The lean-led recovery from COVID-19: four steps to improve productivity

Traditional approaches to setting up and delivering major construction projects are often inefficient and wasteful. But the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis provides a once-in-a-generation platform for change.

The productivity shortcomings of construction are well documented. It’s an issue that has long frustrated policymakers and industry leaders alike.

Globally, the construction sector’s labour-productivity growth has averaged one percent per year over the past two decades, compared with 2.8 percent for the total world economy and 3.6 percent for manufacturing.

This general level of underperformance will be exacerbated further by the COVID-19 crisis, with a limited labour and supply chain disruption causing productivity to plummet.

Digital transformation is key, but is only one part of a broader solution that is needed. Fundamental issues connected to working practices remain at the heart of poor productivity within the construction sector.

These include working hours, the size of the labour force, below-par selection and training of workers, poor management and a general unwillingness to embrace off-site manufacture.

Organisations must begin to use modern methods of construction at pace. The off-site market, however, is dominated by a small group of key players with a mature supply chain.

To mitigate this, the industry must move towards wider partnering, cross-fertilisation of ideas and collaboration across the sector to eliminate the current fragmented approach.

Adopting a lean approach

Lean construction strategies can help the industry to become “off-site ready” by embedding a manufacturing mindset in delivering construction projects.

Lean manufacturing can be used to optimise labour, materials and equipment. This can help increase productivity while reducing headcount, by removing the large amounts of process “waste” that exist in the construction sector globally.

The eight ‘wastes’ lean construction looks to eliminate:

  1. Defects: damaged materials
  2. Overproduction: fabricating material too soon
  3. Waiting: lack of real-time information
  4. Non-utilised talent: having the right person in the wrong job
  5. Transport: unnecessary movement of plant or machinery
  6. Inventory: excess materials not being used – the opposite of ‘just-in-time’
  7. Motion: poor site layout leads to the unnecessary movement of people
  8. Extra-processing: double-handling equipment

A change in mindset

Organisations will need to deliver productivity improvements at pace and scale in a post COVID-19 world. Four steps can be taken to shift the construction industry’s mindset.

1. Act now

Understandably COVID-19 has caused many businesses to pause and think about what comes next. However, the organisations who act early and take decisive action will gain first-mover advantage. 

Companies will be considering a variety of changes and investments. Looking to implement lean approaches could be an opportunity to turn around struggling projects.

2. Understand the levers you need to pull

The primary focus of lean manufacturing is on the end-to-end time from order to delivery. Lean construction also takes this approach but with an added supply chain focus on collectively maximising value for the end client.

It’s only through a true understanding of customer value that organisations can begin to eliminate all of the things that don’t add value, known as process “waste”, and begin to maximise profit.

3. Maximise supply chain efficiency

Lean can be particularly helpful on projects that have been missing targets, where resource levels are inadequate and the design is not fit-for-purpose.

Across the whole supply chain, structured performance improvement routines need to be established to turn things around. This involves a range of techniques, for instance, we use root cause analysis to remove blockers to progress.

4. Embed lean behaviours

Construction is like aeroplane or ship building (rather than cars or other volume products), where workers move and the product is stationary. Lean construction takes on good practice from product development processes by focussing on the repeatability of tasks in construction.

Good project and cost management drives significant results but can be top-down driven. Adding a lean approach embeds the behaviours with workers and builds client capability bottom-up.

By upskilling the business to use lean tools, techniques and processes, this can help to ensure results are accelerated and sustained.

Case study

In 2019 we worked on a €300m 51-storey high, new mixed-use development in Singapore. 

What we did

  • Through a series of collaborative planning workshops we broke the complex programme down into smaller, more manageable pieces of work
  • We defined the optimum sequence for building the development
  • We confirmed the optimum resource required and duration for each activity
  • Visual management was used in each work area to track and manage productivity

The outcome

  • On-site productivity improved by 45 percent

The time is now

Productivity has long been the construction industry’s Achilles heel. This is an unmissable opportunity to do things differently and to see that new ways of working are possible. Lean approaches are part of this movement for change and could help pave the way for widespread adoption of off-site manufacture.

Further resources

Please visit our COVID-19 response page for all of our resources relating to the impact of COVID-19 on the construction sector.

About Turner & Townsend Suiko

Turner & Townsend Suiko are a team of lean specialists who work across the construction, infrastructure and manufacturing sectors. We apply our award-winning five-step process improvement approach to improve productivity and grow profit for our clients across the world.

For further information contact:

Stephen Gallagher
Principal Consultant

t: +44 (0) 7483 166 308