Lean is not a fad diet but a way that manufacturing companies become more competitive and successful. Although construction companies are starting to apply Lean to their organizations, some mistakenly feel they are already as Lean as they can get.

10 Questions: Do You Need Lean?

Here are 10 questions that construction companies can ask themselves to see if they are in need of Lean thinking.

In the Shop

  1. Are workbenches, desks, tabletops and equipment free of clutter and unnecessary items? Clutter is not Lean and hides problems.
  2. Are tools, fixtures and jigs located at the workstation such that workers take less than five to 10 seconds to retrieve them? Keep tools and part searches to a minimum – they add no value to the product.
  3. Do you have the right amount of consumables when needed – neither running out nor overstocked?
  4. Do you have only one or two jobs at a time started in fabrication or somewhere in progress? Work in progress is expensive and can be reduced without impacting delivery schedules.

In Field Operations

  1. Are tools and gang boxes located where they are used, and organized so they can be easily retrieved? (Watch for employees going on treasure hunts – it indicates a poorly organized work layout.)
  2. Is all material stored on racks, pallets or carts at the jobsite so it can easily be moved instead of stacked on the floor/ground? (The general contractor will have you move it many times.)
  3. Do you measure the percent of planned work completed weekly? If so, is it greater than 60 percent? Plan for that.

In the Office, Job Trailer, Tool Crib and Warehouse

  1. Are supplies and consumables labeled with specifications and/or restock numbers as well as the information for the person responsible to contact to reorder?
  2. Are file cabinets labeled as to contents in a consistent and organized manner? Are the files easily retrieved?


  1. Are employees encouraged and recognized for sharing and implementing improvement ideas?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, then you have a good start at being Lean. If most of your answers were “no,” on the other hand, Lean can help. If you don’t know what these questions are telling you, then your business may not survive as your competition will pass you by.

Five Ways to Start Doing Lean

While some may suggest there is only one right way to implement Lean, there are many approaches that companies have used successfully. You need to find what works for your company. The following are five ways construction companies can begin implementing Lean. Start with a pilot project and expand as you have success.

  1. Use 5S (sort, straighten, shine, standardize, sustain) to organize the workplace. Organize the shop, field, office and service vans to reduce treasure hunts.
  2. Start measuring PPC (production planning and scheduling). Then begin removing constraints that keep your crews from doing more planned work. Research shows that on average, crews do the work they planned to do 54 percent of the time. How much planned work do your crews do weekly? How effective is their weekly planning? How do you know?
  3. Do Muda walks. Muda means waste in Japanese. There are seven basics types of waste (overproduction, inventory, waiting, transportation, motion, process [useless steps in a process], defects). In a Muda walk, you will spend about an hour watching how the work is done and what wastes and barriers happen. Remove those wastes and barriers.
  4. Create systems for maintaining consumables. Use a Kanban system to signal when it is time to restock a supply of material, chemicals or parts. For example, consider two bins of screws used in fabrication or install. When one bin is empty, the worker removes it and starts using the second bin. The empty bin has a card on its side with all of the necessary reorder information. The bin itself (or just the card) goes to the person who needs to reorder the supplies.

Or use a max/min system on a stack of sheet metal. The markings on the rack shows the maximum level to fill to and the minimum mark tells you when to reorder. A Kanban card contains this information and is given to the person in charge of reordering when the level drops below the minimum mark.

  1. Use a spaghetti chart and ask lots of “why” questions. This useful and simple tool is used to see how a product flows and the order the work is performed. A physical map of the work area is used and you draw the actual path (not what you think it is) taken by a specific product, form or person being observed. Draw a line from start to end indicating the path taken.

A completed chart often looks like a plate of spaghetti because the product, form or person typically moves all over the space. In one sheet metal shop, a spaghetti chart helped surface questions about where the various machines were located in relation to each other. This led to a closer, and more logical, relocation of several machines and substantially reduced the distance fittings traveled through the shop.

Apply these five tools and you will have a great start to being Lean.

One Thing Construction Companies Must Do

There is something you need to do as a foundation before implementing Lean. That is to be sure you, and all employees, understand your company’s true north. To be effectively engaged in improving how your company performs, everyone needs to know and buy into the company’s purpose for existing. This purpose is not to do Lean, nor is it just to make money. (If you want to make lots of money, why are you in the construction industry?)

This purpose includes your company’s mission (reason for existing) and its vision (where the company is going). Employees need to internalize these ideas so they stay focused on true north when storms and challenges happen. This will help employees to see how doing Lean can help achieve the broader vision.

About the Author