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A common definition of “Lean”-anything (construction, manufacturing, operations, etc.) is that “Lean” is an operations strategy to increase value and eliminate waste. Simple, right?

This is the first installment of a multi-post explanation of how Lean defines and addresses “waste”. The web offers many good explanations of the Japanese concepts of “Muda, Mura and Muri”, attributed to the brilliance of Taiichi Ohno and the Toyota Production System (TPS). This set of posts intends to include, and also go beyond definitions and descriptions found elsewhere. In this first installment, the focus will be on the concepts of “waste”, “value” and “the pursuit of perfection”. The second will take on definitions and examples as applied in manufacturing and construction – applicable to both prefabrication and site installation procedures. The third installment will challenge the reader to identify types of waste in the field and discuss “Root Cause Analysis” – the identification of what must be changed to eliminate waste.

Taiichi Ohno famously left Toyota in his later years to do consulting. There are stories that he tested his potential clients’ commitment to change by charging non-refundable up-front fees and required a pledge to do what he told them to do. He did not spend time listening to the laments of his clients, nor did he pay much attention to their description of their problems. As quickly as possible he “went to Gemba”, i.e., he went to observe the production process. If possible, he would position himself on some perch above the factory floor where he could observe the production/assembly process end to end. Within minutes, he would order his minions, along with crews of local production workers, to halt the line, go out with crowbars and lifts to move equipment and reorder the whole process. When the line was restarted, production throughput and product quality were dramatically improved. It seemed like magic! “Done. Check, please!”

How did Ohno do it? I never got to see him in action, but I did observe another such master, Bart Huthwaite, a Sensei of Lean Design who has been my friend, mentor and colleague for many years. Bart was an expert in Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, now generically called “DFX”- with the “X” standing for any of a range of desirable design criteria. Bart, to say nothing of Ohno, could see things that I could not, because each of them had developed a set of Lean “lenses” through which they focused on clues to what interfered with productivity in the production system or in the design of the product itself. These “lenses” were developed through the rigorous application of Operations Science. They could identify and correct common problems that most of us are not even trained to see. Luckily, what they learned to look for has been written about and can be learned. I have written about Bart’s “Twelve Fundamentals of Lean Design” in another Blog post. Once you learn the underlying principles and train yourself to see what they look like in real life, you will never see the world the same way again.

Where should we start if we want to go beyond looking for waste, to really seeing waste? One simple way to start is by envisioning how a high-functioning, low-waste operation should look. When you envision your “perfect” Lean Operations, start with the Five Lean Fundamentals – which I have written about previously on the LC Blog, and which you should memorize. As a reminder, they are:

1. Value - is defined by the customer
2. Value Streams - value is created by stream of linked, value-adding activities
3. Flow – work activities should proceed in a smooth, continuous flow
4. Pull – materials and resources are delivered at the last responsible moment
5. Pursuit of Perfection – continuous improvement, learning, curiosity

If your operations are not based on these fundamentals, A) they are probably not “Lean”, and B) you probably have opportunities to eliminate waste.

Let’s start at the end: Pursuit of Perfection. We only see what the brain is trained to recognize. Because waste in the AEC industry so commonplace, so normal in the traditional way of doing business, and because most of us have been brought up and trained that the current practices are both right and normal, we don’t see waste. We need to start by imagining what “Perfection” might look like – keeping in mind that the more we learn about what improvement is possible, the clearer and more perfect our vision will be. Here are some starter ideas to which you can add your own. Perfection is:

  • A design that does everything the customer wants, when they want it, at a cost that provides exceptional value
  • A design, a project delivery process and a final product that delights owners, users, maintenance workers and the greater community
  • Every design decision is made exactly when it is needed to release the next design task, procurement action or site work sequence
  • Materials and resources in the exact amounts needed exactly where and when they are needed (usually small batches delivered Just In Time)
  • A collaborative schedule of reliable work commitments that keeps everyone working on the exact right tasks at the right time in the right sequence to create a smooth, safe flow of work
  • Everyone feels valued, productive, appreciated and supported
  • Every good idea and insight listened to and implemented

Sounds pretty good? Can you come up with more? Do the ideas you came up with meet the criteria established by the Five Lean Fundamentals? Remember, if they don’t, they aren’t Lean. Perfection is the goal. The pursuit of perfection creates continuous improvement.

Now it’s time to go back to Lean Fundamental #1: Value. Any task or action that does not directly add value has to be questioned as possible waste. Many people will object to this idea and site examples of “non-value-added, but necessary” actions. Really? What makes them “necessary”? Chances are that we do what we do because our operations systems are designed with the assumption that they are necessary – because this is “how construction is done”.

Things are the way they are in your current situation, because everyone is doing the best they know how to do given the limits of your current experience. Everything we do, and the way we do it, is entirely the result of some choice someone (or group) made. Repetition makes the actions easier, the choices more automatic and less conscious. The ease of habitual behavior, even when that behavior is sub-optimal, competes with the desire and effort require to continuously improve.

When we learn to recognize waste in the current system we can find almost unlimited opportunities for improvement – something that adds both meaning and excitement to any job! That excitement provides the energy we need to overcome the power of habit. The key to adding value and reducing waste is to examine the choices we make, both big and small, and to make ever more informed choices.

In Post #2, we will examine “Muda, Mura and Muri” – the ten forms of waste, with examples of what they look like in the field.

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Victor R. Ortiz is an organization development professional with over 35 years of professional consulting experience. Vic has worked with LCI co-founders Ballard and Howell since 1985 and he co-facilitated many of the early development meetings of LCI. Vic currently works as an independent Lean/IPD Coach.