Raise your hand if you have ever been in this position: You have been trying to get your team or company to start practicing Lean Construction. But, after months (or even years), there are only a few small pockets of people who have even tried to utilize the new ways of working—and almost no one has been able to sustain a change. As you reflect on all of the investment (time, effort, training, and beyond) by you and the company, you are left wondering “What else can we do?”

My guess is that almost all of you reading have your hand up right now. We’ve all been there! Based on a lot of my conversations with others in the industry, it is pretty common. We often find ourselves in this scenario because we are asking people to change more than just a process that they follow; we are asking them to also change the way that they think and behave. In the book The Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations by Peter Senge et. al, this shift is referred to as “profound change.” The book defines this as “organizational change that combines inner shifts in people’s values, aspirations, and behaviors with outer shifts in process, strategies, practices, and systems.” Sounds a lot like what we are trying to do with Lean Construction doesn’t it?

So what can we do to make more of an impact? We need to change where we are putting our effort and attention. Too often, we put more investment into our change initiatives thinking that we just need a little more of a push to get people to start adopting the change. We need to focus on the challenges our people are facing in making the change. From a systems-thinking lens, we need to attack the balancing loops.

In The Dance of Change, Senge et al. discuss 10 archetypal challenges that organizations encounter when they attempt to initiate, sustain momentum, or redesign profound change initiatives. While the authors don’t focus on any one particular industry, we can take the concepts and use them to look at our Lean Construction initiatives through a different lens: what levers can we pull to make the most impact?

For now, let’s explore the 4 challenges that are associated with initiating a profound change.

No Time – “I don’t have any time for this!”

I am sure you have heard some version of the statement, “I had too many other things to do so I didn’t get to try that this week.” The reality is that we are always busy. For a group to be able to work on a new initiative, they need to have some flexibility over where they spend their time. When there is a gap between how much time people have available and the time that is required for the initiative, diminished results ensue. We also end up growing frustrated with the participants trying something new, and they become less likely to want to commit.

No Help – We don’t have anyone to help us with this stuff

“No one has helped us with this LPS thing, so I’m just going to print my 3 week from the master schedule.” I have seen numerous teams with the best intentions of trying something new (LPS, Kanban) ultimately revert back to their old ways of working, and this almost always occurs when they start to feel as if they don’t know what they are doing. When we try to make profound change, there is a need for coaching, guidance, and support. If there is not enough help available to support the teams, the learning suffers, and the people become frustrated that the initiative is just one more that isn’t going anywhere. Eventually, people stop wanting to be involved, and the initiative can die out altogether.

Not relevant – This new stuff doesn’t apply to me

“That Lean stuff is fine for the field team, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with me.” I’m not sure I can count the number of times that I’ve heard someone say that Lean didn’t apply to them. We hear the discussion all the time about communicating the “why” behind what we are doing so that everyone understands where they fit in. When individuals don’t understand this connection, we end up with a gap in the commitment level towards the initiative. We also get people who participate only because they feel that they have to. This lack of enthusiasm can easily spread and undermine initiatives, leading to everyone feeling as though we are just piling on more work.

Walking the talk – Well if they aren’t doing it then why should I?

“They keep saying we need to be collaborative, but then the PM just comes in and tells us what we need to do anyways.” If leadership is asking for a change in behavior, but they don’t follow it themselves, why would I want to do it? I find this challenge to be a prevalent one within the AEC industry. There is a gap in trust that is developed when we see the management who is championing an initiative not following the change themselves. This disconnect makes us question how credible the initiative actually is. At the same time, the lack of trust leads to us not feeling safe to have reflection and dialogue around the initiative, which then leads us to being much less willing to commit to the change.

There are so many of us trying to make a difference within the AEC industry by bringing about profound change with Lean Construction. While we know there are some success stories, there is much ground to cover in order to move the needle. Looking at our organizations through a systems thinking lens can help us understand where we might be able to make more of an impact than we are now.

I don’t think that we are at a shortage of investment and effort; maybe we are just putting our efforts in the wrong place.

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George is the Corporate Lean Director for IPS, a global EPCMV firm. He uses his passion for Lean construction to help teams improve the way they work. He has held past positions in the field, VDC, project management, and planning and scheduling, and has delivered projects of varying scope and complexity.