Understanding Construction Supply Chains: An Alternative Interpretation

Ruben Vrijhoef1, Lauri Koskela2 & Greg Howell3

1Research Scientist, TNO Building and Construction Research, Department of Strategic Studies, Quality Assurance and Building Regulations, P.O.Box 49, NL-2600 AA Delft, The Netherlands, Phone +31 15 2695228, Fax +31 15 2695335, E-mail r.vrijhoef@bouw.tno.nl
2Senior Researcher, VTT Building Technology, Concurrent Engineering, P.O.Box 1801, FIN-02044 VTT, Finland, Phone +358 9 4564556, Fax +358 9 4566251, E-mail lauri.koskela@vtt.fi
3Director, Lean Construction Institute, P.O.Box 1003, Ketchum, Id, 83340, U.S.A., Phone +1 208 7269989, Fax +1 707 2481369, E-mail ghowell@leanconstruction.org


Much research work has assessed that construction is ineffective and many problems can be observed. Analysis of these problems has shown that a major part of them are supply chain problems, originating at the interfaces of different parties or functions. There have been several kinds of initiatives aiming at improvement and renewal of construction supply chains, but only few have a track record of consequent and significant successes. Here construction supply chains are approached from an alternative theoretical viewpoint, namely that of the language/action perspective. In this approach, organizations are seen as networks of commitments. Two avenues have been pinpointed for practical application of this approach. First, the process of requesting, creating and monitoring commitments can be facilitated by heuristic models and computer systems, when suitably designed. Secondly, people can learn to communicate for action by developing new sensibility towards the ways their language acts participate in networks of human commitments, and improving their skills in understanding requests, and making commitments. By closer study, existing empirical observations support the idea that a large share of construction supply chain problems are caused by poor articulation and activation of commitments. But would this new approach also facilitate the implementation of a new supply chain management that has proved to be so difficult in practice? In this regard, two initiatives are reviewed. The Dutch initiative to create a framework for communication in large civil engineering projects is first presented and initial experiences from its implementation are discussed. Then, Last Planner implementations are analyzed. By drawing on the concept of small wins, it is concluded that these implementations act as a stimulus for wider changes towards an environment of firm commitments and high trust. The paper ends with a review on research tasks ahead.


Construction supply chain, language/action perspective, small wins



Vrijhoef, R. , Koskela, L. & Howell, G. 2001, 'Understanding Construction Supply Chains: An Alternative Interpretation' In:, Ballard, G. & Chua, D., 9th Annual Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction. Singapore, Singapore, 6-8 Aug 2001.

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