“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 I talked with Justin Davis, CHC, STS-C, superintendent with Skiles Group in Richardson, Texas.
Was there a specific reason or event that got you started on your Lean journey?
Sometime in 2015, I asked someone at an offsite training if the “Lean” buzzword I kept hearing was just another LEED offshoot. At that time, I just thought the focus was on doing more with less—less material, less staff, etc., to be good stewards and ultimately save money. I had worked in field supervision on large, hard-bid hospital projects for years, and I was pretty sure I already knew a thing or two about trying to “get by with less.” My own bias and misconception on the topic held me back from learning more about Lean for a while.
Like a lot of others in the healthcare market, it was through working with HCA that really got me to become a student of the Lean principles. They had a national program of work, where the projects were heavy on project metric tracking and prefabrication through industry partners like BLOX and Sto Corp products. The resulting owner-driven Lean really incentivized everyone that worked with them to embrace Lean principles, and to always look for a better way to deliver projects. That experience opened my eyes to how different relationships could be in our industry—owner to GC, GC to trade partners, trade partners to each other, and trades to suppliers—and that it didn’t have to only flow in that order.
When I found myself in a Lean program of work, it took me some time to understand what it takes to be a Lean leader and Lean builder. Once I started to grasp the big picture, I started to look at what I could do better. When I decided to settle down in Dallas-Fort Worth, I met you, and you connected me with Buddy Brumley and Frank Coln to see how they were implementing Lean on their projects. It was eye-opening for me. Honestly, I stole ideas and practices they shared with me that I started using the very next day. (I feel a lot better admitting that now that I’m working here with you at Skiles Group!) I was still new to Lean for the field, but those events got me going on this journey of continuous improvement that I’m happy to be on today.
Why do you think many in our industry are resistant to Lean culture?
First, I think Lean construction is a different game altogether than traditional construction, and you must, one, want to play that way and, two, know you’re playing that game and not the other one. If we don’t communicate an entire Lean culture in our businesses, we can’t expect people to be good Lean partners some of the time if it’s not the expectation for how they are rewarded and encouraged all the time.
Second, there is some comfort in the probability that some things won’t change. There is a concern that there is already “enough” change with how we do our jobs in the field and changing anything that isn’t broken just decreases the level of predictability you have with your project—like it just introduces one more set of problems to deal with, if I switch out of autonomous mode and start reacting to all these other opportunities for improvement. Our whole industry puts so much value in the experience gained from how we did it the first time, knowing how to do it better the second time, and the resulting profitability/efficiencies of the small improvements each consecutive time, I think that it scares us to ask ourselves if we ever approached the task correctly the first time.
Also, I think everyone has enough on their plate, so if this idea doesn’t help my workload, I don’t have space for it in my week. I have met a lot of people whose Lean journey started and ended with extra forms to fill out. Poor rollout and poor support can ruin people’s impressions, and they never get the chance to see it benefit their work and free up their time.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the major trades and/or GC buy-in?
Yes. I think a trade partner successfully demonstrating Lean culture and practices on a project that is not already being Lean managed is a great opportunity to demonstrate its value. I think you win people over showing Lean -vs- traditional in the same bowl, and how it’s not just an owner/GC trend, but that it really has value. Obviously, they will face challenges, and it wouldn’t be as successful as a whole team committed to the plan together and supported by a leader for the project, but there’s not an on/off switch once you start your journey as a company.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the Owner and/or design team buy-in?
Yes—and lately I think we are bringing more and more into the fold. I feel fortunate to have had so many owners who pushed Lean to the builder and the designer in similar ways at the same time, but I think we can be successful with Lean on projects where there isn’t that same awareness yet.
In the past year, we are seeing more and more Lean processes taking place with our owner and design teams—whether it is being recognized as “Lean” or not—by the much earlier communication and engagement of the building teams, and the trade partner supply chains, to help facilitate design decisions and improve processes. We are pull planning projects with owners and design teams at project conception earlier, instead of after trade buyout, just to make sure design understands the milestones to get the early release packages out. In daily huddles, we are potentially clearing roadblocks that might come up eight months down the road—before the plans go in for permit—by giving feedback on materials and products early in the design process.
How do you convince trade partners or other superintendents who are resistant to change to try something new?
Beating anyone over the head with anything isn’t what Lean is about. Someone must already want to improve something to get started. If it’s another superintendent, I like to find out what is bothering them about their project, and after really taking the time to understand, offer them a tool—just something from the box, like morning huddles, or a different format to the way they conduct their meetings, or a way of tracking progress visually. Once they have some time with that, offer another, and let the momentum build and be organic. It’s similar with trade partners, but I think it’s my responsibility to show them our box of tools and how we are using each specifically on our projects—for their benefit and ours—to all share in the successes available to us. We must let them know that the team and the destination are more important to us than any one person or ego on that team.
But we also let them know it’s a journey, There is flexibility and continuous improvement; if something doesn’t fit the specifics of the exact project, we are going to circle up and make it work for our team. It’s my hope that we can get everyone to participate, engage with each other, and even offer their own improvements. I think when people are resistant to it, we must emphasize the win-win goals and opportunities, and then let the successes speak for themselves.
What Lean process, tool, or methodology has been a game-changer to the way you run work in the field?
The daily huddle is still the best Lean tool in our box for sharing information and the level of communication that is exchanged, and the weekly board wipe-down/3-week look-ahead meeting keeps the last planners truly involved in and understanding the schedule. The pandemic really forced us to revamp how we conduct meetings and who could be there, but I think field teams have really flexed their adaptability skills, and now we have live, interactive, and documented morning huddles where we can get more of the right people talking than we ever could before.
One unsung hero in Lean for us is the push towards field simplicity and consolidation. I’m old enough to remember sorting through massive file cabinets of submittals only to find the control copy, then hunting down a foreman or superintendent in the field for the approved copy with markups so that I could cross check another scope with it. I don’t want to go back to that just like you don’t—but I can also see the waste in having a new widget for everything we do, and teams not having a set system for standardizing their work, and then tracking the performance of that standardized work. A central location and efficiency mean work doesn’t have to be recreated or lost on its way to the builders and last planners. We just have to share what we already have. Our teams have been doing a great job of focusing on a creating a simplified, accessible home for all the information.
For superintendents or trade partners that are new to Lean, where should they start?
For trade partners, it’s about active constructive feedback. If you are on a project that is already practicing Lean principles, make sure you know that you are helping to steer the ship and prepare to provide feedback. Be active in all meetings, that’s what they are for. Look for obstacles or roadblocks to completing your work and keep constantly communicating.
The trade partners I see being most successful with Lean don’t skip the “respecting the individual” portion. We must let our craft know that we can’t do it without them and that we are creating a safer, more organized, and effective environment for workers through Lean.
For GC superintendents, I think most would agree that the first good move is a well-formatted daily huddle and an overall attitude of partnership. It’s easy to feel like there’s always an excuse for why something didn’t get done, but instead of just recycling the old line about labor pains and babies, get into the details and smash some roadblocks wide-open for your teams. You will simultaneously sharpen your scheduling abilities while building trust with your trade partners.
What are the most important values achieved from Lean?
Lean is giving us the tools to respond to more variables in the industry and improve the environment in which our projects take place. It creates an environment where people are respected more—not just for their title, but for their contributions. It’s helping to eliminate the adversarial relationships between project stakeholders and partners, and that collaboration has resulted in savings and repeat partnerships. It’s helping us to do more with less by eliminating waste in our processes, which leads to a more effective use of our workforce. It’s helping us to backfill our attrition rate and experience drain by creating a smarter, less stressful industry that is more appealing for people to enter. It creates a safer work environment where crews aren’t working on top of each other, and the work is ready for them.
Do you think Lean should/can be practiced on all/most projects? If not, what percent do you think it can be effective?
Yes! Every project can and should practice Lean. Looking back on project teams I have been a part of—on projects from $200K to over $1 billion—every single one of those could have, and should have, used Lean. It’s also important to understand that there is a right-size solution available to every project and every team.
Where do you see the future of our business heading, in terms of how projects are led in the field?
While the “rising tide that lifts all boats” analogy does work for Lean’s impact on the industry, it’s important that teams with that culture differentiate themselves as a better place to work to retain a shrinking labor pool. We must have drastically successful, collaborative, and profitable execution on our work—and make the work move forward, so that we can get crew availability from our partners. I think we must resist the urge to stockpile, and not fall into the old traps of excess inventory. The technology available to our industry now is just starting to show us a glimpse of what the future may look like for the performance of the work, as our projects become increasingly crowded with assistive equipment and technological devices. I do feel like we will be having daily huddles right up until we succumb in our resistance to the inevitable robot overlords. As soon as they learn how to identify all the bicycles in a grid of photos, we are done for.