Sven Bertelsen in memoriam

Sven Bertelsen, the Danish pioneer and champion of lean construction, passed away after a short illness on September 4, 2019, at the age of 81 years.

Sven was among four people who founded NIRAS, a consultancy firm, in 1961. At NIRAS, he took part in several national projects where new developments in construction were targeted; often methods and ideas anticipating lean construction were developed. His subsequent research in lean construction focused especially on production control, complexity, prefabrication and theory.

After retiring in 2001, he focused all his energy and creativity on lean construction, having joined the International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC) in 1999. Altogether, he was an author of 21 IGLC conference papers from 2001 to 2011. He hosted the 12th annual IGLC conference in Helsingør, Denmark, in 2004, and served as scientific co-chair of the 14th annual conference. He also wrote books on lean in Danish, including “Semiramis” (a delightful instructional story of a cat observing a construction site) and his last book “The Unruly Project”. The latter was translated into English, Spanish and German. For sixteen years, up to March 2019, he wrote bi-weekly letters, distributed by the Danish Association for Lean Construction to its members. The letters dealt especially with lean theory and practice but also commented on construction industry issues.

Sven was instrumental in bringing lean construction into Denmark, which then became an early adopter of this approach in Europe. Besides his national activities, he became well-known also internationally, through his papers and presence in the IGLC. His international reach was evidenced in connection to his 80th anniversary; colleagues from far and near posted their congratulations, greetings and recollections on the Web. The more than 1,500 citations to his papers show his impact on the community.

The following quote from his Web site is characteristic of Sven’s penetrating theoretical thinking, which was always connected to the practical implications of theoretical ideas:

“My thinking is based on Lean construction where I work with a Value-Flow-Operation theory as an outset, and with complex systems theory as a new basis. My hypothesis is that projects fail so often because we believe in law and order, where the true world is complex and chaotic. Thus, our PM tools are designated to fail.”

Creativity and curiosity were hallmarks of Sven’s personality, and they were the basis for discussions and collaborations. So many in the IGLC community had the privilege of enjoying the hospitality of Sven and his wife Sonja at their home, and almost as a rule, the lively discussions over theory and practice, started after dinner, lasted long through the night.

Sven’s activities promoting lean construction continued into his last years. For example, in May 2019, he gave a well appreciated lecture on lean construction over the Internet to a class in Cali, Colombia. In addition, he served as informal advisor to many young people coming into the industry.

His funeral was held on September 12. Afterwards, there was a gathering in Sven’s favourite restaurant, Søllerød Kro, for the traditional “gravøl” (literally grave beer) for celebrating his life and work.

Although the lean construction community has lost the wise old man from Denmark, his legacy will live on, and the example he provided as a champion of the transformation of construction will be remembered and cherished.

The IGLC Community