Over the past decade, the lean approach has taken the world by storm. From manufacturing to marketing, businesses have used lean principles to improve efficiency and increase profits. In construction, the lean approach has included strategies for streamlining workflows, decentralizing decision-making and paying greater attention to project-level processes instead of individual tasks.
To better understand the lean movement and its potential for transforming the construction industry, it’s important to trace it back to its roots. The lean movement began with lean production, a revolutionary manufacturing process developed by Toyota. The goals of lean production are simple: minimize waste and maximize value. To figure out how to best to do this, Toyota used Japanese philosophy, which describes three different kinds of waste: muda, muri, and mura.
Defining and identifying waste may seem like a straightforward task, but waste is actually a nuanced concept. Breaking waste down into the three categories above allowed Toyota to distinguish between value-added and non-value added waste. For example, only the last turn of a screwdriver actually tightens the screw, but the previous turns were a necessary part of completing the overall task.
Muda refers to work that does not add value to a particular process — it’s completely unnecessary. In construction, re-keying data is an example of non-value added work. Additional manual data entry typically happens when firms have multiple software systems that aren’t “talking” to one another. When employees must manually enter data across multiple applications, it wastes a lot of time — as does correcting any data entry mistakes made in the process.
In contrast, unified ERP platforms have the data-transferring technology, which ensures that project data is accessible to all applications within the ERP system and documents are auto-populated with relevant, up-to-date project information. To reduce muda, construction software should:
- Store all information in a single database
- Automate processes
- Self-check for errors
Muri refers to processes that are excessive or overburden the system. Usually, muri manifests in placing too much stress or demand on employees who become less efficient and accurate. In construction, a common cause of overburden is poor communication. When employees on the job site don’t have all the necessary information they need to complete tasks correctly, safely or on schedule; it creates mistakes, delays and injuries.
Lean construction relies on better communication which is key to ensuring that employees are well prepared to do their jobs. This is an area where technology excels. Construction software like CMiC Field allows workers to report issues from the field using their mobile devices. They can attach documents like photos to the RFI so that project leads can remedy the situation — ASAP. Mobile construction software also allows for change orders to be communicated quickly, which avoids re-work.
Mura refers to uneven or irregular processes. Rather than progressing a regular pace, work is completed in bursts, with lots of downtown time in between periods of productivity. Mura can happen easily on the job site when equipment or materials aren’t available at the right times. The good news is that this can be easily solved through materials management software. CMiC, for example, has materials tracking software that allows project managers to automate purchase orders and anticipate delivery schedules assisting in lean construction.
These three types of waste helped Toyota identify parts of their assembly line that were holding up production. By approaching the construction lifecycle like an assembly line, lean construction can help firms to evaluate their workflows, identify non-value added waste and determine where they need to make changes.