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The definitive guide to lean for design and construction teams

Lean is a business philosophy and company-wide culture that alleviates the challenges and constraints facing today’s design and construction industry.

It’s grounded in respect for people and continuous improvement, and it’s focused on delivering customer value in the least wasteful way while removing silos to optimize the whole, not just parts. Organizations, project teams, and individuals benefit from the agility, resilience, and reliability of results generated inside a lean culture.

The origins of lean trace back to the early twentieth century, when Toyota responded to market competition by developing a new and streamlined approach to building vehicles. Since then, lean has grown from a manufacturing concept to a proven and sought-after strategy for any company seeking to maximize value and improve the reliability of results in an uncertain business environment. For the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, where chronic labor shortages are a daily challenge, lean is quickly becoming mission critical.

Lean design does not mean less design. It does mean less wasted effort, less rework, and less over-engineering, which clears the way for design teams to deliver customer value within established cost and scheduling constraints.

Lean design accomplishes these gains through a relationship-oriented, value-driven approach to managing the highly iterative design phase of capital project delivery, which directly impacts downstream constructability and quality. By simplifying and streamlining this phase using lean principles, lean design can have a significant impact on overall project performance.

Lean construction  brings the power of lean principles to the jobsite. In contrast to a contract-driven engagement model that discourages cross-functional collaboration, lean construction teams dismantle traditional silos and often share risks and rewards. This empowers them to build a deeper foundation of trust and to streamline the whole construction value stream—not just their part of it.

As a result, lean construction teams face fewer Requests for Information (RFIs) and other traditional barriers to progress, which frees them to focus on delivering customer value at every step in the construction process.

Lean project delivery integrates the benefits of lean design and lean construction in an integrated management lifecycle. Teams are focused on delivering value holistically through a practice of continuous improvement and respect for people, enabling them to deliver consistent customer value from kick-off through final project handover.

Beyond lean project delivery: To maximize value, embrace a lean culture at the organizational level

Lean is more than a project delivery method or an instrument for design and construction teams. It’s a set of behaviors based on five core principles. For those behaviors to pay off, they need to be shared, practiced, and reinforced at every level of an organization. In other words, lean is not a tool—it’s a culture.

5 principals of lean culture 5 principals of lean culture

When these five principles behind lean culture are woven into an organization at a cultural level, they turn a group of individual people with rigidly defined functions into a flexible and harmonized whole, with a mutual vision of success and a pool of shared resources to help them get there.

lean is vs lean is not chart lean is vs lean is not chart

Being lean starts with doing lean

A lean culture won’t happen quickly or all at once. It’s a process. In 2021, we set out to understand who had embarked on that journey by asking more than 500 companies from the life sciences about the concept of being lean. The results are included in our Horizons: Life Sciences Report, and they reveal that the majority companies are at least somewhat familiar with lean principles.

Lean-Design-Familiarity-Chart Lean-Design-Familiarity-Chart

From Horizons: Life Sciences Report, a 2021 CRB survey of 500+ industry leaders

As their familiarity grows, companies may pilot a lean approach on a certain project, or they may try out a few lean tools. At this stage, they are doing lean, which is a necessary step towards truly being lean.

Even “being lean” is not ​​a steady state. It, too, is a process and part of that requires companies to continuously and reliably measure and modulate their lean approach in response to shifts in their values, their business plan, their product pipeline, their regulatory landscape, or the marketplace in which they operate.


doing lean vs being lean chart Doing lean -vs-Being lean

Schedule, budget, quality: If we’re not laser-focused on KPIs, how will we meet them?

 Just like any other company, lean organizations care about meeting their cost and scheduling targets. But rather than see them as static goalposts (“We must meet this milestone at all costs”), lean organizations approach these targets as dynamic opportunities for learning and continuous improvement (“What is our current position, and what can we change in order to achieve our ideal state?”).

Terms and concepts to know

Lean in practice

Lean design focuses on removing the silos that separate design and construction—silos which, on a traditional project, generate wasteful rework and non-value-added activities.

By removing those silos and prioritizing collaboration, lean design enables teams to integrate critical considerations like client value and constructability into the upstream scoping and design process. This gives teams an opportunity to align those considerations with the project’s schedule and cost considerations, leading to a more simplified and streamlined design process.

Lean construction is about maximizing value and minimizing waste through respect for people and continuous improvement. Planning, problem-solving, and decision-making are approached collaboratively, and regular retrospectives give integrated project teams a chance to further adapt and streamline their approach.

This builds greater certainty and reliability into the whole construction value stream, leading to better schedule, cost, quality, and safety control.

Lean project delivery integrates lean design and lean construction, enabling project teams to focus on delivering value holistically through continuous improvement and respect for people.

Lean culture is a lived philosophy shared and embodied by all members of an organization. It’s based on the five lean principles described below and is focused on minimizing or eliminating rework, blame, and rigid thinking in favor of greater flexibility and operational resilience. Lean project delivery is one specific example of a lean culture at work.


The signatures of a lean culture include deeply integrated teams, open and trusting communication, focused problem-solving, reliable commitments, and a focus on learning and improving.

Lean principles

This is the foundational principle of a lean culture. Every member of a team or organization has value to offer; recognizing and enabling that value will lead to a healthier workforce, improved project outcomes, and more flexible and resilient organizations.

Rather than reaching for solutions right away, lean organizations seek first to understand their customer’s “why,” or the value that their customer expects from their investment. 

“Customer” is a flexible term in this context. It can refer to an external stakeholder, like a client with a capital project underway; it can also refer to a colleague or a delivery partner. Whoever the customer is in a given situation, understanding their “why” helps team members make meaningful commitments and work together towards a shared vision of success.

This principle is all about looking beyond the local or individual impacts of a particular activity, deliverable, or decision, and instead seeking to understand it in the context of the overall value-stream.

 For an individual, this means anticipating how one’s own behaviors and choices can drive success for others.

 For a project team, it means moving away from the idea of siloed functionalities (design, mechanical, etc.) and instead building an integrated project plan that balances all upstream and downstream considerations.

For organizations, it means developing end-to-end strategies that will improve all operations, not just specific problem areas.

Teams are empowered to continuously identify and eliminate non-value-adding activities, leading to more efficient processes. This frees team members to focus on delivering customer value rather than on checking unnecessary boxes.

In a lean organization, individuals are encouraged to identify problems, experiment with new approaches, and continuously improve. For example, teams might find an opportunity to remove unnecessary steps from the process of setting up a new project.

 This principle operates from a foundation of open communication and reliable commitments. Leaders trust team members to evolve and refine their practices, and team members trust one another to share ideas and drive innovation.

Lean tool and strategies (a sample)

In lean project delivery models, Target Value Delivery ensures that all design and construction decisions support a project’s value proposition. Cost and scheduling constraints become an input for those decisions, rather than a result of them.

This strategy upholds several lean principles: it keeps project teams focused on customer value, while giving them the means to optimize the whole project and improve flow. For example, if more spending is needed on one project component, teams work collaboratively within a shared risk/shared reward financial model to offset those costs elsewhere. In this way, TVD enables proactive, ongoing cost and schedule control while ensuring that the end result aligns with the owner’s objectives.

This collaborative planning tool helps teams establish and fulfill a network of commitments to meet the schedule or project milestone deliverables (as opposed to activities that are templated and repeated from project to project, whether they’re needed to meet a milestone deliverable or not).

Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) is the process of leveraging shared models and technologies to manage and improve the entire lifecycle of a project.

Because teams that are using lean principles and tools are able to achieve design certainty early in a project’s lifecycle, they can take advantage of prefabrication, preassembly, modularization and offsite fabrication to shift certain parallel construction and assembly activities offsite. This strategy helps to lower on-site safety risks, improve quality, and further amplify cost and schedule certainty.  

What are the benefits of a lean culture?

  • Lean principles can positively impact the daily work experience for individual people, which in turn improves their lives outside of work.
  • Lean principles improve outcomes for project teams by creating an environment in which cross-functional teams operate as a symbiotic whole, moving reliably towards a shared vision.
  • Lean principles drive success for organizations by dissolving rigid ways of working and improving agility, which positions them to meet market demands and improve organizational efficiencies.

How a lean culture impacts individual people

Not long ago, an article with a focus on project delivery would not have included a section like this. But employee attitudes are shifting rapidly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a fifth of employees around the world are changing jobs; the majority of them say that shared values and a better lifestyle fit are more important to them than higher wages.

In response to this shift, employers need to rethink the lived experience of their employees. That’s especially true for employers in the construction industry, where a significant labor shortage has made it even harder to find and keep skilled workers, and where a traditional “tough it out” culture has led us directly into the eye of real-world tragedy: today, a construction worker in the U.S. is more likely to die by suicide than a worker in any other industry.

To fix this urgent situation, companies need to rebuild themselves as places where individuals actually want to work, and where they feel that their time and expertise is rewarded by more than just a paycheck.

That’s where a lean culture can be transformative. It makes room for organizations to prioritize meaningful relationships over KPIs, and it promotes a sense that people belong to something larger than themselves—something shared by their colleagues, whether down the hall or on the other side of the world. Rather than the daily grind of putting out fires, these colleagues work together to create a proactive and streamlined workplace environment, which lowers stress and reduces the long hours traditionally associated with our industry.

The result is greater satisfaction and personal enjoyment while on-task, which can translate to deeper connections and higher commitment both at the workplace and outside of it.

In a nutshell:

  • The construction industry is facing a chronic labor shortage.
  • To build and retain a high-performing workforce, employers must engage with individual employees and establish an environment that supports mental health and wellbeing.
  • A lean culture can help companies meet these needs by making space for sustainable, relationship-focused behaviors, like trust, communication, and collaborative problem-solving.
  • Inside a lean culture, people are invited to see their contribution as part of a purposeful whole, rather than as a measure of individual success or failure.

Sourced from the Lean Construction Institute and the Integrated Project Delivery Alliance (2016)

How a lean culture impacts project teams

Project teams with a high lean intensity—that is, teams working within a lean culture, using lean behaviors and tools to their fullest extent—are statistically more likely to achieve improved cost and scheduling outcomes, according to a study of 162 projects commissioned by the Lean Construction Institute in 2016.

Why is a lean culture so effective for project delivery teams?

Because it creates the conditions in which key stakeholders and project partners are integrated early in the delivery lifecycle, and it aligns the team around project value and conditions of satisfaction or success. Every team member is empowered to speak out, share their expertise, challenge the status quo, and work collaboratively towards solutions throughout the project, always while keeping the end in mind and driving toward shared success.

As a result of this integrated and coordinated effort, project teams are able to eliminate or reduce the traditional causes of runaway costs and scheduling uncertainty: over-engineered designs, over- or under-production of materials, delays from multiple change orders, and conflicts between individual parties.

For project teams to maximize these benefits, they need to build a lean culture and engage with it across the entire project delivery lifecycle.

Not all project teams will accomplish this goal in the same way. At CRB, for example, we’ve developed our own lean project delivery method called ONEsolution™. It’s grounded in the same five principles that guide all lean projects, but we’ve amplified the benefits of those principles by replacing traditional stage gates with modified phasing and approval stages:


In a nutshell:

  • For a lean culture to work at all, it needs to work from a business perspective.
  • “Being lean” on a cultural level will sustainably improve communication and accelerate early design certainty, leading to improved speed to market, better cost control, and a higher ROI on capital projects.
Delivery Method Comparison Delivery Method Comparison
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We find that this approach to lean project delivery ensures the early integration of a single, solutions-oriented team, and that it helps this team understand their client’s business case, maximize their value, and reduce their risk. It works like this:

In the Business Case Alignment Phase:

Lean project delivery teams start with the “why.” That means project teams define the owner’s business case and the value that they expect from their capital investment.

By focusing on the “why” before moving on, the project team is able to determine, with certainty, that they can deliver a facility that will uphold their clients’ values within the maximum allowable cost and timeline. That determination helps the team make confident and realistic decisions throughout the project’s lifecycle.

In the Chartering Phase:

 Traditional projects typically have a Concepting or Basis of Design (BOD) phase overseen by the design team, who are often siloed from construction experts. Our lean project teams operate differently. They aim for full team integration, from architects to trade partners to Commissioning, Qualification, and Validation (CQV) experts, right from the start.

By integrating this team early in the project delivery lifecycle, team members have an opportunity to define the project’s conditions of satisfaction and other objectives, and to discuss the behaviors and delivery strategy that will help them maximize value for the project owner. At this point, they build a network of commitments to deliver the project’s targeted scope, cost and schedule, and they establish a framework of shared risk/shared reward that will incentivize collaborative decision-making and creative problem-solving.

In the Execution and Handover Phases:

Working as an integrated whole and powered by the combined expertise of diverse design and construction experts, the lean project delivery team is able to identify downstream problems during upstream design activities, while there’s still time to solve them.

This opens the door to early cost and design certainty, improved constructability, and fewer downstream clashes—all of which accelerates construction. And because CQV experts are part of the integrated team from day one, facility commissioning and startup are also completed much more efficiently.

The effort of a lean project delivery team does not end with facility startup. One of the five principles driving the team’s behavior is a commitment to optimizing the whole, not just parts, and building a functional facility on-time and within budget is only part of the delivery promise. To realize the project’s whole value, a truly lean delivery team will stay involved to ensure successful knowledge transfer and user training.

The lean project team’s toolkit

How lean project teams leverage tools for better cost and schedule control:

A traditional project delivery cycle involves designing, then estimating, then value engineering and redesigning. In a lean culture, teams eliminate the wasted effort built into this approach. Instead, upstream engineers and architects work together with downstream build experts from the start. This enables early schedule and cost control, especially when supported by lean tools such as:

  • Target value delivery (TVD): Project teams rely on TVD to ensure that design and construction decisions align with the project’s intended values while falling within its cost and scheduling constraints.
  • The Last Planner System: Teams collaboratively identify the commitments that are truly necessary for delivering a project (as opposed to “what we’ve always done”), thereby eliminating wasted effort and accelerating outcomes.
  • Virtual design and construction (VDC): Team members from across many locations work inside a shared virtual environment, which facilitates better communication and accelerates early clash detection and problem-solving.

 How lean project teams leverage tools for better safety and quality control:

Lean culture encourages collaborative planning from day one, which includes recognizing and mitigating safety and quality risks. By removing wasteful activities, for example, teams eliminate the defects and rework that often impact quality, and they create a more proactive—and therefore safer—environment for workers. In fact, a study of 162 projects commissioned by Lean Construction Institute shows a 28% uptick in safety during construction for best performing lean projects, as compared to typical projects. The same study showed that quality versus expectation also favored best performing lean projects.

Because a lean culture enables early design certainty, it helps teams to further improve safety and quality by leveraging prefabrication, preassembly, modularization and offsite fabrication (PPMOF). With a PPMOF strategy in place, delivery teams can move a significant amount of work typically done in the variable environment of a construction site to a controlled environment, reducing the risk of accidents or injury. It also means that materials are made under optimal, repeatable conditions, which improves quality and, by extension, reduces rework and helps improve project speed.

How a lean culture impacts organizations

A culture built on lean principles can support and sustain a company’s mission in all-new ways, especially in today’s world of constant change and market uncertainty. Whether your organization is committed to improving the lives of cancer patients or to giving pet owners nutritious dog food, meeting that goal will be easier if your whole workforce is aligned behind it—which is what happens when you have a strong lean culture.

This link between lean culture and corporate mission is especially apparent in the face of a new challenge. Different teams within the organization are better prepared to quickly integrate their resources, sharing “lessons learned” and putting the right experts in front of the right problems, fast. That leads to flexible and effective solutions which may not have been conceivable in a more traditional, siloed organizational structure.

This isn’t just true for those directly involved in project delivery, either. Think of the dynamic between internal sales and marketing teams—too often, those relationships are built on a legacy of mistrust and finger-pointing. In a lean culture, this wouldn’t be the case. Rather than seeing themselves as adversaries, sales and marketing experts would be co-enlisted in support of shared company objectives, and they would have the environment and the tools to work together—really together—towards those objectives. Think of the impact this would have on sales targets.

In a nutshell:

  • To meet and sustain a corporate mission, that mission must feel relevant and achievable to the people inside the corporation.
  • That’s what a lean culture does: it anchors a high-level mission and the values behind it to ground-level capabilities.
  • Instead of words on a website, the corporate mission becomes a genuine and well-understood driver inside the company, sustained by the collective expertise and effort of many.

Ready to begin your lean journey?

Whatever your industry, chances are good that your organization is under competitive pressure to move faster and lower your costs. This is especially true for organizations working with design and construction partners to accelerate capital project delivery. In our Horizons: Life Sciences Report, for example, we discovered that speed to market shifted from a lower-ranking business driver pre-pandemic to a top priority for 40% of life science companies today.

Telling your workforce to work harder and faster won’t help you meet those financial and speed to market goals—not in the long-term, anyway. For organizations to develop and sustain a business strategy that will help them deliver value within their cost and time constraints, they need a cultural revolution from within. They need lean.

To launch your own lean journey, or to help you accelerate from “doing lean” to “being lean,” reach out to us.

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