Challenges to Implementing a Lean Culture in Construction

Theodore Roosevelt once wisely said: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” There are parallels here with implementing a Lean culture in construction, which will bring in many tangible benefits, but the process will not be without challenges along the way, not least winning over hearts and minds. Let’s explore what those challenges might be and how we can overcome them.

  1. Every project is different in construction!

How does Lean apply in a construction environment? Each job is different and unique – right? There are differences between construction and the industry where Lean principles are taken from: manufacturing. In manufacturing the focus is around established and repeatable processes. In construction each project is a prototype. A bespoke build rather than a repeated production line. However, there are processes which are common project-to-project, but typically, lessons are then not shared throughout supply chain/delivery. This means that gains, when they are implemented are lost by the time the next job is started.

One way to overcome this could be to identify smaller, repeatable processes such as traffic management or health & safety reporting. You’ll be surprised at what a big impact small changes can make. For each project there will also be lessons learned which can be applied to the next build which is similar in size, complexity or style. Are there any areas where you could introduce automation? Such as a clocking-in system, reporting and mobility solutions.

  1. Being influenced by third parties… clients and suppliers.

Staying true to your Lean principles can take some mettle when you are constantly challenged by clients or suppliers who do not understand Lean ways of working. It could be that their own processes are wasteful and this may have a knock on impact which stifles innovation and your attempts to introduce better ways of working.

Customers can sometimes dictate how they want something to be done, but this may not be best practice. For example, they may prefer a specific build technique or material which is no longer industry leading and presents a barrier to Lean efficiencies. In addition, bureaucracy between third parties can slow decision making and reduce staff empowerment.

Personal relationships should also be noted because it is easy for individuals to pick up bad habits when working with third party partners and unintentionally, bring these back into your business.

These are challenges because to some extent they are outside of your control, but they also present an opportunity to improve and add value to your customer. A way to overcome these challenges would be to work with your clients from the beginning… Can you introduce a process to have knowledge sharing sessions with key clients to update them on best industry practice and advances brought about by Lean which are advantageous to clients and suppliers? Quantifying benefits is a key part of winning over hearts and minds in this journey.

  1. There is always resistance to change.

Teams being resistant to change is often banded about as a challenge to embedding a Lean culture. However, this needs to be examined. Often when you get under the skin of why lean initiatives don’t work there are many root causes. They require strong leadership at their core. Leaders need to influence stakeholders, not only in aligning a common vision within senior management, but also in the active sponsorship of implementing Lean Construction. Examples would be in delivering communications from initial vision and throughout the implementation of the change. Or by being present throughout – going to the actual place and actively joining employees in Lean activities, above all make sure there is no ‘say-do’ gap. Authenticity is key here! A further cause is the lack of training made available and giving time to people to actually get involved in Lean activities.

For Lean behaviour changes to stick they need to be supported by:

  • Building the capability of your team through Lean training carried out by a provider who works with you to design a programme where learning can be put into practice.
  • Empowering employees by providing time within their work to carry-out Lean activity.
  • Encouraging autonomy to evaluate and make improvements without direction.

To realise the benefits of Lean construction the culture needs to be embedded throughout the supply chain. Collaboration is key to the principles of lean and cultural change can be difficult to introduce… Particularly when working with third parties. Our previous blog on the benefits of lean will provide a compelling case to all involved across your supply chains.

  1. Surely investing in technology will help?

A common starting point for many in trying to roll-out Lean Construction is “I’ve seen ‘x’ tool and we need to get this in place to solve ‘y’ problem”.

Going in search of tech solutions, rather than taking the problem you are trying to solve and defining the outcome you’re trying to achieve, is putting the cart before the horse. IT teams need to be part of business discussions around finding innovative solutions, but these solution-based discussions need to be held once problems are understood by everyone and desired outcomes are clear.

Technical difficulties can prove to be obstacles in your quest to deliver a Lean strategy. Standardisation in Lean techniques is far easier when the technology is aligned throughout the process. Working off different systems at different times can hinder process efficiency. Therefore it would be wise to review your digital strategy alongside running a Lean strategy.

  1. Governance issues mean we’ll never deliver Lean.

If your organisation is hampered by red tape and bureaucracy when it comes to bringing in meaningful change this can be a frustrating barrier. There can sometimes be inertia, which means decision making is slow and staff lack the empowerment to deliver change. If the decision makers are too far away to see the benefits, then change programmes constantly get kicked down the agenda. Lean embraces empowerment and promotes the idea that “everyone is a leader”. Gathering data and statistics about delays, re-work and waste is perhaps the most powerful weapon to unblock the blockers and so part of your Lean implementation needs to review how to make this type of data easily accessible to teams.

At Nine Feet Tall we stress the importance of “Just Enough” governance to ensure that projects are delivered not hindered. Often a reality check on time spent completing processes, forms and documents which add no value needs to be discussed. Challenge the methodology and ensure there is flexibility appropriate to any risk.

Implementing a Lean Construction strategy may be extra challenging now as mixed ways of working continue, with some teams working remotely and others being on site, but that doesn’t make it impossible. The key is to start with a real-life issue which is evident across multiple projects. Put simply there are 6 steps to getting going:

1. Identify a discrete process which has caused issues across multiple projects.
2. Upskill a team in how to review this process (or work with an experienced external lean team who can provide advice and guidance.)
3. Use value stream mapping to identify some improvements to trial.
4. Test these improvements, capturing data to show what real benefits (if any) they bring.
5. Review your results and share the learning.

As a company whose vision is a world where change is embraced, we have lot of ideas about how to overcome some of the challenges of effectively implementing Lean Construction. We would love to hear about the obstacles you are facing and help you identify opportunities to build momentum in your Lean journey. Contact

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