Lean Construction: Apply the Winning Approach

On October 14th, 2022, SmartPM’s CEO Mike Pink was joined by fellow industry experts to discuss their experience with Lean Principles within the construction industry. As a sustainability minor in college and an outdoor enthusiast, I became fascinated with Lean Principles and even more passionate about eliminating waste within the construction industry.

Even if you aren’t on the sustainability train, eliminating/removing waste is something that is feasible and highly beneficial for us all. So, I thought I would highlight all that I learned and who I was able to learn it from in hopes to offer their strategies and tips to you as well. 


The Panel Experts


John Linenberg is the Group Vice President at Walbridge with a history of working in the design and construction industry. He began his journey with the Lean Construction Institute 22 years ago and holds a BCE in Civil Engineering from the University of Detroit Mercy and Leadership Development from the CII Executive Leadership Program. 

Peter Leoschke is the Senior Project Manager at Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM). With over 25 years of experience in commercial construction, Leoschke has been involved in a plethora of innovative projects and is a member of AIA’s Practice committee as well as the Lean Construction Institute membership committee. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Design and a Bachelor of Architecture from Ball State University. 

Erin Schultz is the Chief Engineer at The Walsh Group, where she has developed her construction expertise for over 18 years. Previously serving as the Chief Estimator, Shultz has developed strong relationships with other industry professionals and holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the University of Illinois. 

Lydia Knowles is the Regional Lean Manager and IDP Disciple at Turner Construction Company. She holds a Master’s in Project Management from The University of Wisconsin and has a history of building and maintaining relationships with a variety of project stakeholders. 

Michael Pink is the CEO of SmartPM Technologies. His previous experience as a delay analyst consultant for commercial construction projects inspired him to build a platform that leads to better-quality projects through automated project controls. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology as well as an MBA in Finance from NYU’s Stern School of Business. 


What is Lean Construction?


The Lean Construction Institute outlines Lean as a mindset rather than a technique, requiring team buy-in to focus on continuous improvement in work processes for the best possible project outcomes. The organization is founded on its ability to transform the built environment as they have found over 70% of construction projects are delayed and over budget. This challenge is compounded by an abundance of safety issues, making Lean the perfect tool for construction companies to address better working conditions for all project stakeholders. 

One of the main principles of lean construction is reducing waste. According to the EPA, the C&D industry produced 600 million tons of debris in 2018–a number that is forecasted to double by 2025… Fortunately, using Lean develops a framework around identifying and eliminating waste, allowing the construction industry to focus on building a better world for future generations while delivering quality projects that are valuable to our communities today. 


Let’s Start the Discussion 

The Lean Construction: Apply the Winning Approach panel was led by John Linenberg. This blog serves as a summary of the key takeaways from the discussion and does not include all Q&As. 




What is the top thing you could say about the winning approach in construction?


Mike: As always, I believe Lean processes begin with the schedule. To have accurate dates for when materials are going to be delivered, you have to understand the project from a data perspective–otherwise, the whole process falls apart. In my experience, the scheduling process needs a whole lot of improvement. I have analyzed something like 15,000 project schedules and have found that 90% are at medium to high risk of not knowing what is necessary from a planning standpoint. 

Erica: Lean is a change in a company’s corporate culture.  While nobody likes change, you must change the attitudes of some individuals who have gotten where they are by doing what they always have done… You have to make a culture where it is going to be okay if something isn’t done perfectly for the first time and allow for failure, to an extent.

Lydia: One of the main tenants of Lean is “respect for people.” There are some people who have been in this industry for a long time, so I tend to approach Lean in a manner where I inform clients of what is in it for them. I actually show them a way where they can leave work on time every day, instead of late at night, giving them that “ah-ha” moment where they cannot think of a better process to learn. 

Peter: I give clients an idea of the passion they crave for the ability to contribute. For Lean to be successful you need to build the plane before you fly it, go slowly to go fast. To do this, I believe pull planning is the perfect place to start, planning the project from end to beginning so that everybody has a focused mission. 


What is the main benefit you have seen from implementing Lean Principles? 


Peter: People who practice Lean do not look at it as a competition, rather they see it as raising the quality of work that they do. One of the coolest things I have seen is at the Chicago Lean Institute’s Lean Coffees. It is wonderful and heartwarming to share AEC experiences with others. 

Lydia: I agree, rising water raises all boats. You need to have a collaborative group that works together and compares notes. With Lean, you are always learning–there are continuing innovations on the next best practice. Turner has a strong policy rolled out on all projects where we introduce Lean and plant the seeds for growth. For instance, we have a construction school where we bring our communities together with new or small business owners because we want to build communities as well. Furthermore, Lean is amazing because it works hand and glove with safety. If you have a strong Lean process, you are going to have fewer injuries. Essentially, safety and Lean go hand-in-hand. 

Erin: In the heavy civil world that I play in, Lean is not as popular but I see the benefits of engagement. Lean lets you know when we need to procure this material, change this deadline, etc... Doing so allows you to know the risks and costs associated with moving dates back. 

Mike: The number one benefit I have seen is the level of detail within the schedule. Knowing what I know, I can assure you that those projects that deliver on time and on budget are using Lean and, usually, their schedules are built with high quality.


What is one thing the audience can implement to see change across their organization?


Lydia: To not be afraid of constraint logs. I can tell when people are using Lean or not if they even use the phrase “constraint log.” They are nothing to fear, nobody wants surprises on their projects. When constraints happen, you need to add them to a log and indicate who is going to do it, and when, so you can track that data. If you don’t have these things documented, they won’t happen. Then, you will have to circle back to it years down the road.  

Mike: To build a high-quality schedule. There is even a quantitative way to tell if a schedule has incorporated best practices or not called the DCMA 14-Point checklist. When you have a disconnect between the person managing the schedule and the people doing the work, the project will experience more challenges than time and money allow for. You have to have buy-in from PMs and Supers–they need to learn to schedule too. Once they understand the value in it and what is in it for them, you will start to see better outcomes across all projects. 

Erin: I agree, you need to have team buy-in. Once you have everyone on the same page instead of self-performing, the finger-pointing is eliminated–not to mention the costs that go with claims and lawyers after projects are finished. 

Peter: On a big project, the schedule is the most important thing that drives it. You need to clearly define expectations, guidelines, and processes by having conversations, meetings, and agendas.  That way, everyone knows what they are talking about, making our lives easier. It is like that age-old saying, “if you put your keys in the same place, you will always know where they are.” 


Final Takeaways 


If you haven’t heard it enough already, these are unprecedented and very challenging times for us all. On top of that, the construction industry has always been a tough industry–physically, mentally, and emotionally. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The best thing to come out of all this mess is that there has been more attention put on sustainable construction and Lean processes that will help elevate the construction industry into the future–building our environment for the benefit of everyone, and everything, on our planet. 

Author: Claire Turner

Claire Turner is the Marketing Communications Coordinator who manages and creates content for copywriting, social media management, and event planning.

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