PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog
Lean construction tools perpetual journey of discovery

Getting to Lean: Why Lean Construction Is a Journey of Perpetual Discovery

When Lean Fails, It Is a Failure of Culture

Lean construction tools and processes are relatively simple to understand. Fundamental concepts such as waste, value and flow may be grasped by nearly anyone. The core requirements for implementing Lean are modest; an open mind, ability to track action items, and the scheduling of critical tasks. Scale is not an obstacle; from small to large construction, technology assists the collection, tracking and visualization of information.

Nevertheless, it’s not the Lean system which fails so much as our all-too-human inability to assimilate Lean behaviors within an existing non-Lean, or “Robust,” mindset. The better we understand the mindshift from Robust to Lean thinking, the more likely we can avoid three potential failure points along the Lean journey:

  1. Adopt
  2. Adapt
  3. Assist

Some fail to Adopt Lean, and some never begin at all. If true that our current, Robust culture of project delivery is unsustainable, then failing to adopt Lean construction is an epic miscalculation.

Those who see Lean as imperative may still fail to Adapt the principles to their circumstances, and begin their journey in the wrong direction. Without a doubt, the systematic use of Lean behaviors will challenge an organization’s pre-existing condition. Therefore, Lean must be adapted to suit the culture in which it is expected to thrive.

Adopting and adapting Lean within a construction company yet faces a final challenge; to Assist Lean as a journey of perpetual discovery. Without leadership’s periodic infusions of vision and resources, efforts to achieve reliable cost, schedule and value performance will fail.

A Mindshift: From Robust to Lean Construction

In the 1980’s, students of the Toyota Production System adopted generic, less company-specific, terminology. In his article for MIT Sloan Management Review, John Krafcik first used “Lean” to describe an efficient production system. He contrasted Lean with a “buffered” system and credited Haruo Shimada and John Paul MacDuffie for the “buffered/lean typology.”

He also noted that Shimada and MacDuffie had proposed another term, to describe traditional, non-Lean systems: “Robust.”

Resistance to Lean stems from the cultural challenge to a default, Robust mindset. For that reason, habitual patterns of thought, often unconsciously maintained, must be acknowledged to avoid the traps that lie ahead when adapting and assisting the Lean transformation.

Getting to Lean

The Lean Construction Institute has developed 6 principles, the Tenets of Lean. These assist Lean implementation in two ways. First, they offer new ways of thinking, providing a conscious target for cultural change. Second, they represent a checklist of new attitudes expected to emerge among those on the Lean journey.

  1. Respect for the Individual
  2. Removal of Waste
  3. Generation of Value
  4. Focus on Process and Flow
  5. Optimization of the Whole
  6. Continuous Improvement

Are there corresponding Robust principles? Based on more than two decades of executive responsibility across a broad range of project delivery models, from Design-Bid-Build to Novation to Private-Public-Partnership, I’ve developed the 6 Tenets of Robust:

  1. Inspect the Work
  2. Mitigate the Risk
  3. Reduce the Cost
  4. Push the Work
  5. Do Whatever it Takes
  6. Deliver the Contract

These Robust attributes define the prevailing culture of project delivery, both design and construction. To avoid the cultural ‘fail’, our challenge is to adapt Lean behaviors to the Robust mindset. The key word is “adapt.”

A dozen years ago, Lean captured the industry’s attention by mitigating runaway construction cost escalation in the central California healthcare market. Lean does not eliminate our concern for cost. Rather we approach the problem, as it were, “from the other side.” At top-of-mind for the Lean practitioner is the increase of value delivered to the customer. This leads to better solutions than approaching the problem as one of simple, cost reduction.

Consider this: does anyone still believe Value Engineering delivers more value?

This Robust-Lean pairing may be the Yin and Yang of construction culture; each aspect complementing the other. For example, sometimes a team has to “do whatever it takes” to get the job done. So long as that Robust attitude does not get in the way of optimizing the whole, Lean construction can succeed.

Adopt – Adapt – Assist

Potential Lean construction failure can be avoided as long as a comprehensive change management program of countermeasures is undertaken.


Today, with the 21st century nearly 20% along, adopting Lean is imperative for construction companies. The counter-measure that prevents failure-to-adopt is a deliberate program to raise organizational Awareness. Companies must challenge their existing vision of project delivery with new learning.

The Lean Journey is a perpetual discovery of greater reliability in cost, schedule and value performance. Lean awareness is the essential catalyst; consciousness-raising steps you should consider:

  1. Learn from organizations more productive than yours
  2. Attend introductory Lean seminars
  3. Recall Covey’s four quadrants

Our biggest obstacle to Lean adoption is feeling that we’re already too busy. Deadline and cost worries can overwhelm the most experienced construction professionals. We easily find ourselves occupying Stephen Covey’s first quadrant exclusively, dealing with the Important and Urgent. This is life with ‘hair on fire.’

Sustained effort is required to remain active within Covey’s second quadrant, engaging with the Important and Non-Urgent. This is the job of leadership.

Model the way forward and actively encourage open mindfulness among your team. Lead them to awareness and organize your Lean adoption.


The fact that the  Lean Construction exists at all is the result of a conscious act of adaptation. Academics and building professionals adapted Lean from the manufacturing sector to improve the design and construction process. Now, when organizations adopt Lean, it remains necessary they adapt to Lean. The counter-measure that prevents failure-to-adapt is Action. Companies must direct every action as part of larger, Lean construction tools and strategy.

Our framework, The Lean Progression©, visualizes an overarching Lean strategy, adaptable to the challenges of any company; organized on five levels.


This is the foundation; an understanding of how good results are achieved via an awareness of Waste, Value and Flow.


Making the leap from thinking to action by envisioning every construction project’s potential as a Coordinated, Enterprise System.

Further Reading:  Top 6 Construction Risks — And How to Reduce Them


Project results are driven by linked, strategic processes, from goal-setting to decision-making. These Lean processes include Conditions of Satisfaction; Last Planner System; Target Value Design; Set Based Design; and, Choosing by Advantages.


A tactical device, solving a discrete problem in support of larger aims. Common tools include A3 Thinking and the Big Room.


A tool that has become second nature. The most important of these are feedback habits, such as Plus-Delta and Declaring Breakdowns.

Lean adaptation via action requires focus. Along the Lean journey, an organization should periodically sharpen its ‘cutting edge’, selecting a single element from each level of The Lean Progression© that addresses the current priority.

For example, a construction manager we’ve advised has explored Lean to improve resource planning. The Lean Progression© adapted to their cutting edge is shown below.


The Lean journey is a perpetual discovery of greater reliability in cost, schedule and value performance. It requires leadership’s attention and resources. The counter-measure that prevents failure-to-assist is leadership’s demand for relevant Achievement. Companies must find business success along the way if the Lean journey is to continue.

Lean must deliver results. Broadly speaking, a Lean construction organization should be seeking to achieve profit, satisfaction and reliability.


Companies that lose money do not survive. Lean should increase productivity via the elimination of waste, resulting in more profits.


Companies that cannot retain the clients they want, and the staff they need, do not survive. Since Lean projects delivery more value for the money, clients and project teams gain increased satisfaction from their work. The result is an enhanced reputation within the marketspace.


Companies that cannot predict their project outcomes do not survive. Lean should increase construction predictability via a reliable flow of material, labor and information.

When Lean delivers results, it becomes self-financing. The money invested to adopt, adapt and assist the Lean journey will cost less than maintaining the Robust approach and all it entails: missed deadlines, blown budgets, never-ending punchlists, burned-out superintendents and unhappy clients.

Achieving Lean Construction Success

When Lean succeeds, it is both part of the culture and system.

Lean, in the words of the Lean Construction Institute, is a “culture of respect for the individual and continuous improvement.” In our words, “a system for the efficient operations, design and construction of buildings and infrastructure.”

Success is more than the avoidance of failure. Success is the result of a persistent vision. Our framework, The Lean Progression©, is a bird’s-eye view of Lean culture and system; it maintains the focus on what needs to be done.

When you choose Lean for a construction company, you should employ three steps toward a successful journey:

  1. Adopt Lean by creating the conditions for its awareness.
    Milestone: Commitment to Lean culture and system.
  2. Adapt Lean by taking the right action; focus on your needs.
    Milestone: Mindshift from Robust to Lean thinking.
  3. Assist Lean by achieving important results so that Lean ‘pays for itself.’
    Milestone: Improved business KPI’s.

Getting to Lean is a process of perpetual discovery. Achieving greater reliability in cost, schedule and value performance can be realized early, and continuously.

Sam Spata

Sam Spata is an architect with 25 years executive experience as a client advisor and practice leader for capital project delivery. His international experience includes a range of delivery modes, from Design-Bid-Build to Novation to P3.

Sam is Owner and Principal of Method Lean, an independent Lean consultancy. He is an Improved Instructor with LCI and an approved CES provider with the AIA. To accelerate Lean learning and implementation, Sam Spata developed a unique framework, The Lean Progression©.