Business of Engineering

How lean construction methods are shaping the future

There are many ways lean practices will positively impact the future of building engineering and construction overall
By Erin Miller, PE, Southland Industries, Dulles, Virginia October 23, 2019

Lean construction methods can have a positive impact for everyone on a project  from consulting engineers, to general contractorsto the client soliciting the workAdopted as a response to customer and supply chain dissatisfaction with the building industry, lean project delivery methods seek to manage a project through relationships, shared knowledge and common goals in order to break down the traditional silos associated with construction. The results of this approach produce significant improvements in scheduling, in reducing waste and ultimately result in better overall project delivery and increased value to the owner. 

With lean methods growing in popularity across the world, the future of construction and engineering as we know it will transform substantially 

Better building designs 

Traditional methods require multiple iterations of the same program area and various rounds of feedback before the design is considered finalThis can delay the process and increases the number of steps needed before a design is ready 

That being said, there is value in iterative design. Through lean tools and processes, like Last Planner System for design, the design team can better manage the iterations and improve the quality of information output to the field and owner while still moving the project forward.  

Lean methods also can help a team break the mold of traditional regimented documentation packages. Current processes can require drawing packages of 200 or more drawings that could often be completed in a lesser amount, reducing waste and time 

It seems like common knowledge, but if the construction side needs increased detail for a specific area, then the design team should focus on detailing that area to a higher level of detail. The team should focus on what’s valuable to the project as a whole, instead of trying to produce less detailed documents for the entire project to satisfy an arbitrary package deadline.  

Enhance communication and collaboration 

By increasing communication between end-users, program planners, architects, engineers and builders, the team gathers information from all parties to streamline the design process and make decisions. A common phrase in lean delivery is: “Go slow to go fast.” If we take the time to understand the wants, needs and constraints of everyone involved, we can begin to see the path forward more clearly in less time than traditional iterations. This strategy can eliminate potential flaws and lessens multiple rounds of back and forth feedback from all parties involvedFurthermore, it significantly streamlines workflow processes by reducing time wasted drafting a design that was missing critical components. 

Taking the time to create a shared set of goals for the project allows the project team stay focused on generating value for the end user and owner. These goals guide the decision-making process and provide clarity to new parties brought on board during the project life cycle. Expectations of transparency also help create a project team culture of cooperation. This allows team members from all trades and disciplines to pitch in to help solve challenges  even if it’s not directly related to their scope. 

Since all disciplines interact in one way or another, understanding other trades constraints can help increase overall value for the project as whole.  

Exceed client expectations 

By working with one another, projects seamlessly come together and people between disciplines help each other to achieve the common goals of the project. Respect for people is at the core of the Lean Construction Institute’s tenets for lean design and constructionPeople like to work on projects where they feel respected and heard, while owners benefit from projects that are completed faster than traditionally and with increased overall value all the while driving waste out of the project. Clients will continue coming back to highperforming teams for repeat work because of the success of lean-driven projects. 

To make real change in the industry as engineers, we must continue being technically solid and honing our craft, and we also must embrace collaboration and increase communication with various parties across the board. As lean methods continue to gain traction and popularity in the industry, the future of engineering and construction will be a much more inclusive, streamlined and sustainable environment that better meets the needs of everyone involved.  


Erin Miller, PE, Southland Industries, Dulles, Virginia
Author Bio: Erin Miller is a design engineer for Southland Industries’ mid-Atlantic division, and is responsible for generating innovative solutions for building HVAC systems. Southland Industries is a CFE Media content partner.