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Lean Culture for the Construction Industry

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Proving that continuous improvement is a life long endeavor, quite a bit has changed since the first edition of this book appeared. In 2011, I was still viewing Lean largely through the lens of traditional team building and partnering models, bridging this with what I knew about interpersonal flow stoppages and standard Lean practices. But, as one does in a rowboat, I was surging ahead into uncharted waters, while still looking backwards toward the past. 

Soon after the first edition was published, I met Larry Rubrich of WCM Associates who introduced me to the concept of Lean as an Operating System, and, suddenly, I was no longer looking backwards. 

Over the past five years, I have partnered with Larry and several other Lean process professionals, and, together, have brought forward a unique blend of skills to assess and address both cultural and process waste. I also have helped to facilitate several companywide and intercompany Lean implementations, the most satisfying of which has been an implementation between a developer, an architect, a general contractor, and prime subcontractors. 

Though these companies had worked together for many years, and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future, they were clearly not leveraging their relationships to achieve maximum efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Instead, the system was fraught with fractured processes, out-of-control costs, recriminations of blame, counterblaming, and an employee turnover rate that made even the most battle-hardened of headhunters look the other way.

 But, because of the full-on commitment on the part of the top leaders from each of the key entities, and a complete emersion and adoption of Lean principles, the changes they have made in both their relationships and productivity have been nothing short of phenomenal.

 They have streamlined their cumbersome preconstruction process in line with their goal of increased budgetary accuracy, achieved improved unit turn rates via early engagement of their Quality Assurance/Quality Control process to ensure build quality, and are now bringing both internal and external designers into the fold to align goals around the brand, budget, and schedule. Most importantly, the unwanted outflow of talent has ceased. In a system that measures success based on meeting specific design standards, as well as proforma criteria, losing the very people who understood the brand, and what it took to achieve it—within tightly compressed  schedules—was an enormous source of waste. Stemming this outgoing tide was paramount. This was not something that could be achieved by buying people’s tenure with bonuses. 

The entire culture, and the way people did business with one another, needed to change. And, because of the leaders, and everyone who was willing to give themselves over to the process, it has. While a good deal of the early focus was on developing a fully functional precon process across multi-company platforms, and the joint development of a comprehensive building information modeling (BIM) model, this is not where the president of the development company chose to set his sights; it was on changing, what he was viewed as a “meat grinder” of a culture—or, as one brave soul put it, “In our system, the bullet was fired the day you were hired; you just didn’t know when it was going to hit you.” Chris Marsh, whose intelligence is only exceeded by his compassion, knew full well that the real driver of waste in this system was fear and the resultant collusional dance of micromanagement and withdrawal, blame, and counterblame, which dominated the interactions between the entities.

 The cost of this dysfunctional choreography was in the millions. And this is what we set out to change—one project team at a time. Through a series of system-wide Lean as an Operating System overview trainings and projectlevel Kaizen events, every employee was invited to be a part of our war on cultural waste. In the project sessions, we established common ground by identifying common worries and concerns, areas of cultural and process waste, and establishing plans to meaningfully address both.

 The hard work that people from all of the entities put in to make these changes was humbling to say the least. Each person dug deep to identify the things they had been doing to negatively impact the team, and what they were going to do to contribute to the team’s success—regardless of what others chose to do. Their introspection allowed them to climb out of their silos, blur the lines between the companies, and act as one team in order to achieve a common goal .