“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.
This week we talk with Jennifer Lacy, Lean Practice Leader with Robins & Morton in Plano, Texas, about her Lean Construction journey.
- Was there a specific reason or event that got you started on your Lean journey?
Around six years ago, my company started studying Lean philosophies and tools. Using a few of our projects as test cases, we had some success and identified tools that worked. And with that, we created our Building Forward® approach, which involves our approach to Lean.
We started with pilot projects and organized onboardings—getting teams together and establishing some standardized processes. I got invited, right at the beginning, to sit in on one of these onboardings that had trade partners, the client, and Robins & Morton team in there. They started talking about continuous improvement, collaboration, leadership development and learning. And I thought, what is going on here? This is really cool. As that meeting unfolded, I started watching people engage and get excited about the things that were important to them. That experience just lit something inside of me. When I left there, I thought ‘How can I learn more about what this is?’ That really jumpstarted my studying of the tools and the culture.
- Why do you think many in our industry are resistant to Lean culture?
I think they believe it’s somebody coming in trying to tell them that there’s a better way to do their job without taking the time to acknowledge all the amazing successes that they’ve had in the past. I think, from my experience, if we go in and we say, ‘Hey, you’ve made us a lot of money, and you’ve met all your budgets and your schedules, you’ve done some amazing work, but we have a better way to do it,’ they’re going to be resistant. They’re going to say, ‘Well, how do you have the answer when I’ve already had success?’
I think part of it is the way it’s approached in not taking some of those people that have had success seriously—not really talking to them about the role of continuous improvement. How do we continue to stay viable? How do we keep our business sustainable and stay competitive in the industry? If we approach it the right way by explaining that we are continuing to better our industry, not trying to replace tried-and-true practices, I think we will get a little bit more acceptance.
- Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the major trades and/or GC buy-in?
I’ve seen projects where the trades came in and they had the knowledge and had to own it. They’re able to do it in small pockets, and they’re able to celebrate some small successes. However, I think it’s a struggle when you are a trade partner trying to implement it on a job where there’s no buy-in from the GC, the client or designer.
I work from the GC’s perspective, and we have a roadmap that we implement on every project. It always helps when the client and the designer are on board. But because we are the GC and we want to set the tone early, if we can go in and establish the culture and provide education on the tools, we can easily navigate that.
- Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the Owner and/or design team buy-in?
It can, but it’s absolutely better if the designer and the client are on board. My role in our firm is our Lean practice leader, and my goal over the last couple years has been to create a structure and put something in place where we’re able to implement Lean on every project. I also had to create a process that we were able to control and drive.
If we can get the client and the designer engaged, absolutely, it’s going to make it that much better. But if we try to get them engaged, and they don’t get engaged, we just keep going. Slowly, we can pull them in and let them see the visual communication on the wall, the constraints or the things that may impact them—it’s a lot easier to pull them in this way than trying to do it with a rope.
- How do you convince trade partners or other superintendents who are resistant to change to try something new?
It’s really easy for them to gravitate to the tools piece because they’re tangible. They may say, ‘We already have something in place that we’re able to do and it’s working. What’s the return on us trying a different tool?’ What I’ve found is, if I completely flip it upside down, and I make it about the people and not the tools, it gives all of us common ground. It’s easy to gravitate towards the tools, but we sometimes forget the work cannot be done without the people. People want to matter, and they want their work to matter. By communicating the expectations early and establishing internal alignment around respect for people before we ever step foot on the jobsite, the project team can see and feel the win-win environment. Not just ‘I win’ and ‘you lose,’ or ‘I win but you win only a little.’ If we really look at it as though we’re all in this together, and if we can all find a way to work together, it’s going to be that much better. From a GC’s perspective, if trades want to work for us, that’s one step closer to us being able to fill gaps in the workforce.
- What Lean process, tool, or methodology has been a game changer to the way you run work in the field?
For me, it’s the Plus/Delta. I use that in all our alignment meetings and all our internal classes. We have a lot of training classes, and anytime we’re walking through a new process, or we have a group of people together, I emphasize the importance of feedback. At the end, I ask, ‘What was good, what was great, and what do we need to continue to do? What is something that you felt like added value?’ And then, ‘What’s the Delta? What is something that maybe didn’t add value that we should have done less of, or something that we could improve for next time?’ It’s the simple Plus/Delta that I feel gives me feedback. Anytime I can get feedback, good or bad, it allows us to continue moving forward.
- For superintendents or trade partners that are new to Lean, where should they start?
I think a great starting place is the daily huddle. If you are meeting daily, and you are talking about what’s happening on the job, you’re able to start building relationships in a structured manner, where people start seeing that we’re all working toward the same goal.
Every day we must make decisions, and we have to do things that impact this job. We have to look at how my decision impacts you, and how your decision then impacts somebody else, how it could impact the schedule and the budget and so on. When they start having those daily conversations, creating those relationships, and realizing how important they are, they really start leaning on each other and even start helping each other out. It completely changes the job.
- What is the single most important value achieved from Lean?
The focus on the respect for people. It’s the people putting the work in place. They’ve been overlooked a little bit because people see the work and not the people. I think what Lean has done is put the focus back on the people.
- Do you think Lean should/can be practiced on all/most projects, if not what percent do you think it can be effective?
I can speak from experience at my firm. We have projects anywhere from $1 million up to $350 million because we’re a general contractor, and in my role, I have been able to track and measure our implementation on every project. Now, not every project is implementing Lean tools to the same degree, but I know that we can identify our targets, make commitments, and then track the implementation—whether the client is bought in or the designer’s bought in or whether we have a contractual obligation to do it or not. So, I know it’s feasible and I know you can do it at any level; a lot of it is the buy-in from the top.
When you have buy-in from the top with the leaders, then those who are in the field feel empowered and have the autonomy to continue to make us better. I think that’s a big part of it.
- Where do you see the future of our business heading in terms of how projects are led in the field?
When thinking about the future of construction I think we can all agree there is no gateway opening with an influx of people, yet construction is not going to slow down. If we, as an industry, want to not only survive, but thrive, we must find a balance with culture and tools to retain workforce and best utilize their talent. People are at the center of everything we do, and we must focus on taking care of our most important resources. Respect for people, elevating the value they provide and communicating that they are needed and accepted will be key to our future successes.