed on the day stated by the total number of activities planned for the week.

Weekly work planning sessions integrate nicely with PPC to review progress, risks, and next steps. Without the planning sessions, there is a greater risk of delays, wasted resources and missed deadlines. To achieve the best results, include stakeholders from all levels. That way, each team will receive the information and guidance they need to maintain agility and adapt quickly to minimize interruptions.

The Most Notable Benefits of Lean Construction

What benefits can you expect from the core principles of Lean Construction and the methodology as a whole? Of course, the benefits will vary based on application, the current state of operations, company size and even location. However, the most common benefits usually fall into the following categories:

Higher Quality of Output and Operations

In the world of construction, you are what you build. Yet so many factors must be in sync to deliver a high-quality output. From processes to materials, everything needs to be communicated, understood and coordinated to ensure the best results possible. Lean Construction focuses on trust, respect and accountability throughout all aspects of the project at hand. Teams work together as a unit to uncover value, innovate, and align on the goals from the beginning of the project. Collaboration during the preconstruction process helps to prevent rework, conflict and costly issues on-site, all of which hold up production and can negatively affect the quality of output.

Enhanced Safety and Reduced Risks

Employees are the most valuable resource of any construction firm. The industry has been making strides to increase safety and reduce risks for employees’ well-being and for the firm itself. Leading firms realize that a safe jobsite is often a profitable jobsite. Lean Construction supports these efforts by emphasizing communication, collaboration and a safe, efficient work environment.

The Lean planning methods help reduce risks by empowering teams to monitor progress, identify potential risks and mitigate them as quickly as possible. Decision-makers are involved on the front end to address these matters quickly before they have lasting effects on the project. These methods also leverage both manual and automated review techniques to reduce indecent frequency rates.

Greater Cost Control

By standardizing Lean Construction techniques as your building processes, you can increase productivity and generate cost savings through collaboration. Studies by the McKinsey Global Institute show that collaborative contractual relationships result in an 8% to 9% improvement in productivity and a 6% to 7% improvement in cost savings (when compared to more traditional contractual structures).

The reduction in waste increases project efficiency, improving cost controls for higher profit margins. Lean Construction reduces downtime waiting for materials, equipment and information while rooting out inefficiencies from processes. The emphasis on prefabrication helps to prevent material waste and maximize the use of all materials.

Improved Planning and Scheduling

One of the biggest causes of productivity loss is the inefficient scheduling of workers. This may look like employees working in a congested area where they can’t perform tasks efficiently or scheduling workers in a space that isn’t available. Techniques like pull planning minimize these issues by improving plan to actual ratio to reduce conflicts. As schedules are planned backward to meet the final deadline, stakeholders can consider and address potential problems ahead of time to coordinate more effectively.

Higher Customer and Employee Satisfaction

Lean Construction has been shown to increase the number of successful projects and stakeholder engagement at all levels. A large part of these results is due to higher productivity rates and employee engagement. Employees are involved in the project from the beginning and better understand their role in its success. They are also provided an environment that allows them to work in a more productive way.

Lean Construction increases the number of projects that are delivered on time and in budget, improving customer satisfaction and the construction firm's reputation. Higher customer and employee satisfaction rates directly impact the long-term success of the firm.

Ready to Embrace Lean Construction?

A shift to Lean Construction may seem labor-intensive and hard to pull off. You can start getting results quickly from the methodology by following a step-by-step approach.

Assemble Your Team

Start by determining roles and responsibilities for each team member, ensuring that they are clear on what’s expected of them. Allow for clarification questions, and take time to address questions about scheduling, planning, and accessibility. Next, help the team get comfortable with any collaborative technology you’ll be using with onboarding sessions. Finally, establish milestones with the owner’s oversight and input.

Engage Subcontractors

To build transparency, highlight the individual benefits subcontractors will receive through Lean Construction. Make it personal to them and their role to get them onboard. Integrate these contractors into the planning process early and get them up to speed on the collaborative technology you’ll be using.

Develop Your Schedule

Use backward planning in the pull planning method. Determine the sequence of tasks through milestones, which lead to the final deadline. To create coordination schedules, use last planners for tasking. Progress and milestones will need to be assessed continuously to keep things on track.

Conduct Check-Ins

During check-ins, take note of areas that need improvement and create action plans to address them. Use this time to discuss best practices with stakeholders and keep communication open. Check-ins are also an excellent time to evaluate project performance with your team.


As you work on the project and review best practices, develop your own standards for operations. Communicate these to your team and set expectations for reporting and benchmarks. During this step, you can also quantify the benefits and results you’ve achieved with Lean to make a case for continued and increased investment.

author avatar
George Bowman

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