The field of lean design and construction has been around for more than 30 years. Over time we have researched and tested many different ideas that have proven effective in improving project performance and human outcomes. Over the years as more and more concepts and ideas have been added to the lean construction body of knowledge, our ability to communicate the body of knowledge to beginners has gotten more complex, not less.

In this blog post, I want to introduce the lean construction pyramid and how it can help us better organize our lean knowledge. Once we have the proper organization, the pyramid allows us to visually see where we are lacking and thus giving us recommendations for how to improve our knowledge and implementation of lean design and construction.

What is the Lean Construction pyramid?

The lean construction pyramid is a simple concept. At the base of lean construction are the three philosophies of: 1) Respect for People, 2) Maximizing Value while Minimizing Waste, and 3) Continuous Improvement.

The next layer of the pyramid are the lean principles. The principles are concepts that we have found which when applied leads to better project outcomes.

The next layer are the lean methods themselves. These include the Last Planner, 5S, SCRUM, Takt, Target Value Delivery, Choosing By Advantages, etc. The methods are a formalization of the several lean principles to create a prescriptive recipe for putting lean into action.

The final layer of the pyramid are the tools and implementations. For each of the methods, you can apply them either as analog, digital, or a hybrid approach.

Lean Philosophies

The foundation of all lean construction are the three philosophies. These philosophies should never change. We should strive to get closer to these philosophies while never being able to reach them.

The goal of all lean design and construction is to create a practical path to achieving ALL three philosophies.

It is important to start with the philosophies first because they are the guiding north star. Most teams are not trained on the three philosophies and thus their understanding of the mission of lean construction can easily be misled in the wrong direction.

Lean Principles

Lean principles are concepts that when applied to design and construction generally lead to better project outcomes. We discover these principles through observation, by looking at construction projects as well as getting inspiration from adjacent industries.

As time progresses, we will discover more and more principles that align with the lean philosophies. And it is through the application of these principles that we continue to improve our lean implementation.

Lean Methods

In the field of lean design and construction, we place a heavy emphasis on the methods because the methods have all been well researched over several decades. The very first method that sparked the lean construction movement was the Last Planner System. Over time, we added more and more formalized methods to the body of knowledge including Target Value Delivery, Choosing By Advantages, SCRUM, 5S, Visual Management, etc.

It is important that the methods are in alignment with the lean principles and lean philosophies. Many of the methods such as TVD have not been fully developed and there are still decades more of research and development to refine and further develop it.

As time passes, we will see more methods come into development. Some methods such as Choosing By Advantages were not invented by lean construction practitioners rather they have been borrowed from other industries and disciplines.

Tools and Implementation

The lean methods, principles, and philosophies themselves are amorphous. They do not have any physical form in the real world. Only when we implement them do they take shape. In applying lean methods, we have three choices: analog, digital, or hybrid. It is up to the team to determine which tools and implementations that yield the best results.

Oftentimes we see teams touting about the tools and implementation. But all the really important foundations of lean lies in the philosophy, principles, and methods – things that one cannot easily see unless one has been trained to look for them.

Why use the pyramid?

The pyramid serves many important purposes for the design and construction industry.

  1. It provides a common vocabulary and an organizational “shoe box” for practitioners to put their ideas together.
  2. It allows people to communicate on how they are applying lean on their projects.
  3. The pyramid stresses the alignment of the philosophies, principles, methods, and tools. This alignment is not always as visible for people using lean.
  4. If you plot all the lean principles and methods onto the pyramid, you can see right away what you have and what you are lacking. This creates a path for continuous improvement.
  5. You can tell very quickly if someone knows lean or they are an amateur based on their vocabulary and speech patterns. Are they precise in their definitions or do they mix the principles with the methods, and philosophies? A precise endeavor requires precise vocabulary and understanding.

What about the 6 tenets of Lean from the Lean Construction Institute?

I believe that it is time to let go of those 6 tenets. They were developed at a time when a holistic understanding of the field of lean construction was not fully understood. The 6 tenets do provide some guidance on lean construction, but it also misleads people into thinking that they are more advanced than they really are.

Most people in the industry believe that their projects and company has already achieved the 6 tenets after a few years of implementing lean. Unlike the pyramid, they can’t “see” what they have and what they are missing.

The 6 tenets as a framework is also confusing because it mixes lean philosophy with lean principles which can create confusion amongst people new to lean construction.

Why use the Lean Pyramid?

Our current recommendation is to use the lean pyramid because it is simple, elegant, and straightforward. It can help beginners that are just starting their lean journey understand the field in a simpler way. It can help more advanced practitioners see holistically the field and know where they can improve their implementation.

Pyramids have been around for thousands of years. It is one of the first shapes that we learn in kindergarten. It is a vastly superior framework than the 6 tenets of lean construction because it allows anyone to see precisely what they know and what they are missing. As a continuous improvement effort, we should use the best ideas and best practices to propel the industry forward. It doesn’t make sense to hold onto antiquated ideas that no longer serve its purpose.

This post is not an attack on the 6 tenets or on LCI. Over the last 30 years, we have many ideas, concepts, and frameworks that we created as a means to explain and advance the field. Some of those concepts are no longer fit for purpose in the current state of the world. We have to be deliberate in retiring and letting go of older frameworks which are no longer viable and often end up confusing people rather than helping them.

Over time our goal is to make lean design and construction simpler, not more complex. We should acknowledge the contributions of those that came before us but at the same time we should not hold any framework, concept, or research paper as holy scriptures. We should continue to make progress in expanding lean understanding and find better ways to communicate it with the wider industry.

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Doanh specializes in Lean Construction with an emphasize on Target Value Delivery (TVD), Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), Choosing By Advantages (CBA), and the Last Planner System (LPS). He helps capital projects (100M to +1B) improve decision-making, productivity, cost, and schedule by 20% to 45% through Lean Construction methods and technology. He has worked with and studied under the founders of Lean Construction in order to develop a holistic understanding of LC methods from both a practical and fundamental theoretical perspective. He is an editor of the Lean Construction Blog, a leading online resource for Lean Construction. The LCB has over 300 articles on LC, over 150,000 unique visitors each year, and over 1M page views. The Lean Construction Blog's mission is to democratize and advance Lean Construction around the world.