Construction pull planning with only kanban is like running a marathon with one leg tied up

Lean Station
6 min readFeb 20, 2017


Making sure the process is waste free and error free is critical, but this alone is not enough in construction projects, the project needs to stick to the schedule and thus the budget. This practically determines the profit margins for the contractors.

— Lean Station

Pull planning in general is a new world approach to project management which strives to create a smooth production process by making the plans more reliable and by getting valid commitments completed from those executing the work.

Beer bottles’ assembly line

A fine manufacturing example would be that of a bottling plant where the success of a beverage getting in the bottle heavily relies on two things:

  • On the planning part to locate the bottle precisely by computing the speed of the travelator and the frequency of the bottles placed
  • On the promise (or the commitment) of the beverage dispenser to dispense exact amount at the right time.

Kanban Boards are used to plan and monitor such planning & commitments very often in manufacturing or in software development for ensuring a smooth production. Physical kanban boards are used traditionally using post-it notes — each column depicting a certain stage of the production process and each post-it reflecting a certain task, the nature of the work differentiated by color.

An illustration of a traditional Kanban board using Post-it® notes

Modern technology has helped to replicate such kanban boards into apps on the mobile and for the web. Several companies exists who digitise these kanban boards and solve the practical challenges like post-it dropping off the board or making the board available anytime or in enabling collaboration among a team.

The trick to get smooth production is to repeat the process consistently across every piece of the product that is manufactured. When executed flawlessly, what you get is no wastage, and no errors — a fundamental objective achieved by using Lean and Six Sigma methods respectively. Kanban supports this brilliantly.

Construction — a different monster

Now, here is the problem. Construction is totally a different monster from manufacturing. Fundamentally it seems similar when looked at a macro level- both have a design process, production process, need supply chain etc. but when you get down to look at the details, they are significantly different — there is no resemblance to each other at all.

The first difference comes in the aspect that, in manufacturing the product is in motion and the process of production is pre-planned and is fixed. Construction is exactly a contrast, the product is fixed whether it’s a building or a bridge or a jetty — it doesn’t move, the process of production moves all around it.

The second fundamental difference is the way they both are structured. Designing the production line in manufacturing is done one time, the stations that add value (ex: the beverage dispenser) are programmed only once, the output are generally in thousands or millions or more. (Think of how many bottles come out of the bottling plant every day). This is called a continual process, the same process repeats every day — every week — forever.

In construction, the fundamental product that comes as the output is always only one. Each site is different, each project has different constraints, different sequence of steps, different environment and most possibly different people involved too. This is not a continual process, there is start and a definitive end to the project. Hence it’s called a project not a product.

Planning is far from the the truth, pull planning with scheduling proves to be effective

These fundamental changes require an additional aspect than just pull-planning. The use of only kanban boards will be limiting and insufficient. Construction projects rely heavily on variety of schedules. Tracking and monitoring these schedules, not just of the main contractor, but those of the subcontractor is extremely crucial. Apart from work schedule, there are schedules for material delivery, for approvals, for shop-drawings, etc.

Next, the other significant aspect comes in the form of dependencies between construction activities — which are complex and convoluted in construction where the processes are nonlinear unlike in an assembly line.

Kanban boards do not cater to such complex dependencies nor can it handle schedules of projects simultaneously. Hence it becomes essential to rely on multiple tools and technologies to practise pull planning.

Making sure the process is “waste free and error free” is critical, but this alone is not enough in construction projects, the project needs to stick to the schedule and thus the budget. This practically determines the profit margins for the contractors.

Every activity which is different from each other is practically dependent on one or many other activities in a project, these often have cascading effects to downstream activities more often requiring a dynamic approach to planning and execution.

Let me illustrate the importance here. In a bottling assembly line, it’s highly unlikely that there will be a random variation in the frequency of the bottle, or that the beverage dispenser works randomly, but hypothetically if one or both of this happens — imagine the issues the bottles downstream are going to face. Imagine the wastage. Can the production targets be met?

This situation is an everyday affair in construction where both the plans and site work completion are extremely variable. Tracking and monitoring schedule and a regular comparison to baseline is important to prevent cascading effects. This is as crucial as the process of reliable plans and getting valid commitments. Kanban boards provide half the functionality required for the extent of pull planning required in construction. It feels like running a marathon with one leg tied.

An illustration of cascading effect downstream due to delays in construction activities

The complexity in construction is unlike any other industry — extremely convoluted, multiple stakeholders, many contractors, complex dependencies not just many schedules, but a variety of schedules. The project planning and management team need more than just a kanban board to manage a construction project!! What you need is a tool to tie them all.

Here’s the pitch.

Lean PlanDo is a cloud and mobile based tool that is built specifically for construction. It brings to life what kanban cannot — dynamic planning and collaborative execution. The one tool to tie them all — for pull planning with construction scheduling handling complex dependencies combined with team collaboration, constraint management, document management, automated report generation powered with unique features like insightful data analytics and in-built lean process for not just ease of use, but consistent use by its users. It’s built to be simple yet to be powerful.

Lean PlanDo — one tool to tie construction management together

The tool integrates the patented Lean PlanDo methodology which in turn incorporates reliable plans, valid commitments, project schedules, baseline comparison, constraint management, work plans and schedules, material schedules, approval schedules, and design schedules to help users to practise the pull planning process in a simple, elegant and effective manner. Lean PlanDo is built to scale and support complex projects worth billions of dollars on its web and mobile based apps, anywhere in real-time.

Take off from Lean Station!

It’s time to make construction truly productive with an effective process, smart technology and empowered collaborative people. When you can fly a marathon, why run?

Take off from Lean Station!



Lean Station

Lean Station serves construction companies, both owners and contractors by helping them adopt lean practices to improve efficiencies and build new capabilities