Implementing Lean Construction: The Major Pitfalls

Implementing the Lean Production philosophy in the construction industry has been discussed since the early 1990s. With an increasing attention to the subject, a growing body of research and many successful implementations by the industry, “Lean” construction has stood the test of time and avoided becoming another management fad.

Lean Construction implementation efforts can be divided into three different stages, with increasing degree of sophistication1:

  1. The first stage focuses on waste elimination from a technical and operational perspective, often through some specific Lean Production or Construction techniques (process focused).

  2. The second stage focuses on eliminating adversarial relationships and enhancing cooperative relationships and teamwork among supply chain actors.

  3. The third stage is the most sophisticated, involving a structural change of project governance. Its essential parts are: information technology, pre-fabrication, Last Planner System (LPS), bottom-up activities and emphasis on individuals, a rethink of design and construction, decreased competitive forces, long-term contracts, training at all staff levels, and a systems perspective of both processes and the product.

Unfortunately, the current Lean discussions in construction mostly revolve around the first and second stages with an emphasis on specific Lean techniques applied in specific project cases and limited view to the broader construction business structure and project governance2,3,4. In this post, going beyond Lean techniques, we will take a step back and try to see the bigger picture of the major pitfalls in the implementation of Lean in construction to achieve the third stage5,6.

a. Management issues

This is probably the most critical issue and includes: delays in decision making, lack of client and supplier involvement and vision, lack of top management support and commitment, poor project definition, delays in material deliveries, adversarial relations due to conventional contracting mechanisms, lack of equipment, material scarcities, lack of time for innovation due to schedule and cost pressures, unsuitable organizational structure, weak administration, lack of supply chain integration and alliances, poor communication, use of substandard components, lack of steady work engagement, long implementation periods, inadequate pre-planning, poor procurement selection strategies, inadequate resources, embarking on large-scale Lean programmes at once (rushing), lack of customer focus and lack of long term planning due to contractual uncertainties are among the major managerial pitfalls for Lean.

b. Financial issues

The implementation of innovative strategies like Lean Construction requires some funds. Adequate funding is needed to motivate the workforce, change processes, provide relevant equipment/material, train people and employ Lean specialists/consultants. Some of the financial barriers include project corruption, inadequate project funding (budget for innovation), inflation, high initial implementation costs, poor professional wages, lack of incentives and motivation, and too much risk aversion.

c. Training issues

There have been several efforts to raise awareness, provide guidance and knowledge relating to Lean Construction by academics, researchers, practitioners and bodies such as Lean Construction Institute's (LCIs), Construction Lean Implementation Programme (CLIP), Construction Excellence (CE) and British Research Establishment (BRE). However, these bodies operate in very few countries. Despite the growing body of publications, training issues appear to be the most common pitfalls for Lean practices. This may be related to the fact that the concept was adopted from the manufacturing industry. Some of these barriers include conventional (old) construction management syllabi/teachings, lack of Lean understanding, lack of technical skills, high-level illiteracy, lack of training, not seeing Lean as a holistic system but a cocktail of techniques, inadequate knowledge, lack of project team skills, lack of Lean awareness programmes, difficulty in understanding concepts and lack of knowledge/information sharing and dissemination (lack of intra and inter-industrial benchmarking and knowledge sharing initiatives or groups).

d. Governmental issues

Despite its significant economic contribution, the construction industry faces numerous government policy related problems. Some studies reveal that certain barriers arise due to government attitudes towards the construction industry in some countries. Those barriers include inconsistency in policies, lack of social amenities and infrastructure, materials unavailability and unsteady price commodities. Furthermore, some of the structural barriers like inflation, professional wages, and corruption could also be related to governmental issues.

e. Technical issues

These barriers are considered technical because they have a direct impact on the implementation of certain Lean Construction techniques. Some of the major issues are lack of constructible designs, incomplete designs, poor performance measurement strategies (not process based), poor understanding of client’s brief for value generation, lack of agreed Lean implementation methodology, lack of prefabrication, lack of standardization in the application of Lean techniques, overemphasizing quantitative benefits (not giving enough attention to the qualitative/non quantifiable gains), failing to demonstrate the business case for Lean, uncertainty in supply chain, lack of Lean systems thinking (implementing Lean ideas in partial “silos”) and the fragmented nature of the industry as a barrier to teamwork and collaborative partnering.

f. Human related/ organizational issues

Some of these factors include lack of transparency, challenges in instituting a change culture, high personnel turnover, lack of self-criticism, lack of teamwork, lack of participative management/leadership, lack of cooperation and effort aligning (i.e. construction teams vs. commercial teams), rigid organizational structures/procedures, poor housekeeping, poor leadership, leadership conflict, not developing in-house Lean competency (too much trust on consultants/trainers), misconceptions about Lean Construction, over enthusiasm, seen as too complex and alien, seen as a management fad, seen as an exclusively manufacturing idea, seen as an exclusive business of the “Lean department”, pseudo-Lean implementations for secondary reasons, overuse of Japanese/Lean jargon, and fear of unfamiliar practices.

More often than not, we hear accounts on promising Lean Construction success stories. However, unspoken Lean failures also present very valuable learning insights for the industry. In this post, a summary of those learnings from Lean failures to achieve broader scale and sustainable Lean Construction implementations beyond process improvement efforts (i.e. PDCA cycle) or some specific Lean Construction techniques (i.e. the Last Planner or Visual Management) was given. It is advised to have both a process and project governance/business structure focus when embarking on a Lean journey in construction.

1. Ogunbiyi, O., Oladapo, A., & Goulding, J. (2013). An empirical study of the impact of lean construction techniques on sustainable construction in the UK. Construction Innovation, 14(1), 88-107.

2. Salem, O., Solomon, J., Genaidy, A., & Minkarah, I. (2006). Lean construction: From theory to implementation. Journal of management in engineering, 22(4), 168-175.

3. Alves, T., & Tsao, C. C. (2007). Lean construction–2000 to 2006. Lean Construction Journal, 46-70.

4. Alves, T., Milberg, C., & Walsh, K. D. (2012). Exploring lean construction practice, research, and education. Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, 19(5), 512-525.

5. Bashir, M. A., Suresh, S., Proverbs, D. G., & Gameson, R. (2010). Barriers towards the sustainable implementation of lean construction in the United Kingdom construction organisations, In Proceedings of ARCOM Conference, Wolverhampton, UK

6. Sarhan, S., & Fox, A. (2013). Barriers to implementing lean construction in the UK construction industry. The Built & Human Environment Review, 6(1).

Featured Post


Lean Construction Resources

As our construction industry becomes more open to adopting collaborative and lean practices, we are going to see more requests for knowledge and training on the subjects of target value delivery, last planner system, choosing by advantage, A3 thinking etc.

Teaching LeanRead more


The Importance of the Owner for Lean Project Success

In Germany, there is a tendency that construction companies are the first stakeholders of the whole project process who apply lean principles or at least - lean tools. Working as an owner, I often ask myself, how much leaner can a project/construction site become if the lean principles are only executed inside the processes of the contractor.

Lean Culture Read more


Write a Blog Post and Win a Ticket to the IGLC 2016 conference in Boston

Now you have the chance to help promote Lean Construction and win a ticket to this year’s International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC) Annual Conference in Boston. By writing for the blog, you will be automatically entered into the contest. You can share your Lean case studies, best practices, and other insights from your implementation of Lean.

Copyright © 2015- Lean Construction Blog