Lean Construction: 3 Keys to Unlocking Lean in the FieldJanuary 12, 2021
Those of us who follow Lean construction methods understand the value behind a full project team working in sync. When one contractor isn’t in sync, it can cause the whole process to stall.
On the jobsite, your schedule is dependent on that non-Lean contractor. That can impact the bottom line for both companies, so any improvement to one is an improvement to all; however, you can’t force other contractors to follow Lean. Your best bet is to show them all the benefits through your own processes, easy-to-understand planning tools and how leading by example also piques their interest in becoming Leaner.
Keys to Successful Lean Construction
If your team isn’t fully committed to Lean principles, it’s going to be difficult to convince others to join in. For me, there are three keys to keeping your team in line with Lean principles:
- Initiative: The great thing about Lean planning is it forces you to think deeper about the project. What are the stumbling points? Where is the delay? What can we do differently? Once these challenges are discovered, every super has a choice: address them or kick them down the line. Don’t kick them. Find a solution, especially if you don’t know the answer, and look for opportunities to improve. You will become highly visible, which will signal to your team your commitment to a Lean process.
- Follow-through: You’ve seen it with trends, diets and new employees: enthusiasm wears off after a few weeks. Make sure that doesn’t happen. Stay stern on policies and don’t be afraid to correct people if they miss a deadline. Reward people for initiative. You’ll need someone to keep you accountable as well, so make sure you have someone willing to speak up and provide feedback. Along this same line of thought, be prepared for meetings. Nothing says irony more than being inefficient at a meeting designed to maximize efficiency.
- Honesty: Lean is designed to lay everything bare on the pull-planning board. There’s no hiding, so don’t embellish facts or flat-out lie. If you missed a deadline, say so – if contractors are paying attention, they already know you did. Accept feedback from above, below and across the trailer. Fair criticism is the foundation of Lean construction.
Once your team is committed to Lean practices, your focus can turn to other contractors and improving their schedule. As a Lean practitioner, you understand how much easier a project can be than when you use a traditional method. It’s even easier when the other contractors are streamlined with your plans.
The key is proving the benefits to them. It’s true, Lean practices require an up-front change in processes, but the job becomes so much easier once it’s organized. Show them what’s possible: accurate material orders, corresponding shop schedules, on-time deliveries and consistent labor hours. Then show them how to refine those processes with a bit of initiative. When they see how much simpler each day becomes – and how much nicer the bottom line is – they’ll understand Lean’s use.
For our internal subcontractors, we explicitly state Lean principles in our contracts. If they want the job, they are required to follow them. Meetings are mandatory. Most say they prefer working with our Lean system because everything is spelled out clearly.
One-Week Planning Board
For other contractors, sometimes it only takes a look at a one-week board to make them a believer. We hold six-week look-ahead planning meetings in our trailer, which can be overwhelming at first. The better way to introduce them to Lean is through one-week plans. We magnetically stick these on our job boxes. It helps our partners keep up with tasks and is an easy way to connect with other contractors.
A few years ago, an electrical subcontractor saw our one-week board during a morning huddle. He was one of the old guard who wasn’t willing to try out this “new Lean thing.” When he saw the board, something clicked for him: communication. Within weeks, we saw a change in his company’s actions. They became more proactive and were more invested in the project.
If you work with a contractor once, you’re likely to work with them again. If they struggled to keep up with the schedule on your current project, invite them to a Lean training presentation. These aren’t boring sales discussions, they’re incredibly interesting – to me, at least. The instructors know their information, and on the rare chance you ask a question they can’t answer, they’ll find it for you. If you want that contractor to be more motivated, it doesn’t matter if he catches it from you or an instructor – you just want the job to flow better next time.
Clearly, this is easier to implement with downstream contractors since they’re already relying on you to finish your project. For upstream contractors, creating a strong relationship is the first essential step. If they’re open to suggestion, show them Lean examples that can improve their processes. There’s a lot of value when both of your schedules are in sync.
The General Contractor in Lean Construction
The last major hurdle might be the GC. If they’re not Lean, you may have to find ways to influence them to do so. At a past hospital CUP project, the GC, which wasn’t a strong enforcer of Lean principles, saw how we ran our planner meetings, and then asked to hold weekly meetings in our trailer. That authority signal gave pull-planning more credibility, and the project progressed much smoother and efficiently. Strong working relationships and a commitment to hold each other accountable are essential for Lean to work.
You can’t force other contractors to be Leaner, but you can make it very tempting. If you stay Lean, you will eventually become a leader in your region. Remember, the more contractors locked in step, the greater the savings, safety and decrease in rework you will see. Stay honest, initiate improvements and follow through, and the results will do most of the talking for you.