I Think, You Do
Early in my career and before I was on my Lean journey, I was assigned to run punch list on an office building we’d just completed. As I was leaving one of the conference rooms, I hit the switch to turn off the lights and, to my surprise, it didn’t turn off. I flipped it up and down, still nothing. I poked my head out into the hallway and spotted an electrician walking down the corridor. I waved him over and asked him why the switch didn’t work.
“It was installed per the drawings,” he replied, matter-of-factly.
This response was confusing. “Wait—did you know the switch wouldn’t work when you installed it?”
“Yes,” he affirmed. “We installed it per the drawings.”
I was incredulous. “Well…why didn’t you say something?”
He cocked his head to the side and looked at me like I was the one who wasn’t making sense in this conversation.
“Son, I do what the drawings say.”
Over time, as I’ve gained more perspective in this business, that memory comes back to me often—and I’ve come to better understand that electrician’s disposition. For years, general contractors have led with a “top down” approach. I’ve learned at the side of many master builders along the way who subscribed to a “My way or the highway!” leadership model. Traditionally, only a GC’s superintendent was supposed to be fully engaged in the field—thinking, observing, analyzing, and problem-solving. The trades on the jobsite, well, they were meant to keep their heads down and mouths shut and just do what we were told (or, what the drawings told them to do.)
That electrician had probably been beaten down over the years; scolded for offering ideas or made to feel embarrassed if a suggestion he’d made proved to be incorrect. We can do so much better than this leadership style in our industry. The primary principle of Lean is respect for people. If you are wondering how to do this, and what benefits exist from moving away from the traditional “top down” approach, let me offer you a few ideas.
Lean Principles Respect for People Tips
Give up “total” control
The best superintendents in the field produce results through others. Trying to control the plan, by having every decision and action run through you, is counterproductive and will not give you the capacity to scale and think at a higher level. It’s crucial that you give up the notion that you are the only one who knows the best plan, or that your way is automatically the better way. When you let go of the control, you validate the men and women in the field and increase their aptitude for success. This allows you to focus at a more strategic level.
Listen first, speak later
If you are always the first to share your two cents in a meeting, chances are good that, if someone had a better idea, they will be too afraid to speak up. If they do, now they are going against your plan in front of others, and it may not be worth the risk of being wrong. But if you go into the meeting and ask for ideas from the others first, now you have access to all the brain power in the room, and you might get new information you didn’t already know. If you want to understand how and what your people are thinking, let your team talk first. You may be surprised by what you learn.
Pass information, don’t protect it
Many field leaders want to hold all the cards and protect important information. This provides a sense of power and control over the entire jobsite as well as the people working on it. They worry that, if others have the same information, that they might be excluded from decisions, or that decisions will be made that they don’t like. This behavior kills teamwork and trust and makes the jobsite completely reliant upon that lone field leader.
The more trades who are involved in sharing information on the jobsite, the better the opportunity there is for deeper trust and unity between trade forepersons, which will allow more opportunities for these professionals to interact. When this interaction occurs, they become more familiar with each other, and this facilitates an openness to share even more information, which can decrease potential conflicts in the field.
Thinking back to that light switch—what would be involved to fix that issue in punch list? What paperwork would the solution generate? What would the cost be—and who would pay for it? What delays would it create, and who would be inconvenienced?
What cultural and relationship shifts on your jobsites would need to occur to prevent it from happening in the first place? This is what Lean presses us to create in the principle of respecting people.
By Keyan Zandy