“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.
Paz Arroyo, PhD, DPR Construction Quality Leader
This week we talk with Paz Arroyo, PhD, Quality Leader with DPR Construction. Paz is also co-founder and a board member of CollabDecisions, a nonprofit organization focused on bringing collaboration to the construction industry.
Was there a specific reason or event that got you started on your Lean journey?
Initially, I didn’t realize that I was on a Lean journey. It took a bit to find out that not everybody was doing Lean. I learned Lean in school when I was studying civil engineering. I did my master’s work with Professor Luis Alarcón at Catholic University of Chile. He studied Lean in UC Berkeley and taught Lean in Chile and Latin America.
I didn’t realize Lean was a unique thing that people were doing – or rather not doing. To me, it made so much sense. When I started working, I realized just how many people were not using the Last Planner System to plan. And, I thought, “well, what is wrong with these people.” I started working in Chile where Lean was a nascent concept, so I decided to move to the US to study and work.
Why do you think many in our industry are resistant to Lean culture?
Honestly, I think it’s a lack of knowledge and an inherent nature to stick with what’s worked so far for them. There’s a lot of people that think, “there’s no other way,” or “what I’m doing is working, so why change.” And once a person has been successful in doing things their way, it’s hard to understand that there is a different – or better – way. There’s a more collaborative way, and it’s better for everybody. So, I would say the main barrier is education.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the major trades and/or GC buy-in?
Yes, though it’s not as effective to conduct as one trade versus the entire project. That said, it’s always worth doing even if you are only able to impact your own sphere of work. You can gain benefits of organizing your own people, procuring your own materials, and asking questions promptly if you have constraints. You can still create your own workflow in a better way. And, hopefully, you can rub off on the other trades or GC to motivate them to look at Lean and doing things differently and collaboratively.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the Owner and/or design team buy-in?
Yes, you can. You can influence the scope of your own work. This Lean Construction movement started with general contractors, so it started without owners and designers. Fun fact: I studied at UC Berkeley with Professors Iris Tommelein and Glen Ballard, one of the creators of the Last Planner System. In one of Glenn Ballard’s classes, he told us that the very first time someone tried out an Integrated Project Delivery approach, it was a small project with some family connections between the trades. They decided to have conversations and make it easier to work, like how they procured materials and how they planned a built. It was simply a group of people trying to collaborate and break the typical contract barriers.
The principles of Lean are simple. And there’s nothing that prevents you from collaborating with another company, even if you don’t have a contract. The last time I went to the Lean Construction Institute’s Annual Congress, I saw many owners presenting and found many are now mandating the use of certain Lean tools. It’s exciting.
How do you convince trade partners or other superintendents who are resistant to change to try something new?
Typically, people only listen when there has been a breakdown to fix. If something went wrong, they will be more willing to hear a new way as the pain is too great to keep doing the same. That’s not the ideal time, but it often is what starts the journey.
Leaders must create the time, or hire a consultant, to discuss Lean with their organizations. A lot of people trying to teach Lean usually get this response: “I’m too busy, I can’t stop.” But when they see that they didn’t have a good experience with an owner, they’re more willing to listen. Lean is all about respect for people. If you spent the time training your people and preparing them for performing the job better, they will have a common understanding. That’s how you invest your time and change things. If you’re a leader, it’s up to you.
What Lean process, tool, or methodology has been a game changer to the way you run work in the field?
I love the Last Planner System. I love to see the transformation and collaboration in the planning process. However, I did my PhD in decision-making, and I learned about Choosing By Advantages (CBA), and that has been a way to bring people together. For me, implementing CBA is great because I know it will unstick the team, especially when no one wants to be responsible for making a decision. It’s about learning to ask for what you need to decide and learning who to ask.
The Last Planner System is probably the most widespread Lean Construction tool, but there’s also a lot of other tools that are not as well known. I’ve found great value as well in design, set-based design, and target-value design. They’re great tools. Unfortunately, I’ve seen very few projects implementing the full potential of those tools. And, with the technology tools to support Lean, the ability to impact a build and provide a better experience for the team and owners is remarkable.
For superintendents or trade partners that are new to Lean, where should they start?
The Last Planner System is a great place to start to help manage the schedule and plan the process if you’re a superintendent. You can create more capacity and time to actually “think” about the project.
Reading The Lean Builder book is a requirement as it’s a very accessible way to understand the Last Planner System. I also recommend attending conferences or simulations to meet people who have done it and talk to them about the process and value. I love the events from Lean Construction Institute and some of the regional or chapter trainings. There’s also the International Group for Lean Construction that has some 20+ years of papers from top academic institutions all over the world.
By this point, there is a robust level of implementations documented and shared. I often hear people say: “Oh, this is great, but doesn’t work for my project;” “my project is too big;” “my project is too small;” or “my project is for this type of building, or this type of construction.” If you look for it, most likely someone has already done Lean in these exact situations, and you can learn from it.
What is the single most important value achieved from Lean?
Respect for people. I think the value of Lean is using more than people’s hands. Greg Howell used to say, “with every pair of hands comes a free brain.” It means using a person’s full potential and recognizing the ideas of people that are doing the work. Lean creates a system to allow them to improve. Lean managers are there to protect the work of the people in the field and to give them the tools and information they need. It’s a more dignified way of doing construction. It opens the opportunity for more diversity. This is not just for tough guys that can grind through impossible tasks. We don’t want to create impossible tasks. That’s not good for anyone.
Do you think Lean should/can be practiced on all/most projects, if not what percent do you think it can be effective?
Yes. Lean can be implemented in all projects. The trick is that you must create the Lean environment in every single project. Just because you did Lean in one project, you cannot assume it’s going to happen in the next. You must create the environment every time. As for percentage of time to use I like 100%. I mean, why not!
Where do you see the future of our business heading in terms of how projects are led in the field?
I see a lot more technological support and more timely info in the field. At DPR Construction, I’ve seen innovations of giving people cure codes in the field so they can grab updated information. Technology in the field is changing. If the team collaborates, it’s going to give people more info at the right level every time.
There’s a lot more capacity for documentation, too. With the pandemic, we’ve been doing online inspections with cameras and drones. We have different ways of capturing what success looks like. People have also been using AI to predict outcomes of projects. I take those things with a grain of salt. Technology can be used right or wrong. It’s good if it’s used for the people in the field to empower them to take control over their own destiny. If it’s used as a surveillance device, it’s not respectful of people so we must be mindful as Lean leaders.
There’s also the development of robotics. DPR Construction has been testing robots, some of them are great. For example, Dusty Robotics, it’s sort of a Rumba that does the layout of the building. It can give more information to people in the field. The traditional way of doing layout is very tedious, and it’s not good for people’s health. So, I think there are opportunities to help people in the field. We’re on the right track if it’s something that will help people in the field do their work more efficiently, access more information, and make better decisions.
Anything else to share?
There’s a difference between Lean and “semi-Lean.” I’ve encountered quite a few people with good intentions who think they are doing Lean but are not. They are usually picking and choosing parts of a system, so they aren’t doing the process correctly. Then, after they try it, they think it doesn’t work.
I advocate for starting with a reputable source by attending a training, following a guidebook, or bringing in a consultant to help you get started the right way first. We all know about those first impressions that matter. This is especially key when you are introducing a new way to work for folks.