What Kind of Production Is Construction?

Glenn Ballard1 & Greg Howell2

1Lecturer at U.C. Berkeley. Research Director for the Lean Construction Institute, ballard@ce.berkeley.edu
2Adjunct Professor at Boise State and Virginia Tech. Executive Director of the Lean Construction Institute, ghowell@micron.net


Applicability of lean principles to construction might seem to require that construction’s differentiating characteristics be softened or explained away. This is the strategy employed by those who advocate making construction more like the manufacturing from which lean thinking originated. Following that line of thought, successive waves of implementation would leave ever smaller remainders that are not yet reduced to manufacturing, and consequently not yet capable of being made lean. This approach offers tremendous opportunity for reducing the time and cost of constructed facilities. However, for our part, we are interested in that remainder, in understanding its peculiar characteristics, and in learning how to make it lean. Our interest is founded on the belief that construction is a fundamentally different kind of production; i.e., that there is an irreducible remainder. We also suspect that learning how to make construction lean will help show the way to the manufacturing of the future. Manufacturing is becoming more like construction. Far from being the most backward, in our view, construction can be among the leading edge industries in lean thinking. Adopting a single-minded strategy of transforming construction into manufacturing would be precisely the wrong thing to do. This paper explains the need to develop lean thinking for dynamic construction and lays the groundwork for a subsequent paper “Implementing Lean Construction”, in which these strategies are further developed.


Construction, production theory, uncertainty, strategy, lean thinking.



Ballard, G. & Howell, G. 1998, 'What Kind of Production Is Construction?' In:, 6th Annual Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction. Guarujá, Brazil, 13-15 Aug 1998.

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