“A Field Walk” is a Q&A-style series that features Lean practitioners sharing insights on their journey as well as advice on securing buy-in, tips for implementation, and more. As our community is built for shared learning, we trust you’ll find value from reading about their experience and examples.
If you’ve been in the industry for any time, you’ll know Henry’s name and work. He’s been in construction for more than 35 years, starting as a sheet metal worker and growing to general superintendent before moving into executive roles. He’s a Lean advocate, DEI champion, and mentor to young people entering the trades.
Was there a specific reason or event that got you started on your Lean journey?
I was introduced to Lean when I joined Southland 15 years ago and learned just how impactful Lean could be to our field and operations teams. Southland has always been Lean company and a founding member of the Lean Construction Institute (LCI), so it was expected that I’d learn and lead with a Lean approach.The concept really resonated with me as it talked about doing things smarter, engaging people, and aligning with our core values – both those of Southland and my personal ones as well. It was looking at construction with a collaborative approach and worked so well on complex projects like hospitals.
Why do you think many in our industry are resistant to Lean culture?
There are several reasons. Many may be unaware of the benefits. Some may have had poor experiences, while others are simply stuck in traditional mindsets that have worked okay.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the major trades and/or GC buy-in?
Yes, but perhaps not at an optimal level. There is always room to improve at any degree; it just works best and is more impactful when buy-in is across the board.
For trade partners that are new, against, or hesitant to try Lean, I like to show them the benefits in the field and how we can use Lean approaches to simplify coordination and planning efforts. It’s about engaging them in a discussion on where they find pain points, collaborate to find a solution, write down the plan and share it broadly. The more times we can repeat this to keep the wheels from falling off the cart, the more value they see.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the Owner and/or design team buy-in?
Yes, as every small Lean approach, tenet, or tool helps a project. And, as we show wins and improvement, the support increases.
In my current role as Vice Chairman for LCI nationally, I spend considerable time speaking about Lean practices to this group and providing perspective of how their decisions impact us on the job site down the line. And, even more, how we can add value at the front-end of the project planning to create a better build for everyone.
Examples really bring home this point to demonstrate that everything runs downhill so the last group (i.e. those of us in the field) often gets the blame if a project isn’t on time or budget. There are many decisions made up the chain on paper that are then passed along as the edict that cause issues in the field and could have been avoided with earlier collaboration. Maybe the plan is not constructable or unsafe, could be changed to deliver faster or with less cost, etc.
These issues can be avoided when you have the right people in the room at the start to interface with the owner, architect, designers, construction management team and key trades. We can quickly collaborate on the concept and work through the process. And I’m seeing this approach more and more in our projects.
How do you convince trade partners or other superintendents who are resistant to change to try something new?
Previously, I’d been a tradesman as a sheet metal worker and then advanced to managing labor and then to running a project. So, I’m able to leverage my own skills and knowledge of field work and help translate the value of Lean to help people see how it works and why it works better.
I make it personal to them and get to the core reason for any hesitation, and I work with them to identify possible solutions that will benefit them in their daily work. Tradesmen are craftsmen so when I’m able to show how Lean will help them perfect their craft, work more effectively, and create longevity for them, it’s a win. I stress that we need their input and engagement as we are all here to learn, and we can learn from you…we need to learn from you.
I answer the question: What’s in it for me? Why do I do this if it doesn’t help me? I show them how buying into Lean will help benefit them in their actual day and increase the pride they feel in their work. It’s about how to be more effective, safe, and productive without unnecessary stress that we compound on ourselves when we don’t work as a team. It helps that I can get in the trenches with them, as I was there once and understand the issues and stress they face with problems that they didn’t create.
What Lean process, tool, or methodology has been a game changer to the way you run work in the field?
Primarily, my approach with “respect for people” is the main catalyst to discussions, approaches, conflicts, collaboration, and application of Lean practices and innovations. I talk about this daily in meetings, interviews, podcasts, you name it. (Here a recent podcast on just that topic.)
For superintendents or trade partners that are new to Lean, where should they start?
I suggest they start with something that can result in a small win for them. Identify what bugs them and partner with them to find a solution.
The tenets of Lean is a good place to start, but my first always is respect for people. Respect is a big deal in our industry and when our trades feel disrespected, it’s hard. If you want my attention, you must first give me respect. We must respect the people and the value, skill, experience, and drive they bring to the table. We need to value their expertise and longevity in their trades. We must ask questions versus dictate our way. We must listen and ask for feedback. If we don’t, we’ll get resistance or, even worse, fake smiles with internal wishes that we fail.
After that, start small. Be it starting to run daily huddles or adding more visual communication tools to the trailer, take a step and consistently implement it. Then add something else.
What is the single most important value achieved from Lean?
Respect for people rises to the top for me.
Do you think Lean should/can be practiced on all/most projects, if not what percent do you think it can be effective?
Lean can be practiced on any size project and be impactful to an individual company or project team. And, even if you start small, it’s a step in the right direction. The goal is where we can look at the lifecycle of a project and find ways to improve and remove roadblocks. And it’s important to realize that not every step or every technology needs to be used.
I like to look at the eight wastes and speak to the things that are in our industry and not extracting the value of people in your business. There is waste in everything we do and the ability to identify and remove that waste is true beauty.
I also advocate that last step of Last Planner System that is reflection and learning. Those lessons learned really have an impact. We get to regroup and see where a plan broke down, why it happened, and how we can change it for the next week or next project. It’s a chance to engage the right people and empower them to make decisions to be more effective, safe, and successful.
Where do you see the future of our business heading in terms of how projects are led in the field?
We’re nearing a crisis point in some ways that not enough people are joining our industry to perform the work needed, so we must do something different as an industry. The first part of that is to make the industry attractive and worthwhile to join. It’s first the respect aspect for the person and the work. It’s the work-life balance, safety first focus, fair pay, career advancement, etc.
We also must acknowledge that the industry is changing – in part driven by the job market and spurred on by COVID. We’re seeing more Design for Manufacturing (DFM) appear in project rollouts with modular structures build in remote places and shipped to the jobsite for more plug-and-play format. This changes the labor dynamic with less labor needed onsite, but more labor needed in manufacturing locations.
The question is where those facilities are located. Many owners are nervous to have work performed outside the US with the risk of delivery delays so we’re seeing more facilities appear in the US. We can create work in spaces where people need jobs and where they don’t have to drive to work and where the work is manageable. This is a great way to bring people into the trades and to partner with unions and nonprofit apprenticeship programs.
And where do you see construction community heading?
This is an amazing time to be in construction, but we have our work cut out for us if we are to grow the next generation of tradesmen. We must bring respect to the person – the worker, and respect for the trade skills they bring.
Our industry associations are really focused on helping advance this area. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to serve on the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee for AGC. It’s a great initiative that’s helping to create a safe, welcoming environment for construction personnel. For far too long we’ve had an accepted level of unacceptable behavior, so I’m pleased to see the industry taking a stand.
We have to create a Culture of CARE: Care, Attract, Retain, and Empower people in our industry to come to our industry, to stay in our industry, and to improve our industry. AGC has a website dedicated to this effort: https://buildculture.org/.
A note from Keyan: Finally, we’d be remiss to end this Field Walk without mentioning that Henry has a book coming out in Spring 2022. Stay tuned to reserve your copy of Seven Principles: Creating Your Success in the Construction Industry. Henry penned the book to help those joining the industry to provide depth on what construction industry is like in real life. It speaks to work ethic, work-life balance, sustainability, longevity, advancement, and more.