Harri Haapasalo: Busting Lean Construction Myths

Today, several big construction projects in Finland follow lean principles and use project alliances. We’ve come far very quickly thanks to trailblazers like Professor Harri Haapasalo.

Harri Haapasalo is the Head of Industrial Engineering and Management at the University of Oulu. After graduating with an M.Sc. in construction economics, he began work on developing and researching computer-aided design processes. He earned his Doctor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and management and has since received several scientific awards in lean construction.

Lean construction originated in the manufacturing industry, and specifically at Toyota. Haapasalo realized that its principles could be applied to the construction industry as a remedy for its poor track record in productivity. “We understood that suppliers alone could not solve the productivity challenge. Clients and the way in which they procure services are essential pieces in the puzzle,” Haapasalo says.

What followed from this insight was a series of efforts to bring the lean philosophy to Finnish construction including the founding of Lean Construction Institute Finland and a sequence of industry-wide development projects. As a result, Finns have been able to implement lean construction in record time.

Six Myths About Lean Construction

There are many beliefs about lean construction that are not quite accurate. We asked Professor Haapasalo about these lean construction myths that he’d like to bust based on his research and experience. Here are six of them:

The Customer is Always Right

Haapasalo says that the essence of lean is to deliver value to the customer. Here’s the caveat: “Don’t deliver what the customer wants. Deliver what the customer needs.” Project preparation done right will uncover true needs that may be quite different than what the customer originally imagined.

Lean Does Not Work in a Business Where Every Project is Unique

“This is a typical claim that works as an excuse for not doing anything,” Haapasalo says. He admits that applying lean to project delivery is initially demanding. But no one can argue against the benefits of lean in construction: process efficiency, shorter lead times, elimination of waste, reduction of inventory, and improvements in resource utilization.

Lean is All About Methods and Tools

The Toyota production system is based on three cornerstones: the value-creation process, people, and tools. Management must give its employees the tools they need so that they can follow the established processes. Last Planner, for example, is a great tool for planning production schedules collaboratively. A simple suggestion box can be enough to collect ideas leading to continuous improvement.  These, in turn, follow the collaborative contribution and continuous improvement philosophies.

Lean Works Only in Big Companies

Company size does not matter. What matters most are the number of outputs and process repetition. A small company performing 100 installations annually can implement lean more easily than a huge company producing one nuclear power plant every 10 years.

Lean is Costly

Every new initiative – for example, the implementation of quality management or BIM – requires initial investment. You need to first understand what waste you’re trying to eliminate. You can then calculate the lifetime benefits of and investments needed for lean construction, and come up with a business case supporting it. Everything about lean construction points to a positive ROI.

Lean Equals an Alliance

In Finland, we’ve managed to create a sweet spot for lean construction in alliance projects. But any project can benefit greatly from early collaboration between the client, designers, and contractors. Project-level thinking is the most important factor for success, not the “leanness” of individual companies.

Employing Lean Construction is a Project

“Implementing lean as a one-off project is like deciding to run a marathon without any practice. Your feet will hurt and you will give up running because of the bad experience,” Haapasalo observes.  Finns have practiced and run the first marathon successfully, but companies have involved their most motivated people, the best “runners,” to participate in the process. Sustainable success requires getting everybody in the company on board.

Haapasalo says that the next step is to digitalize the lean construction process. He sees huge potential in building the digital twin of physical construction. “User-oriented digitalization combined with lean construction will eventually provide a tenfold improvement,” he predicts.