Lean Construction: What is it, and why does it matter?

For decades, the construction industry has struggled to break free of conventional work schemas and adopt newer, more innovative work models. In many cases, this slowness to adapt has led to delays in production, wasted materials, reduced profits and inefficient workflows, which can be detrimental to the success of a project. But the tide is rapidly changing. 

Driven by the need for increased speed, efficiency and cost-effectiveness, recent years have been marked by a much higher adoption and openness to new, out-of-the-box and innovative approaches. While many of these approaches have been around for a while (e.g. BIM, offsite construction), it is only more recently that technology has really caught up, enabling them to reach their full potential. 

Case in point: Lean construction.

Lean construction has been steadily gaining traction in the industry, with a growing number of firms embracing the approach to maximise value for their clients and minimise waste. It’s a team-led philosophy that encourages higher performance by improving how workers solve problems, measure success and tackle different phases of the building cycle. 

Let’s take a closer look at what the lean construction philosophy entails, its principles, its history and how it ties in with other innovative approaches like BIM and offsite construction.

What is lean construction?

Lean construction is an end-to-end, collaborative approach that aims to decrease time, effort and waste. Its goal is to maximise the value and productivity of a project while minimising the costs normally incurred during planning, design, building and maintenance. As defined by the Lean Construction Institute:

“Lean Construction is a comprehensive system of processes and behaviours that re-integrates our siloed industry into high-performing success-oriented teams, committed to collaboration, innovation, knowledge-sharing and interpersonal respect.” 

Lean construction processes usually share the following characteristics:

  • Design and engineering happen concurrently.
  • The customer’s perspective plays a central role in the process.
  • Cost control and management are proactive.
  • Problems are tackled on the spot by experts when possible instead of waiting for higher profiles to jump in with solutions later.
  • Objectives are clearly defined and explicitly aimed at successful delivery.
  • High levels of collaboration across stakeholders and throughout the project lifecycle. 

The highly collaborative nature of lean construction projects leverages the best from each team member, including contractors, architects, designers, customers and workers, to ensure high-quality results delivered at higher speeds and lower costs.

Lean construction promotes collaboration and communication among diverse teams.

Lean construction: A brief history

The term “lean construction” dates back to 1993, when the International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC) was formed and set up the foundation for the theory. Later on, in 1997, the Lean Construction Institute was formed, helping to further the use of the lean construction approach in practice. 

Much of the lean construction philosophy originates from the “lean manufacturing” approach pioneered by Toyota after World War II. The idea was to harness the elements that made the Toyota Production Line so successful (e.g. respect for people, collaboration, continuous improvement) and use them to create a more predictable and repeatable workflow for construction projects.  

This lean manufacturing approach breaks down into a 5s strategy, which in Japanese goes something like this:

  • Seiri: Sort, clean, classify
  • Seiton: Straighten, simplify, set in order
  • Seiso: Sweep, scrub, shine, clean, check
  • Seiketsu: Stabilise and standardise
  • Shitsuke: Sustain, self-discipline

Since then, there have been various iterations, providing a better translation and making the 5s strategy more applicable to the construction sector:

  • Sort: Eliminate anything that isn’t needed (e.g. tools, documents, materials)
  • Set in order: Create a place for everything and always keep the workflow in mind:
  • Staff should have easy access to anything they require.
  • Materials should be stored near their place of use.
  • Everything should be easy to find and clearly labelled. 
  • Sweep: Ensure the workplace is kept tidy by making it a daily practice. 
  • Standardise: Work practices must be clearly defined and consistent across the board.
  • Sustain: Keep your tight ship running, and don’t let old habits creep back in. 

Some sources have even suggested the addition of a sixth “s” for safety, reminding teams to prioritise the safe completion of each project by adhering to workplace standards.

What makes lean construction different from conventional construction?

Here are a few of the key differences that make lean construction different from conventional methods:

Mi Casa's construction site.

High levels of collaboration

Conventional construction projects work in highly segregated teams, each with its own expertise, goals and focuses, often with minimal communication. The lean construction approach takes a different tack, ensuring high levels of communication among different teams with different types of expertise. 

By creating an environment where designers, workers, architects and engineers work together and share information, the lean construction approach ensures that all solutions and strategies are enriched by different points of view and expertise. This creates a more efficient workflow and ensures that every stakeholder is aligned and working toward the same goals. 

Concurrent phases

The conventional construction method tackles phases sequentially, starting with planning and design and then moving on to the building phase (the waterfall method). In contrast, the lean construction approach tackles different phases (e.g. planning and design) concurrently, resulting in a project that moves forward incrementally. This forces different team members to interact, come up with effective solutions and reduce errors that might have been costlier later on in the process.     

A focus on the final result

While conventional construction often works toward the end of a particular phase (e.g. planning, design, etc.), lean construction’s incremental nature ensures all teams are constantly focused on delivering a final result with minimal waste and maximum value. 

A predictable workflow

While conventional construction projects tend to be unpredictable, with unforeseen costs, errors and time delays, lean construction puts a great deal of emphasis on planning, waste and cost management. Its iterative and highly collaborative nature helps ensure minimal waste, errors and unforeseen costs, making the process more efficient and predictable. 

What are the principles of lean construction?

Construction of the Empire State Building, using lean construction principles before they were formally recognized.

Since lean construction is a philosophy or approach rather than a set methodology, the concept can seem vague and be hard to implement. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and different adaptations will have to be made to suit the needs of different teams and companies. However, there are six principles that can guide its successful implementation:

Understand the value of the client’s point of view

While conventional approaches focus on the plans and specifications that show what a client wants to build, lean construction moves beyond that to cover why they want it. This customer-centric approach helps the team effectively manage expectations, provide the best possible advice throughout the process and deliver results that keep clients coming back.

Map out the value stream 

Value stream mapping involves outlining different tasks, steps and materials and breaking them down to the lowest, most basic level. The goal is to determine the value of even the smallest detail, enabling you to create accurate forecasts and eliminate any unnecessary elements. 

When done right, this can help you identify important milestones, create timelines and track the labour, materials and equipment you’ll need at each phase. Taking the time to create detailed and accurate value stream maps early in the process can also help you identify opportunities, maximise efficiency and minimise costs. 

Minimise waste

Making the building process more efficient by eliminating waste where possible is one of the hallmarks of lean construction. This is especially important when you consider estimates showing that only 40% of a typical construction project budget is spent on value-added activities. The rest usually goes to wasted materials and mitigating the effect of errors and delays.  

Lean construction specifically targets the reduction of eight different types of waste, which can be easily remembered using the acronym “DOWNTIME”:

  • Defects: Refers to any steps, elements or components that aren’t correctly executed, resulting in errors, repairs and added work.
  • Overproduction: When tasks are completed ahead of schedule resulting in downtime or with excess resources resulting in wasted materials.
  • Waiting: When workers are ready for the next task but are delayed due to bottlenecks (e.g. the necessary materials haven’t been delivered or the prior phase has not been completed on time).
  • Not utilising talent: When a worker is not matched with a task that effectively utilises their talent, experience, skills and knowledge.  
  • Transport: When materials, equipment, or workers are transported to a site before they are needed. 
  • Inventory waste: Refers to materials that aren’t immediately needed and end up littering a site. Lean construction uses “just in time” inventory and tries to move away from “just in case” inventory. 
  • Motion waste: Refers to any unnecessary movement that can be eliminated through planning and organisation (e.g. making numerous trips to gather more tools or equipment). 
  • Excess Processing: When steps or activities are added that have no value for the client. This tends to happen when trying to eliminate the other types of waste.

Streamline workflow processes

Ideal lean construction workflows are characterised by being continuous, steady, reliable and predictable. Meticulous planning and high levels of collaboration are needed to avoid setbacks and keep projects running on schedule. 

Use pull planning 

Pull planning creates reliable workflows based on downstream demand, with the completion of one task marking the start of another. Each key stakeholder on a project starts with the end goal in mind and works backwards, milestone by milestone toward a target completion date. The process is highly cooperative and requires clear communication to establish schedules, responsibilities, points of contact and handoffs. 

Continuous Improvement

One of the best ways to increase efficiency and minimise waste (both core values in lean construction) is to constantly monitor performance, learn from your successes and eliminate the processes that led to failures. In lean construction, these learnings are internalised to create added value in current and future projects.  

Following this principle, many lean construction companies plan “kaizen events” for their teams. The term kaizen loosely translates to “continuous improvement” or “change for the better”, and the events usually take the form of company-wide team-building retreats. The goal of these retreats is to keep teams aligned and expose problems from different points of view, including workers. 

The benefits of lean construction

Here are just some of the benefits lean construction brings to the table:

Haacht project, CLT-S


Lean construction is all about efficiency. Following its principles enables teams to communicate more effectively, complete jobs faster and reduce the waste of materials, time, effort and labour.


Where there is increased efficiency, speed will inevitably follow. Lean construction principals encourage detailed planning and a broad strategic vision making it easier to reach each milestone quicker with fewer unforeseen delays or setbacks. 

Less Waste

Lean construction aims to reduce and, if possible, eliminate waste at every phase of the building process, not only in terms of materials but also time, effort and costs. High levels of collaboration between teams and detailed planning in the early stages make it possible to forecast what will be needed in terms of labour, time and materials. The goal is to use only what’s needed, avoid excess or unnecessary costs and recycle any resources that didn’t get used. 


Lean construction’s highly collaborative and standardised approach results in increased worker focus and understanding. It creates an environment where:

  • Everyone knows what to do
  • Resources are close by and easy to find
  • Workplaces are clean, organised and free of debris

These factors go a long way in decreasing workplace accidents and injuries. 


Having fewer injuries in the workplace, increased process efficiency and saving on resources that would normally go to waste all combine to create significant cost reductions. Increased speed also means companies can finish projects faster and move on to the next one, making more profits in less time. 

The drawbacks of lean construction

These are some of the drawbacks of lean construction:

It takes commitment

Implementing the lean construction approach requires a complete change from traditional work methods. To make it work, you have to get your entire team on board, provide additional training and be ready for some initial resistance to the change. 

It takes time

The benefits of the lean construction approach might not be immediately visible from the start. It can take time for workers, managers and other stakeholders to adapt and really understand how the lean approach works in practice. In other words, the benefits won’t be instant; they’ll come gradually as the team learns and internalises the new principles.

Everyone needs to be onboard

The lean construction approach requires teams to work together, like a well-oiled machine. Its highly collaborative nature leverages the strengths of each team member to create a thriving work environment. However, this can be a double-edged sword. Weak links in the chain can cause huge setbacks and delays that affect the entire project and impact team morale. 

Lean construction and BIM

With hsbcad's software solutions, whatever you design is manufactured, assembled & BIM-compliant.

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics of lean construction let’s take a look at how it relates to one of the construction industry’s most innovative methodologies, Building Information Modelling or BIM for short. BIM uses smart, cloud-based 3D modelling to help teams plan, design, build and manage construction projects. It creates a “digital twin” of a structure, enabling different stakeholders to collaborate, access vital information and make informed decisions.

Although BIM and lean construction are two different things, studies have shown that there is a great deal of synergy between them and that when used together, they can increase value for both clients and construction firms. Here are just a few of the ways BIM and lean construction complement each other:

A client-centric approach 

Lean construction places a high value on understanding exactly what the client wants, why they want it and delivering projects that come as close as possible to their wishes. BIM facilitates the process by providing detailed digital models of a structure, making it easier for teams and clients to: 

  • Visualise the possibilities
  • Get on the same page in terms of goals, timelines, costs, and specifications 
  • Provide the input needed to make the project a success

Detailed forecasts and planning

Waste reduction, efficiency and cost-effectiveness are some of the core goals of the lean construction approach. BIM enables teams to create accurate and highly detailed forecasts of the materials needed, the timelines, the labour and the expected costs. This detailed planning makes it easier to reduce waste, order and use exactly the resources needed and not exceed the forecasted budget. 

High levels of collaboration and a streamlined workflow

The lean construction approach places a high value on collaboration across teams, phases and stakeholders. BIM facilitates this by providing detailed, cloud-based models that are easily accessible to anyone on the team. This enables team members to:

  • Be more informed
  • Notice and point out any errors or inaccuracies
  • Spot opportunities
  • Make modifications and improvements

In short, when implemented together, BIM and lean construction can lead to a more integrated process in construction that yields higher quality and efficiency rates.

Lean construction and offsite construction

Many of the goals of offsite construction are complemented by the lean construction approach, helping to streamline the process through its different phases, including:

  • Planning and design
  • Prefabrication 
  • Montage

By implementing the lean construction principles and the 6s strategy, offsite construction companies can create reliable forecasts, increase productivity, improve worker safety, minimise waste and maximise value across projects and daily operations. In addition:

  • Lean construction’s “just in time” approach ensures that materials, parts and supplies are only sent to a site once the design is finalised and workers are ready to get started. 
  • Combining lean and offsite construction enables companies to meet customer schedules and overcome common logistical challenges more effectively. 
  • Offsite construction requires a great deal of communication and coordination, which is facilitated by lean construction’s highly collaborative nature. 

The future of construction is lean  

The construction industry is going through a period of rapid change, with higher demands for speed, cost-effectiveness, efficiency and quality. Lean construction can help companies achieve these goals while at the same time creating a more collaborative, inclusive, safe and streamlined work environment. 

With sustainability and resource preservation becoming a bigger priority every day, it isn’t surprising that the interest in lean construction is expanding globally and that a growing number of forward-thinking companies are making it a part of their everyday work. 

In addition, it complements some of the biggest agents of change currently transforming the way we build things - BIM and offsite construction - magnifying their benefits and creating an even bigger value for both clients and companies. 

All these factors combined, it’s safe to say that lean construction will be one of the driving agents helping to transform the construction industry as we know it - providing companies with a competitive advantage and helping them deliver next-level results with fewer resources. 


Are you interested in maximising your BIM or offsite construction capabilities? Our software solutions can help you take your projects to the next level at any phase, including design, manufacturing and assembly

Download Press Release
Renè Strack
Business Development Manager