Modern construction involves complex designs from multiple designers that are built by a cohort of trade partners. Effective flow from concept to design to construction involves continuous information exchange, decision making, and robust change management. Everything is connected during construction and establishing strong routines for intentional collaboration is key to success.

To enable this, we typically set up a Big Room to create an environment where collaboration can flourish and to better manage the project. Similar to command centers, the Big Room provides the desired environment of creativity, transparency, and teamwork. The typical Big Room is filled with visual information on the project goals, trends, and news on the team members. The Big Room comes to life when this information is used for discussion and decision making.

The Big Room is much more than a physical or virtual gathering space. It is a place where people can collaborate, share information, co-locate if needed, and make decisions. It is a place where people from different companies break from their silos to focus on shared outcomes and objectives. It is ultimately a place where people feel safe in sharing their ideas, successes, and challenges without fear and judgement.

We have all seen Big Rooms. Some are dynamic and exciting. There is open discussion and healthy conflict. By contrast, others are Big Room in space only. People from companies congregate together, instead of cross-functionally. Information is hidden from fear of consequences and lost reputation. Interaction is formal and trust is low. What makes one Big Room successful while another struggles?

In our experience, it is best to think about Big Room more as a system than a set of tools. There are three distinct factors that interact to make a big room come alive. These are:

1. Mindsets and Behaviors
2. Work processes and Structure
3. Leadership

It is only when all three are present that a big room truly fulfills its purpose. Let us take a look at these elements in further detail.

1) Mindsets and Behaviors
The Big Room environment requires mindsets based on lean principles. To work differently, one needs to think differently. Many times, this means a shift from the traditional mental models. These mindsets show up as behaviors in the Big Room.

A common challenge experienced in Big Rooms is when people have gathered without a deep understanding of why. Therefore, bad behaviors from the past continue in the Big Room, leading to poor outcomes. One example is when information is not shared openly or used to further the individual’s goals rather than the team’s. Another is when participants in the big room have to keep communicating with the home office to make decisions.

A few mental models and associated behaviors for Big Rooms to succeed include:

Example Mindsets Example Behavior
Respecting every individual Asking questions to understand other perspectives before telling
Reliability Doing what you said you will do; Saying no when appropriate
Collaboration Bringing the right people together to work through challenges
Transparency Sharing information openly on rationale behind decisions
Humility Recognizing the team will need to learn new ways of working and supporting them on the journey

2) Work Processes and Structure

Big Rooms don’t happen by accident. A successful Big Room is designed to advance work and get stuff done. There is confidence that the tasks assigned are getting accomplished, and that issues are being brought to light quickly and effectively for resolution. The Big Room hums with a palpable sense of energy with people getting together to tackle issues. For this to happen, a set of rigorous processes and structure needs to be in place. Processes and structure provide the framework where mindsets can be applied. Without strong processes, you can have great intentions but will have weak execution.

When setting up a Big Room, some of the more common challenges are when project teams skip building a detailed and aligned plan, and do not spend time figuring out how they will work together. Result is people occupy the big room, but are unsure where the latest information lies, how to get others involved in problem solving, and even which meetings they need to attend. Another example is when the phrase “to collaborate” is misunderstood. Simply put, it means “to work, one with another; cooperate.” Many times, it is confused for “must have everyone involved in everything all the time.” This leads to poor planning of meetings and session attendees, often resulting in frustration, wasted time, efforts and ultimately a higher cost to the project.

Some processes and structures critical for success include:

Critical Process / Structure How it helps
Physical space Flexible layout allowing space for people to come together quickly, or work alone
Planning routines Effective planning of work – e.g. Last Planner® System, Capacity Management
Meeting Management Having the right meetings, right participants, with specific objectives and agendas
Daily task management Visual tracking of actions and constraints that are self-managed
Problem-Solving A safe way to raise and resolve issues with scientific thinking e.g. A3 thinking and process
Team health assessment Periodic assessment of team engagement
Recognition mechanisms A visual space where people’s contributions are recognized and celebrated

3) Leadership

A successful big room requires strong leadership. This leadership is required not only from the “typical” project leaders, but from other project participants as well. On a Lean project, in addition to delivering a project, we should be delivering participants who have grown in skills along the way. A strong leader will act with intention to make sure this happens.

A Big Room is populated by people who are all striving towards a common goal under dynamic and often difficult circumstances. There is pressure to execute, high emotions, constant changes, and inevitably conflict or frustration arises. This is normal for any team. The failure happens when leadership fails to act.

Some examples of good leadership seen in successful Big Rooms:

Leadership Examples What this looks like
Set vision and direction Sets goals for the project, and also on the behaviors expected
Courage Will have ideas that challenge assumptions. Not afraid to bring up the elephant in the room.
Listening / Humility Asks questions to better understand others, listens, and enhances what they have to offer.
Coaching Creates opportunities to allow team members to grow their skills, including leadership skills. Identifies when an individual or team is struggling and coaches them through to the other side.
Breaking silos Intentionally facilitates conversations between different companies or roles.
Enables problem solving When an issue arises, focusing on the process vs finding out who is at fault

Move to Virtual

Over the last 6 months we have begun to learn how to translate many of these ideas into a virtual world. However, the ideas rarely translate 1:1. We find ourselves needing to bolster and reinforce lean principles. Processes have to adapt. In particular, mindsets and behaviors need reinforcement. It is so much easier for people to create stories in their heads and fall back into traditional project mode when they are only logging into virtual sessions and not sharing the same physical space. Some tips we have found helpful are:

  • All team members turn cameras on during calls
  • Create intentional breakout discussions before, during, and after the meetings to foster/replicate the chit-chat and networking that happens in physical Big Rooms.
  • Have virtual social outings and remember to include breakout rooms. A 20-person virtual social outing without breakout rooms only allows 1 person to talk at a time.
  • Plan some “work time” where people are virtually connected but doing work at their desk. This can mimic co-location and adds the benefit of being able to look up and ask someone a quick question.
  • Have planned routines and structure, make sure everyone who needs to be participating is included. Also plan for quiet work time.
These items are not intended to be all-inclusive and are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many great resources available on virtual collaboration and virtual teams (some are provided at the end). Mindsets, processes, and leadership are even more relevant in this evolving and dynamic space.

Summary

All Big Rooms require attention and nurturing, and challenges will have to be met and overcome. Mindfulness on the real intent of a Big Room will keep us centered and help identify gaps. An experienced coach can be instrumental in helping build and sustain good behaviors. Leaders making expectations clear will help people find ways to support the intent. And team members taking ownership of the vision and “their space”, can shape a positive and energetic work environment.

The Big Room is about the room, and so much more. It is a place that helps and enables us to do the work. It is a place that challenges us to continuously do better. And finally, it is a place to feel valued, and to learn.

Some links to help with move to virtual Together Alex and Rebecca have over 20 years of experience working with teams in a variety of Big Room settings. They have firsthand experience in applying lean principles through an assortment of tools and processes. They have seen successes, and experienced even more challenges and lessons learned. They are both firm believers that working together produces better results and offer this shared post as a testament.

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Rebecca Snelling is a Vice President and the National Lean Director of JE Dunn Construction, where she is growing a group of coaches and trainers who work with all JE Dunn employees and project teams implementing Lean practices and behaviors. Since 2006, she has worked with owners, architects, contractors, engineers, IPD teams and various organizations implementing Lean practices. She currently serves as the Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Lean Construction Institute (LCI). .


Alex is a Senior Consultant with Haley & Aldrich. Alex has a track record of successfully leading lean transformations that get results while building capability. He is enthusiastic about building cultures of excellence and has guided companies across numerous industries, including Manufacturing, Financial Services, and Design & Construction. He focuses on instilling operating systems that drive value year over year, while putting humanity back in the workplace. Alex has a passion for change, practical problem solving, and creating conditions for people to be at their best. .