This week we talk with Stephen Powell, Vice President with Meadows & Ohly. Stephen has spent the last decade devoted to Lean Construction.
“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 Stephen Powell
Was there a specific reason or event that got you started on your Lean journey?
I was given an opportunity to pursue a project in 2012 that sounded quite different. I had been around the idea of IPD Lite and how projects running with Lean Tools and Collaborative Teams were the wave of the industry – and I wanted to join that ride. But the Akron Children’s project was going to be done different with Integrated Lean Project Delivery. Having the opportunity to be the day-to-day owner’s rep in Akron and working with the team, I was exposed to so many inspired minds working with the Lean Tools and creating a project that ran like a well-oiled machine. The project delivered a great outcome for everyone involved, especially the client. I’ve been hooked ever since – to try and bring that joy to teams and clients through Lean delivery of projects.
Why do you think many in our industry are resistant to Lean culture?
I was lucky to be introduced to Lean while young, and in an impressionable state, so it wasn’t truly a sea change to me in my career. That was a decade ago now. I like to think that in Lean you’re looking at things in a method of “Let’s go slow to go fast,” but our industry is very fast paced. Learning Last Planner, setting up decision making with Choosing By Advantages (CBA), or organizing your activities through Gemba Walks are areas of improvement that you learn and must hone in on to be efficient. Lean isn’t more efforts or tools than other ways of delivery so it’s just becoming familiar and using the steps and tools consistently, so they become second nature. If you don’t embrace it and look to see how it changes your teams on a day-to-day basis, it can be easy to become revert to doing things the old way quickly.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the major trades and/or GC buy-in?
Elements of Lean can be practiced by people on projects and in their daily tasks, so the best project success comes when the major players are all in. That said, it shouldn’t be considered as not possible to institute Lean tools with a smaller sub or team member that improves their workflow and how they deliver work in their daily process.
Do you think Lean can be practiced on projects without the Owner and/or design team buy-in?
Yes, on some things it’s very easy. Using Lean to drive schedule and manage the field, along with issues, is very doable without owner or design team inputs. Design Team buy-in benefits the process when change management and continuous improvement intersect to ensure they remain flexible enough to manage the big ideas. Designers also can help push for things that allow for prefabrication or simplification of systems/parts, so beyond managing just what is in front of you as a GC, the design was influenced to make it more Lean and streamlined for you.
The owner is a cog in the Lean wheel that can be a big benefit if bought in but can also become a challenge if value isn’t perceived. Take, for example, Target Value Design. Value is a great element of Lean efforts, and we all must spend some time defining projects. If the owner is engaged and can articulate value for a team including the designer to deploy, it can be a beautiful thing for a team and the projects they are delivering.
How do you convince trade partners or other superintendents who are resistant to change to try something new?
I am big believer that some of the fun can be taken down to the teams in the field around Lean training. A parade of trades exercise, Mr. Potato Head building, or other elements of simplifying what Lean can look like – in little changes to their mindset – could energize some thoughts into a person’s work in the field. There is also a lot of value in the broader community as well. Places like the Lean Construction Institute’s Community of Practice in Dallas/Fort Worth (or other regional chapters in a person’s city) can help with integration ideas and learning. For most of the field teams, if there isn’t an incentive or a mentored approach being given to them, it is hard to ever seek change. Creating a chance to expose peers to why Lean works is likely the best way to have someone resistant to try things differently. It’s not the easiest place to get someone in the field to change how they deliver work, but little things can be done to scratch at the surface.
What Lean process, tool, or methodology has been a game changer to the way you run work in the field?
As an owner’s rep, I don’t have the same elements of field tools as others in the industry. I know we have found great benefit managing projects at the beginning through Target Value Design and initiating Last Planner System early. Both eventually get us into field management with our teams and allow us to understand how the schedule and budget are being managed to the end. I would say one tool that has always been helpful to us in design and in construction in the field is A3 Methodology. If there is something that needs to be done where the story can be explained in simple terms to problem, potential solution, implications of solution, and resolution process, it can streamline a traditional RFI process into a format that an owner can understand. The owner can influence change on a project for things where it is a decision point.
For superintendents or trade partners that are new to Lean, where should they start?
Lean 101. What is it? We’ve created such a buzz in the industry about Lean that it can dilute the definition or truth to what it is. Before someone is put into training for Last Planner System or told that they need to write an A3, they should understand and learn through education what Lean truly is and have a chance to see how it can help them day to day before other elements. Lean education is much better received when a person is being introduced to Lean to walk before they try and run. That is something we all remain challenged on influencing from the top down (owner/owner’s rep) — the importance of education in Lean for your project and a team.
What is the single most important value achieved from Lean?
Predictable Outcome. I pondered this from an owner’s rep perspective and landed on this wording. If I know that a team is embracing Lean, they are creating the respect for people, and we are taking the time to educate the importance of buying in on the project, we can see a predictable outcome. A predictable outcome can be making, or beating, a schedule because Last Planner System improved exposure to schedule risks that had a method for resolution. Target Value Design managed the elements of a budget to potentially create a risk pool on certain projects that give you a chance to all make more profit if the team managed to the Target Value Design budget. A3 methodology or Choosing By Advantages (CBA) efforts gave us a chance to make smarter decisions. All these things give us a better shot to know how scope, schedule, and budget will be managed from cradle to grave on a project. Implementing Lean early and often can make everyone more successful and, at times, likely get the statements like “that was my best project ever.” Striving to get to that statement can lead to great projects that from the early onset we can manage to a predictable outcome.
Do you think Lean should/can be practiced on all/most projects, if not what percent do you think it can be effective?
Honestly, I think Lean is a path to doing work better regardless of scale, and I lack a true idea for a good percentage, beyond shooting for 100%! That’s not to say all tools and Lean methodology work in every situation, but there are elements that can scale and keep a Lean mentality. With any project where a contractor or trade partners are brought on board early, you benefit greatly from employing Lean tools and methodologies to manage design and construction to the end with processes like A3s and Target Value Design. On projects with a shorter fuse, you might not see as much benefit for certain tools beyond one: Last Planner System. I don’t see a place where Last Planner is not valuable to manage activities and risk on any scale of a project. It’s just a tool that has such a versatile usage; it’s effective as things scale up or down.
Where do you see the future of our business heading in terms of how projects are led in the field?
I hope, more than see, that we create the right community to respect the field and what they are doing. In the field office or at an owner level, we don’t always get an understanding of how to help the field be successful. I know books like The Lean Builder were written to expose a large component of the project team to the notion of just how much Lean buy in from the field can deliver amazing outcomes on projects. Also, we are lucky in Dallas-Fort Worth to have some amazing Lean leaders focus on the field and respect for people. I look forward to being a part of seeing how little ripples of impact turn the tide for our industry.