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Lean Design: What’s it all about? True collaboration, better outcomes

The intent of this article is to provide an overview of what Lean is all about and begin to answer the question: What’s in it for owners and others in the supply chain?

(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series. The intent of this article is to provide an overview of what Lean is all about and begin to answer the question: What’s in it for owners and others in the supply chain?)

Interest in Lean design and construction has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, reflected in enhanced national media reporting, major presentations at COAA (Construction Owners Association of America) conferences and other national meetings, and rapid growth in attendance at Lean workshops and events around the country.

Clearly a substantial and growing set of industry players, owners and contractors alike, is seeking to learn more and beginning to implement Lean, Integrated Project Delivery, and related elements of more collaborative forms of project delivery.

Simply stated, Lean design and construction is all about increasing value (as defined by the customer) and identifying and eliminating waste on projects. Lean emphasizes respect for people, the promotion of true collaboration among project participants, and continuous learning and innovation to produce better outcomes in every phase of project delivery.

Lean promotes productive partnerships, reliable outcomes

Lean’s focus on value is reflected in its goal of enhancing flow on projects. It aims to continuously structure work so as to maximize seamless handoffs among project participants and promote reliable and predictable outcomes in every phase.

By optimizing team performance—even at the expense of individual elements within the team—Lean serves to transform teams from disparate sets of specialists with separate and sometimes conflicting goals into cohesive, productive partnerships that share the goal of promoting total project success at every turn. This is the goal and outcome of successfully implementing the Last Planner® system, a trademarked tool developed by the Lean Construction Institute (LCI).

Unimpeded and predictable workflow starts with collaborative planning. We seek to involve every player on the project in “pull planning” each phase of the project, working backwards from a milestone or target identified in the master schedule. This is typically accomplished in a sizable workspace with a large wall area on which planners can organize project activities by phase, always working backwards from a specific milestone or deliverable.

Tasks are labelled on sticky notes and posted right to left in reverse order of completion. Each specialty contractor or team responsible for individual work elements is expected to contribute its knowledge towards defining and sequencing tasks so as to create timely and effective handoffs to the next craft or set of players. The goal is to maximize value creation as we develop a plan that everyone understands and can support.

As this process unfolds, some remarkable behaviors begin to emerge. People negotiate with each other over task sequencing as their diverse skills and experience are brought to bear. They share anticipated challenges and pitfalls, and begin to think through how to head them off before they occur.

They start to see their set of individual tasks as more than solo work plans to be completed as quickly as possible so they can move on. Instead, they see how their actions and traditional work modes impact and often impede others on the team. Traditional tasks and sequences that add little or no value can be restructured or abolished to enhance workflow rather than contribute to waste.

Team effort builds trust, enhances collaboration

By empowering individual workers to manage commitment planning and control workflow, they assume responsibility for making reliable performance promises to other team members. This process continues as pull plans are implemented onsite and weekly meetings (often augmented by brief daily huddles) ensure that all outcomes and handoffs—positive and negative—are surfaced and reviewed regularly. Weekly work plans help the team track its progress (more on this below), and six-week “look-ahead” plans keep them focused on the relationship between current tasks and upcoming handoffs to others scheduled to arrive on site.

Over time, flow continues to improve as personal pride in one’s work and peer pressure of the team encourages members to promise reliably and deliver consistently. This in turn builds trust and fosters true collaboration: the kind of team effort that sees individual failures not as opportunities for assigning blame but as challenges to be overcome as a team. “We all fail when one fails.”

If Lean only enhanced teamwork, that would be good, but even the best team can be made better by engaging in continuous learning and identifying and addressing the reasons for its recurring failure to meet specific goals and schedules. Each week’s completed tasks are reviewed, then divided by the number of tasks planned (based on the weekly work plans) to create a weekly Percentage Plan Completed (PPC) index. (The industry average historically has been in the less-than-inspiring range of 55 percent.) Lean teams may even start out substantially below average. But by engaging in the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) cycle, based on the scientific method, teams begin to march up the learning curve, removing recurring constraints to their productivity.

The “5 Whys” questioning technique is often utilized to fully understand where constraints are coming from and develop plans as a team to remove them based on their root causes. Teams regularly begin to achieve PPC in the 80-90 percent range as project work continues. This is an optimal range of performance; 100 percent PPC actually indicates a team that is not pushing itself to truly excel.

A substantial set of Lean tools has been developed to support and augment the PDCA cycle and other processes. In addition to the PPC and the “5 Whys” concepts noted here, there are a few others:

  • The “A3” reporting format promotes effective decision-making/documentation on project alternatives through an established template providing information in one page on the team decision process.
  • Value Stream Mapping, which helps teams analyze systems and processes and develop improvements.
  • Target Value Design (TVD), a technique to promote designs that are informed with constructability considerations as well as detailed cost estimates (rather than the traditional process of estimating once detailed designs are available).

But no tool or set of tools is right for every project or every organization. The Lean Construction Institute encourages the use of what works best for your team, and the augmentation of those tools over time as the organization and personnel gain experience.

Learn more about lean principles at

Content reviewed 2/2021
Dan C. Heinemeier, CAE
Dan C. Heinemeier, CAE

As Executive Director of the Lean Construction Institute (LCI), Dan Heinemeier is responsible to the Board of Directors for LCI’s programmatic, budgetary and organizational success. He brings to the organization over 30 years of experience in association management. He has served the technology, government contracting and construction industries in programming and senior management roles, including President, COO and Executive Director positions.