Olli Seppänen: Making Finland the World Leader in Lean Construction

Aalto University is combining process development and digital technology to take Finnish construction to the next level.

Olli Seppänen is a serial entrepreneur, lean construction researcher, and Professor of Operations Management in Construction at Aalto University. He worked for several years in California and consulted for U.S. construction firms. He completed a PhD on construction production control in 2009, moved back to Finland in 2015, and became Professor of Practice. He’s been involved in lean construction since his first presentation at the IGLC conference in 2003: “I introduced the Finnish practice of flowline scheduling there and later wrote an international textbook on the subject. Flowline figures are now an established method in lean construction in many countries.”

Making Lean Everybody’s Business

Seppänen is happy with the growing enthusiasm that Finns have shown for lean construction during his tenure. Public-sector clients, especially, are using project alliancing, a form of Integrated project delivery. They’ve overcome the hurdles of regulated public bidding and developed a superb partner selection process.

“Most companies still see lean as a set of tools and methods, like a big room, for example. We have a long way to go in continuous improvement. And I don’t think that yet we have lean organizations in construction,” Seppänen maintained. He says that the most critical issue is to involve subcontractors in lean development. That is possible only if project participants understand each other’s thoughts and business logic. “We’ve researched globally what makes a project excellent. Nobody in outstanding projects talks primarily about BIM or tools. They mention trust as the key success factor.” Partners must trust each other’s capabilities and their willingness to work toward the common goals.

Dramatic Speed Improvements without Haste

Haste is a common complaint in construction. Seppänen has conducted research at Aalto on pilot projects that shows how haste can be avoided while halving the construction time. This is possible with takt production, in which the typical two- to three-week buffers between successive tasks are unnecessary.

In traditional construction, the ROI for prefabrication has been questionable, whereas in takt production, the benefits are indisputable. There’s a huge untapped potential in involving material suppliers in lean development. IoT sensors, for example, could feed them condition data for R&D.

Aalto’s research corroborates the claims that productivity in construction is poor. Seppänen’s research team has used indoor positioning to track the movements of workers and concluded that they create value 30%, or at best 40%, of their time on site. Installation teams use 20% of their time moving materials aside that obstruct their work. Seppänen says that empowering individuals with situational awareness and personal daily task instructions is essential if we want to improve productivity. This calls for digital tools, which Aalto is also exploring.

The Vision

Aalto University, with Olli Seppänen in the lead, has started a project called Visio 2030 with 13 construction industry CEOs. Based on Aalto’s international research and pilot lean construction projects, the program will define a compelling vision for the Finnish construction industry and activate organizations to strive for it. Seppänen has a clear goal in mind: “I want to hear in future conferences that Finland is the world leader in lean construction.”