“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 Jesus (Jesse) Hernandez, Director of EH&S / Construction for Life Time Inc. in San Antonio, Texas, and Host for the construction podcast, Learnings and Missteps.
A Field Walk with Jesse Hernandez
- Was there a specific reason or event that got you started on your Lean journey?
I wish I could say it was on purpose. I was a plumbing foreman for TD industries, and I was introduced to the weekly work plan and a six-week look ahead. By introduced, I mean somebody said, ‘Here, you need to fill these out.’ So, I started doing them, and they made my life a lot easier. The chaos in my day was minimized and that opened my mind to learn more about Lean construction.
- Why do you think many in our industry are resistant to Lean culture?
Human beings do not like change. I have a few case studies; all my ex-wives and ex-girlfriends all know how much I do not like to change. And if you compound that with the fact that people in our industry have experienced very high degrees of success, in terms of buildings that they’ve built, accolades that they’ve earned, raises, promotions—to suddenly be faced with this proposal of ‘Hey, do it this way, this is better,’ instigates a level of mistrust. It makes them say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve been doing this all my life, and I’ve had tremendous success. I don’t believe you when you say this is better for me.’ So that’s an element that I think causes people to say, ‘I’m not sure.’
The other element is a lot of the Lean fanatics—and I’m guilty of this—find out that Lean is amazing and brings tremendous value to your day. We’re so excited because we’ve experienced the value and we go and impose these ideas on people that have not experienced that value. We forget how long it took us to come to terms with our adoption of Lean. And we want to get people there so fast that we don’t meet people at their own level and escort them appropriately. Lean advocates really need to pump the brakes, just go slow, and meet people where they are to help them experience it—not to talk about it or read case studies, but to experience the value from each of the tools to help people get there.
There are a lot of people out there that are consulting and coaching the Lean program because there’s a market for it. However, there are so many folks that have not put their hands around it and have experienced the pain of deploying an effort to change. They know about it, and conceptually they understand and can appreciate the realities of how awesome it could be. But day to day as a superintendent, a project manager, and as a trade partner foreman, trying to be the point of the spear and initiate the change and deploy all that effort along with getting the building built—that is the most tremendous undertaking, and too many people that are advocating for it have not lived that life. We need to reconcile that.
- Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the major trades and/or GC buy-in?
100%. When I was on the trade partner side of the business, we decided we were going to apply Last Planner System, to the degree of our understanding, on every job that we did in the San Antonio market. And it was tough because I had an issue with one GC and said, ‘Let’s work this out as a group.’ So, I got my butcher paper out for planning, and the project executive, with the GC, walked in the room and said, ‘Take that kindergarten crap off my wall and get out there and run some duct.’ And we said, ‘Okay, fair enough.’ But we continued down that path because it minimized the variation in our own personal work.
In years past when there were very few general contractors out there—back around 2005—we could put a lot of effort into getting the electrician aligned with us in this style of planning, because now we had mechanical, plumbing, and electrical. And they were so intermingled that it worked well. From that, we were able to leverage those relationships in the plan going forward to get the rest of the trades in alignment.
So, I’ve experienced that kind of success. I’ve also experienced where there’s one or two players who are not going to play, and it makes our work more difficult. But my recommendation is to remind them that companies don’t build these buildings, people build these buildings. That’s important to account for, because going back to when I was a trade partner, we had to take ownership of it, period. And because we made that commitment, we had plenty of people to blame, plenty of points to deflect ownership and say it was the GC and the framer and the duct and the sprinkler team. But when you take ownership of it as an individual, and your team is committed to just learning it and doing it, amazing things can happen.
- Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the Owner and/or design team buy-in?
Yes, 100%. The more stakeholders that come to the table and are committed to learn, not just in terms of learning the Lean curriculum but learning the people they’re going to be spending the next 6, 12, 18 months with, the better off they’re going to be. They start coming together and developing a common language and the rules of the game. What are expectations? How are we going to be accountable to each other? How are we going to celebrate? All that stuff. The more folks that have greater influence and responsibility come to the table and display leadership behavior, the better it’s going to be.
That being said, it’s not a requirement. It’s a luxury now. I foresee a time where people are going to be like, ‘Heck yeah, let’s do this thing.’ We’re a long way from getting there, but I don’t think it’s a problem. Every enormous fire starts with a spark. And we just need sparks right now.
- How do you convince trade partners or other superintendents who are resistant to change to try something new?
This one’s my secret sauce. There are two things, and they’re deceptively simple. The first absolute requirement is that I must listen to them. And by listening, what I mean is receiving all the sound that is coming out of their mouth, listening for the story that they’re telling themselves, listening to hear the pain points in their experience. That’s one part. That’s how I receive the information. I display the fact that I’m listening by taking action to minimize their pain. It’s about listening and acting on a problem that they care about first, period. Do that, and it’s peaches and cream afterwards.
- What Lean process, tool, or methodology has been a game changer to the way you run work in the field?
It’s evolved over the years. I’m going to answer this question in terms of what I’m now just starting to learn and realizing, ‘Darn, if I had, it would have been so much better.’ The technique is humble inquiry, learning how to ask the questions for which I do not have the answers. For the sheer purpose of understanding people’s thinking, I seek to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re making a specific observation. What are they feeling? What are their assumptions? Where do they think they’re headed? Where would they like to be? When I come from that space, the leaps and bounds that we can make are tremendous.
And I want to be clear, because humble inquiry sounds kind of simple, it’s not simply asking open-ended questions, and it’s not asking leading questions. It is investigative inquiry. I need to have some details and some facts about the situation, what’s going on, what is the goal. And then there’s just the pure inquiry of understanding what their intent is. What’s their problem? Why did they choose this? Usually, a simple question I ask is, ‘What part of this sucks, and what do you hate about it?’ And let’s go from there.
- For superintendents or trade partners that are new to Lean, where should they start?
Everybody should start with themselves. I’ll use the ‘Five S’ as an example; the Five S are Sort, Stat, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. A lot of people get introduced to the Five S, and they can see the value that it can provide. Then they go and Five S other people. Here’s a challenge for folks: Go Five S your significant other and see how that works out. It is not going to be good; there’s going to be some uncomfortable conversations because your significant other knows exactly how disordered you are.
I just had a conversation with Jennifer Lacy and she made a fantastic point. Lean is a lifestyle. It’s not a flavor of the week; it’s a way of thinking. So, for trade partners, superintendents, folks that are going to get started, start with yourself. Think of all the Last Planner System stuff—how do you organize your day? How do you think about your work? Do you consider all the activities you have to do, how long they’re going to take, and what must happen before the next one starts? That’s not just the work dynamic, it’s an everything dynamic. We also talked about visual management and how you leverage visual indicators to communicate with yourself. Some simple examples are: Where do you put your keys all the time? Do you have a visual indicator of where the keys are supposed to be? Or how do you keep from going to the grocery store and end up with six jars of peanut butter because you keep forgetting that you have some in the cupboard?
There may be a lack of visual management there. Get your hands dirty, play around with it in your personal space, so when you come to other people and invite them to play with you, they will know that they can trust you. Because Lean is a team sport. Yes, you can do it independently, but it’s just a whole lot more fun when you have people with you.
- What is the single most important value achieved from Lean?
This is aspirational, but I would say the single most important value achieved from Lean is honoring the men and women that do the work. It is at its best when it’s applied and practiced and understood. People at every level of an organization will develop a measure of empathy for the rest of the people all the way down to the people on the ground floor doing the job. At its best, those executive leaders will have empathy and an understanding of how their decisions impact and impose burdens on the frontline workers.
- Do you think Lean should/can be practiced on all/most projects, if not what percent do you think it can be effective?
I think it can be practiced on any projects, but I want to offer this delineation. When I first got introduced to Lean thinking, I thought the Last Planner System was the be-all end-all of Lean. I also thought that the company I worked for invented it. I say that because I think when people hear Lean, all they think about is the Last Planner System or pull planning. Lean is much more than that. It’s not just the Five S or the Last Planner System, it’s all these other wonderful things. And yes, it can be done on any team or any industry. It is universally applicable.
Jennifer Lacy and I are doing a series of live streams on the Five S and tying it to personal relationships and the workspace to demonstrate the universal application of these things. Now, what do you need for that to happen? You need a crazy person. You need somebody that has experienced the value and that has the stamina, the endurance, the grit, and the will to continue their personal path to learn and develop their capabilities. Because eventually, people will come when they see your life having more flow and growth than you’ve had as an individual. To that end, it’s going to be easy to see that and say, ‘Oh, you did this Lean stuff. Show me some of that because I want some of that in my life.’
- Where do you see the future of our business heading in terms of how projects are led in the field?
I’ll say it’s not where I see it heading, but it’s where I wish it would go. I wish that where we were all headed was in the direction of everyone upstream of executing the build giving 100% in coming to appreciate the burden of the work on the human beings that are installing the systems out there. That sounds philosophical, but I want to give it some anchor points.
Let’s say we’re designing a bus system, and the bus bar is 28 inches off the ground. That’s a bad thing because now the electrician has to kneel down to work and kneeling down or hunching over all day doesn’t feel good. How can these job sites be set up in such a way where there’s space to do some preassembly or the latest transformative design for manufacturer assembly? What are we doing to minimize the risk that the men and women are exposed to due to the way the work is designed? When we get there and start making decisions to celebrate and honor our craft workers, then we’ll have arrived. But we have a long way to go.