If you’re in the process of trying to get your team to embrace Lean methods, you may wonder when it’s appropriate to act as a coach for your crew, particularly if you have more experience with the Last Planner System® than they do. You know better than to fall back on a command-and-control style, but what’s the ideal balance between letting people learn for themselves—and sometimes fail—and guiding them along?
It turns out that there are a handful of strategies you can employ to help you strike the right balance without having to commit entirely to one mode of leadership. And being a Lean coach in one situation doesn’t mean you need to be a Lean coach all the time.
Choose your moments
“I think we’re coaches for everybody on the jobsite, so anybody that we come into contact with—whether that’s the foreman or the assistant project manager or the owner—we’re encouraging everyone onsite to innovate. Let’s take it to the front lines, let’s push decisions to where the information is. We’re trying to get folks involved, encouraged, empowered, and trying to really understand what bothers the people on the front lines who are actually adding value to the industry,” explains Adam Hoots, founder of Construction ACHE Solutions and host of the “Hoots on the Ground” podcast. “We coach everybody we come into contact with, we’re constantly switching the teacher and student hat in every conversation.”
Kris Nickerson, scheduling manager at Skanska, agrees. “A mentor of mine, a superintendent, used to tell me, ‘Always be a teacher; always be a student.’ We’re both, right? So, we’re coaching people, but we have to have an open mind for that apprentice to teach us something as well. And I think that creates the unity where the team works as a whole and optimizes the whole.”
That openness to simultaneous learning and teaching goes a long way in accelerating the team’s improvement and in making everyone comfortable with the act of learning. Admitting they don’t have all the answers can make people feel vulnerable, so creating a team environment where that’s accepted will facilitate this process.
It’s also important to focus on teaching as a transfer of skills to others to increase their independence rather than continuous instruction and oversight. The goal is, proverbially, to teach the team how to fish.
“You might be a coach for a small percentage of the time. For instance, if you want people to identify waste on your project site—they don’t know how to identify waste, and that’s apparent. So, you want to coach them a little bit, but you coach them by being a mentor, guiding them to the right way,” explains Frank Coln, senior superintendent at Coastal Construction. “You never want to tell them how to identify that waste; you want to guide them so that they can start identifying the waste for themselves, because you don’t want to be a coach all the time. You want them to be empowered with a voice so they can speak up and fix that waste. You do have to be a coach in certain instances, but you don’t want to be the coach that’s blowing the whistle all the time.”
Beyond knowing when to instruct and when to take a backseat and let people implement what you’ve taught them, you need to apply focus to building your team. What (or if) your team is learning won’t be important to them if they don’t see the bigger picture.
“It really starts with…building a team, making sure that everyone understands that they’re the team shareholder, and that we all have a unique job, we are a unique team, and—every time we have the opportunity—to make it the best team. In order to do that, we need to have this alignment. That’s where it starts,” says Nate Hernandez, senior superintendent at the Beck Group. “How do we set up the job and make sure that everybody understands that we’re on the same team? Are we coaches? I think we’re all team members on that equal stage, we all have the opportunity to make sure that we get there together.”
Mindset plays an important role in getting your team to feel invested in the success of your project. A small change that can make a big difference is to consciously opt for an inquiry-based approach rather than one driven by advocacy.
As Hoots describes, “Inquiry versus advocacy…when you’re speaking with someone and you’re advocating, you want them to imitate you, versus when you’re speaking to them through inquiry, then you want them to innovate.” By keeping the emphasis on inquiry, you encourage your team to innovate and think for themselves rather than simply adopting an approach they know you approve of.
Inquiry as an advantage
This inquiry mindset can be expanded to take on even larger problems. Many in construction are conditioned to think they have to have all of the answers. Giving your team the flexibility to look beyond themselves for input and advice can lead to bold solutions that may not have been introduced otherwise.
“Sometimes when I’ll go out on some of our projects and I will find our team struggling with figuring out a problem…and they feel like they have to be the ones to figure it out, they have to back with the answer,” explains Gilbane construction executive and director of field operations, Mark Bussey. “And I’ll ask ‘Have you reached out to the plumber? Have you reached out to the stone tile institute or somebody?’ I tell them that, more than likely you think this is a unique problem to your jobsite, but this probably happened before, and there are experts out there that you need to tap…don’t feel like you need to be the coach all the time.”
Having the confidence to look beyond the team and seek input from a peer or an expert can help you discover more creative solutions to your team’s toughest challenges. As you become more comfortable switching between your teacher and student role, you’re bound to find your team benefiting as a result.