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This post aims to introduce the ambidextrous characteristics of lean construction (LC). Some studies have shown the rigid and flexible features in LC. However, these achievements cannot fully explain the whole nature of LC. Rigidity and flexibility—a pair of contradictory and symbiotic characteristics of LC—are called ‘LC ambidexterity’ in this post.

Paradoxical thinking

Lean projects are temporary production systems designed to maximise value and minimise waste while delivering products. Still, some paradoxes remain in LC projects and might be reinforced by lean. For example, one paradox is JIT and buffers. Zero inventory is an ideal state. From the raw material to the delivery of the final product to the customer, interruptions will inevitably occur. Therefore, there must be some necessary inventory or buffer. Another paradox that may be stressed by the lean approach is the paradoxical tension of standard operating procedures versus customised crafted solutions. Lean thinking emphasises standardised work. Projects require rigorous standardised procedures to provide repeatable solutions, but when innovative or unexpected project tasks arise, custom crafted solutions are urgently needed, which may result in the dysfunction of standardisation policies.

As a paradox is an intrinsic characteristic and dynamic factor of organisations, we need paradoxical thinking to manage paradoxical tensions. Managing paradox does not mean eliminating the paradox but rather tapping its potential. Creatively capturing the two extremes, such as innovation and efficiency, is considered an effective means to manage paradoxes.

Organisational ambidexterity

It was argued that the management of the ‘dual structure’ is the core of the ambidexterity concept. At the organisational level, ambidexterity is generally considered to be a pair of contradictory and symbiotic paradoxical capabilities for organisations to perform different and often competing strategic actions at the same time. The most widely used definition is the interpretation of ambidexterity by March (1991), namely exploration and exploitation. The emergence of contextual ambidexterity takes the paradoxical lens, emphasising that the success of the overall organisation depends on simultaneous exploration and exploitation. A paradoxical solution is to seek ambidexterity or ambidextrous organisation form that simultaneously creates tight and loosely coupled organisational structures.

Definition of LC ambidexterity

As revealed by the paradoxical tensions faced by LC project organisations, contextual ambidexterity is required for project organisations to have a better paradoxical solution. LC capability includes both the ability to achieve the rigid goals of the project and the ability to respond flexibly to the uncertainty of the project, instead of discarding one of the two. It has the characteristics of contextual ambidextrous capability. LC ambidexterity is defined as follows:

  1. LC ambidexterity is the capability that an organisation or individual has to achieve LC goals and an ambidextrous capability to solve both conflicting and interdependent problems. It embodies the philosophy, principles and methods of LC and is dedicated to solving the paradoxical tensions in an LC project.
  2. LC ambidexterity represents two capabilities that deal with opposing characteristics. Based on this duality, LC ambidexterity should be a two dimensional construct.

LC ambidexterity dimensions

LC exploitative capability is a rigid capability that tends to eliminate all variabilities to achieve continuous flow, standardisation, modularisation and the ideal state of pursuing zero inventory. Unlike tolerance for variation, it refers to maintaining the consistency and efficiency of results. This capability pays more attention to the use of existing technology and knowledge in the organisation to obtain current benefits.

LC exploratory capability is a flexible capability that tends to eliminate the waste caused by the inability to cope with variability. This kind of capability is derived from possessing multi-skilled resources and supplying them in plenty to be capable of moving between functions, absorbing fluctuations of demand while promising the sustainability of the system operation. LC exploratory capability also focuses on employee participation, tolerates variation, encourages employee trial and error and focuses on a culture of continuous improvement.

The dynamic balance of the two dimensions

In a project life cycle, LC exploitative capability and LC exploratory capability are not permanent, and the two dimensions have dynamic capability characteristics. LC ambidextrous capability is presented as contextual ambidexterity. The two capabilities exist at the same time and complement each other, thereby forming a virtuous circle, which promotes the LC ambidextrous capability to reach a dynamic balance.

Application of LC ambidexterity

Lean tools have facilitated the application of ambidexterity to the resolution of paradoxes. For example, JIT approaches to address the quality–efficiency paradox. Total quality management, which is customer- and process-oriented, facilitates cost savings and shorter cycle times while increasing customer satisfaction. A mass customization strategy allows for the provision of a variety of products for capturing customer needs while meeting the costs and lead time of mass production. In addition to facilitating the application of specific tools to solve certain local problems in production management, ambidexterity can be gradually extended from LC to other areas, such as project organisation. For example, ambidexterity can help to resolve the problems caused by the separation of project design and construction and to balance competing individual and organisational interests.

Additional resources
1. Fang, Y., Daniel, E. I., & Li, S. (2021). Conceptual framework for lean construction ambidexterity in project-based organisations. Construction Management and Economics, 39(10), 824-838.

2. Fang, Y. and Daniel, E.I. (2021). Defining Lean Construction Capability from an Ambidextrous Perspective. Proc. 29 th Annual Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction Lima, Peru, 147–156.

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Yanqing Fang is a lecturer at Tianjin University of Finance & Economics, School of Management Science and Engineering. Her research field is construction management, especially lean construction. She is teaching lean construction course in China and is committed to popularising LC in China.