Put your hand up if you’re familiar with the term “Lean Construction”. I’m sure all construction professionals heard it at this point or another during its market presence of around 30 years now. Most of those individuals know roughly where it originated and what the core assumptions behind it are. A few could pinpoint examples of lean practices in their office or on site.
If you are not aware of lean construction ideology – one of the definitions sums it up as “a way to minimize waste of materials, time, and effort in order to generate the maximum possible amount of value” (Koskela et al. 2002).
There are a number of tools and processes developed in the spirit of lean construction, that I’m sure you are aware of such as the Last Planner System (pull planning, make ready, look ahead planning). Now that we’ve established that lean construction is a concept that we have lived alongside for many years, let’s focus on the area that I’m so keen to explore – the Kaizen philosophy.
Why am I so keen to talk about it you will ask.
Construction industry is well known for being notoriously inefficient, wasteful and lagging with adoption of innovations (see below). Needless to say everyone knows that construction projects often run over time and over budget, sometimes by billions of pounds. While in the recent years we can observe a number of industry-wide developments , it is still certainly one that could use a low cost trigger for improvements.
What is Kaizen?
Kaizen is the Japanese word for “good change” (Kai-change, Zen-good). It means constant improvement of all company functions, at every hierarchical level, from CEO to the least paid employees. It doesn’t matter if the change happens one time or is constant, big or small, as long as it is a change for the better. Once implemented, the results should include a better workplace, a safer environment, elimination of hard work, teaching people how to scientifically innovate and test new ideas, reducing waste, increasing productivity and optimizing the supply chain.
Sounds familiar? Perhaps you’ve come across the term “learning organisation”, which while being similar, is more common in western management practice. Learning organisations are those that strive to remain competitive in the business environment by constantly transforming themselves.
Kaizen is one of the subtle shifts in attitude that on a national or industry-wide stage could mean a seismic shift. It involves everyone in an organization working together to make improvements without large capital investments. Sounds good so far?
Let’s try to list some characteristics that build up the mindset of those who follow it:
- Small simple improvements involving all employees from all levels
- Everyone is encouraged to come up with suggestions on a regular basis
- In most cases these are not ideas for major changes but rather small changes on a regular basis, improving productivity, safety, and effectiveness while reducing waste
- Any area is considered for improvement
- “With no action, there can be no success”
- Do it better, make it better, improve it even if it’s not broken, because if we don’t, then we can’t compete with those who do.
- Problems are seen as opportunities to improve.
There are three techniques that Kaizen practitioners use repetitively:
- PDCA (plan–do–check–act) – an iterative four step management method used in business for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products. Also known as the Deming Circle.
- 5 whys – an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause and effect relationships underlying a particular problem.
- 5S – a workplace organization method translated as “Sort”, “Set In order”, “Shine”, “Standardize” and “Sustain”. The list describes how to organize a work space for efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and storing the items used, maintaining the area and items, and sustaining the new order.
Have I mentioned it can be also applied to your personal life?
1. Koskela, L.; Howell, G.; Ballard, G.; Tommelein, I. (2002). “Foundations of Lean Construction”. In Best, Rick; de Valence, Gerard (eds.). Design and Construction: Building in Value. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann, Elsevier. ISBN 0750651490.