The construction industry has always been marked by struggles with low margins and high risk. Lean construction offers one possible solution to these issues, but as a project delivery approach, it still remains largely untapped in the industry.

A new study from McGraw Hill Construction (MHC) and Dassault Systèmes, published in the "Lean Construction: Leveraging Collaboration and Advanced Practices to Increase Project Efficiency SmartMarket Report," demonstrates that too few contractors are familiar with lean practices and the benefits they offer. In particular, the study reveals that trade contractors have a strong opportunity to influence the growth of lean in the industry.

The study shows that specialty firms lag behind general contractors in overall lean adoption, but that a high percentage of the trades using lean experience increased profits and reduced costs, even higher than the percentage of general contractors that experience those benefits.

Building from the simple definition of lean construction as the elimination of waste from design and construction processes, the study measured the familiarity with and use of the principle of lean construction and five other specific lean practices.

Study participants came from two different groups: the MHC contractor panel, which provides a representative sample of firms in the construction industry, and members of the Lean Construction Institute (LCI), who offered knowledge and expertise about the use of lean practices not available in the rest of the industry.

Insufficient Knowledge Base

In fact, when looking solely at the representative sample of firms provided by the contractor panel, the need for more information about lean is starkly revealed: 37% of the firms are completely unfamiliar with lean, and only 28% report implementing any of the six lean practices, including the general category of lean construction. Of course, this is in sharp contrast to the members of LCI, all of whom are familiar with lean, and 82% of whom have implemented at least one lean practice. The contractor panel findings, though, demonstrate that lean is still an emerging practice in the construction industry.

The combined results of the contractor panel and the LCI members, which will be examined together from this point forward, also provide an explanation about why lean practices are still emerging. They reveal that nearly two-thirds (62%) of the firms using lean construction, or at least one of the lean practices measured in the survey, recognize that current, standard construction processes are inefficient. In contrast, only 14% of the firms not practicing lean regard current construction processes to be inefficient.

General Contractors as Early Adopters

While the use of lean practices is still emerging across the industry as a whole, the study also suggests that trade firms are using fewer lean practices than general contractors. Even though there are no statistically significant differences in the adoption of any one lean practice measured in the survey, the general trend for higher adoption among general contractors is clearly evident in the findings.

The data also suggest that these gaps may be due to a lack of familiarity with lean among trade contractors compared with general contractors: 55% of trade contractors report they are not familiar with any of the lean practices measured in the survey, compared with 38% of general contractors. This 17-point gap is considerably larger than the 7-point gap between general contractors and trade firms that have adopted at least one lean practice. This reveals that the trades need to be better informed about lean. It also suggests trade firms that learn about lean may be more likely to adopt these practices than general contractors.

Another finding from the study further supports the idea that trade firms may be critical to increasing industry efficiency. In addition to measuring specific lean practices, the study also looked at advanced approaches to increasing efficiency. These results clearly demonstrate that trade contractors are at least as engaged as general contractors in these approaches, and in many cases, they are even more engaged:

• A much higher percentage of trade firms (59%) report using global positioning systems to track their materials, equipment and tools than general contractors do (41%).