“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.
A Field Walk with Rebecca Snelling
This week we talk with Rebecca Snelling, a Lean Leadership Coach and Owner of RS Consulting, based in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. She started in the construction industry in 1996 and in 2006 began coaching organizations and project teams on the value and application of Lean thinking and principles with an emphasis on advancing culture. She’s been active with LCI and CIDCI as a board member, author, and speaker in the AEC Industry for over a decade.
Was there a specific reason or event that got you started on your Lean journey?
While working with at a $100M specialty contractor, our CEO read an article about Lean and decided that we would be a Lean company. For the rollout, the company invested heavily in consultants over three years. Each year, they would pull people out of operations and have them be internal Lean consultants. I was fortunate to be selected in the second year of the effort.
I had the privilege of spending an entire year learning about Lean and coaching our internal departments and offices on Lean. I had an external Lean coach working with me helping me learn and grow. Once my head was in this space, it was impossible to unsee all of the opportunities for delivering more value. I’ve been in that space ever since.
When I left that firm, joining the consulting firm that had coached me was a no-brainer. I spent the next four years consulting to various organizations and Project teams helping them learn and evolve lean application and thinking. Eventually I went to work for one of my clients, a (now) $4 billion construction firm as their National Lean Director, where I helped the company learn about Lean, implement Lean tools and processes, and grew sixteen internal Lean coaches.
Currently I’m back working as a consultant, helping organizations around the country with their Lean journey, and am once again a Lean coach, consultant, and trainer supporting many companies around the country.
Why do you think many in our industry are resistant to Lean culture?
There can be many different reasons for this, but what I often see is that typically, those who resist Lean, have already been pretty successful in their traditional role. Often times the reward system follows the traditional way of working, which compounds their perspective of what success looks like.
I have found the hardest person to convince to do something different is someone who is really good at their job already. If the tried and true has made them successful, why would they change? It’s the adage that if it’s not broken, why fix it. Why would you risk failing by doing something different than what you already know works? Honestly, I completely understand why some people feel this way!
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the major trades and/or GC buy-in?
Yes, no matter what person or position you have, you can always implement Lean thinking and tools into your own work. Everyone has a sphere of influence where they can make their own improvements. Eventually you might be constrained by others, but you can still make progress.
The more people you can get to join you using some of these behaviors, tools and processes, the bigger the impact you’ll achieve. The more people involved, the more exponential the impact.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the Owner and/or design team buy-in?
Absolutely. I encourage people and teams to look for opportunities within their own walls to improve their work.
In some cases, a trade may only have a handful of people their work interacts with. Open lines of communication plan with the people who work before and after you. There are all kinds of things you can do regarding work coordination, materials ordering, visual management and 5S Lean. One drywall company I knew had all of their equipment painted the same bright color. Their entire team could easily tell what tools were theirs, and bring it back to their brightly painted gang box.
How do you convince trade partners or other superintendents who are resistant to change to try something new?
Start with leading by example and improving your own work. Share the successes that you are having as a way for others to become curious. To help them, take time to understand people’s or team’s pain points. Then you can find a Lean solution for that pain point. We all have pain in our jobs and often there are ways to use Lean to eliminate the pain. If we can solve something painful, they’ll want to learn more and dig deeper.
What Lean process, tool, or methodology has been a game changer to the way you run work in the field?
In my mind, an easy yet impactful thing to do is simply share. Share the improvements that people are making. People make improvements all the time. Too often, they don’t think to share their improvements with others and instead keep those improvements to themselves.
Sharing improvements with others not only allows others to copy those ideas, but it also allows others to build on and improve those ideas. For example, I was working with an accounting department, and it seems people were always asking for this one particular expense code. One accountant told the other 2 that they had posted this particular expense code on the outside of her cubicle, so it was easy to point to people to answer the question. What she wasn’t expecting was a response from another accountant asking, “What if you email the code to the entire team, and ask them to flag that email so they don’t need to keep asking you?” Then the third accountant said, “What if you just put that code on the expense form? Then people have it any time they are filling out the form and they don’t have to go looking for it or come ask you for it?” It may seem very simple, but if the first accountant wasn’t sharing her improvement, it never would have been improved upon by the other accountants.
For superintendents or trade partners that are new to Lean, where should they start?
Start small and manageable. Find something that annoys you or causes you pain, and make it better. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, just focus on making it better. If you can get other people aligned with you and learn together, do it. Then once you have solved that problem, look for another one.
Compound that by taking time to learn. Bring someone with you. Then try something new (again, small and manageable) and check your results. What went well? What can you do better next time?
What is the single most important value achieved from Lean?
For me, Lean is all about developing people. This has an amazing side-effect of people getting more engaged in their work, which leads to better value delivery to the customer, but also leads to happier employees. All around, it just leads to a better world. That’s what drives me and why I do what I do.
Where do you see the future of our business heading in terms of how projects are led in the field?
In the next 5 to 10 years, I believe the way we put work into place will shift in very innovative and dramatic ways. While we can’t predict the technology yet, it will be a driver. It will need to advance, as the way we are currently putting work in place is not enough to meet the construction demands we have now, much less the construction demands we’ll have in the future, when we have even fewer resources available. We’ll also start seeing more prefab modules coming online to help more work be completed away from jobsites and installed quicker and with more reliability.
When people have a good experience with a Lean project, they generally don’t want to go back to the “old” way of doing things. The more an organization can understand what Lean is really all about and be intentional about growing a matching culture, the more engagement and satisfaction will come to their workforce and teams. With our current war for talent, I foresee those organizations who understand and embrace Lean as having a distinct advantage.