This week we talk with Romano Nickerson, AIA, Director of Lean Services with Boulder Associates, based in Boulder, Colorado. He’s a specialist in Lean design and construction with a unique focus on integrating members of the design team into the Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) process. His firm maintains a focus in healthcare architecture design.
“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.
Romano Nickerson of Boulder Associates
Was there a specific reason or event that got you started on your Lean journey?
A client asked me to meet with some Lean coaches almost 20 years ago. It took me about 10 seconds to see that what they were saying made sense, so my journey started there. I was working on a dozen small projects at the same time and had been asked to lay them out in a Gantt view with key milestones. As we sat at the table, we reviewed the milestones and identified weeks with a lot of activities. The coach asked me how I felt about those weeks and how likely I thought it was that I would complete all the work successfully.
The key moment for me came when he said, “I know you don’t want to ask for more time, but have you ever thought about pulling some of the activities forward into a less busy week, so you have more bandwidth to complete them?” I was dumbstruck for a moment before it all clicked. I could choose to workplan instead of simply working to a deadline, and I haven’t looked back ever since.
Why do you think many in our industry are resistant to Lean culture?
I can think of several reasons. There is an inertia to the way we currently do things. There is a tendency as humans to avoid friction. It also can be hard to hear that there could be a different way to do things when you already feel like you do well and are therefore skeptical that there could be a better way.
There are perceptions of what Lean is, right, wrong, or indifferent. And Lean is not always well communicated by those who practice. I also think there are too many instances of narrow adoption of tools without the necessary preparation or even proper context, which can lead to poor results and a skepticism of the tool — and by extension Lean itself. It’s hard to get results if you aren’t doing it right, and you can doom the effort to failure from the start.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the major trades and/or GC buy-in?
Absolutely. Lean is at its best when it makes a difference in the life of an individual and expands out from there. You will encounter limits of project, teammates, other trades, CMGC, architect, or owner – but that shouldn’t prevent people from striving for what they can accomplish.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the Owner and/or design team buy-in?
Again, absolutely. As with the aforementioned, I would add that I have seen entire projects transform when a single trade comes in and shows how well it works – their work areas are clean, they have what they need when they need it to put work in place, they leave things spotless for the next trade, and they work calmly and with a purpose. That kind of thing is visible on the job site and in the office.
People see this, and they want some of that secret sauce for themselves! At that point, they are ready to hear some new or different ideas for how to better take control of their vocational destiny. At a dashboard level, Lean shows up in safety, schedule, and budget, and if a project team exhibits those traits, eventually others will ask how they are doing it, especially if it is in sharp contrast to the performance of others.
How do you convince trade partners or other superintendents who are resistant to change to try something new?
I think that Paul Akers said it best: “You need to fix what bugs you.” I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t have challenges and struggles in their daily life. When approached respectfully and with integrity with an offer to help ease their burden, I have yet to see those same folks turn down that assistance. I think the key is to firmly acknowledge the lived experience that person brings to the table and use that as a starting point for introducing Lean principles.
I also ask people to think back on their career and to remember a project that went particularly well and, conversely, to recall a project that went particularly poorly. I ask why they think it went the way it did. Most of the time, there is a strong element of luck of the draw or a fortunate circumstance. Many folks will admit that these types of results, good or bad, just sort of happen to them.
At that point, I ask if they would welcome the ability to be more deliberate about a project outcome. It’s hard to say no to that line of reasoning. I then explain that my job is to build off their experience to help them deliver more reliable project outcomes.
What Lean process, tool, or methodology has been a game changer to the way you run work in the field?
This isn’t a tool or method per se, but rather a fundamental approach. I had the opportunity to bring some guys on to my team who came from manufacturing. I was giving them an overview and was showing them pull plans and work planning tools and TVD logs. After I went on for a while, they stopped me and said, “Romano, this is all great, but what problem are we trying to solve?” That stopped me short and made me think that asking that question, in any room, on any job site, in any situation, was a super powerful way to approach Lean.
Defining the problem is a critical first step. Not long after, they asked me another question that is the second half of my approach: “How can we be more effective?” Once I answer question number one, answering question number two tells me how to guide the team and implement a strategy for improvement.
For superintendents or trade partners that are new to Lean, where should they start?
Read (or listen to) The Lean Builder by Keyan Zandy and Joe Donarumo, and 2 Second Lean by Paul Akers. Both books are very practical and are a good read. The Lean Builder fable really explains the day-to-day work of a superintendent and how they can integrate Lean into their daily life. 2 Second Lean reinforces the power of small, incremental improvements over time and encourages the reader to do a little bit at a time.
What is the single most important value achieved from Lean?
For me it is the benefit of truly embracing respect for people as a guiding principle. I appreciate what Lean can mean for individuals in their ability to work with reduced stress and in a safe environment that gets them home sooner to their families. Trade craft work is hard, can be dangerous, and is not respected and appreciated as it should be. Lean works hard to mitigate those factors.
Where do you see the future of our business heading in terms of how projects are led in the field?
I have seen firms benefit from Lean application to the point where they outperform their competitors and gain access to new markets because of their success. Lean can be described as a new paradigm. If a builder can succeed to the point that Toyota did relative to the Big Three, then the market will move in the way that the Big Three adopted Lean practices just as Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler did.
While I won’t say that evolution will inevitably occur, I do know that a truly Lean organization will dominate their market.