Lean construction is understood to improve productivity by empowering our team members with clarity and the sense of ownership to optimize workflows and reduce resource waste. In practice, this isn’t always the case. Even after a firm adopts Lean methodologies, plans may continue to fail due to workflow variability, inaccurate planning and team members who don’t have the information they need to make design, procurement and scheduling decisions. Throw a global pandemic into the mix and we’re faced with new constraints, communication breakdowns and threats to our overall productivity. Below, I discuss how purpose-built software can help us realize the promise of Lean and mitigate these challenges, provided we’ve cultivated the right culture on our jobsite.
Establish shared vision and values
Software and productivity systems aren’t magical. Before we can experience meaningful results from tools and techniques that improve communication, accountability and transparency, we must first establish a culture that encourages those values. If our team members believe they can perform better as individuals in silos, there isn’t any technology that will connect them in a way they recognize as empowering. In those scenarios, we aren’t likely to fully accept or consistently use the technology or system, even if we give lip service to doing so.
Having worked with Lean principles for 20 years, Tom Richert, principal of RisingTerrain, LLC, presents a Productivity Development Model (figure below) where we achieve optimal performance by striking the right balance of Lean productivity systems and culture design. By developing an intentional workplace culture characterized by shared understanding at every level of an organization, we can ensure that productivity systems serve our team members instead of the reverse. Our team members, who directly perform the work, are in the best position to identify the constraints and waste within our workflows. Our systems can’t be static or perceived as restrictive. Any solution we implement has to function so that team members feel that using it (or embracing it) is in their self-interest since it solves or prevents their workplace challenges. Richert suggests that an intentional culture can be more sustainable if it includes shared responsibility and leadership instead of an autocratic, top-down approach. Within a strong, intentional culture, team members at our jobsites can act like the parts of a body — distinct with varying functions, but interdependent and working toward keeping the body healthy — their collective goal. Fostering an environment where individual identities are valued as much as group identity allows for better team synergy and encourages shared leadership and responsibility for the final outcome.
Cultivate your culture of transparency
In our daily huddles and pull planning sessions, we typically use sticky notes and whiteboards to encourage the transparency and clarity required by Lean methodologies such as the Last Planner System® (LPS). Our teams, across trades, can more effectively communicate with each other if work is made visual for every professional involved in the project. Keeping project details and schedules transparent for all members of a team (not just managers) and empowering trade contractors to raise issues as they arise, prevents plan failures by grounding decisions in reality. But meetings eventually end and it isn’t always possible for every team member to attend in person.
Digital Lean platforms create opportunities to keep the collaboration and transparency going, in real-time, even when team members can’t be in the same place. The need for remote collaboration solutions has become more significant due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By digitally documenting schedules, task status, constraints, approvals, manpower requirements and other project details, we make project details more accessible than they would be otherwise. If we empower foremen, trade contractors and other team members to update project information in the digital tool as constraints emerge or plans change due to unexpected circumstances (e.g., weather), our teams can remain clear on shared goals and task status in real-time. Additionally, supervisors are more likely to have up-to-date data to make decisions based on the insights and information gathered from the professionals closest to the work.
In the long term, digitally documented project information gives us the ability to analyze validated data from past projects to anticipate future constraints, identify opportunities for improved workflows, and estimate the cost and duration of future projects. This enhances our ability to practice the continuous learning components of Lean and LPS.
Intentional culture and the next generation
It’s no secret that our industry is in need of skilled workers. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) identified the cost and availability of labor as the number one problem the 2020 market would face — and this was before the impacts of COVID-19. With the average worker in their 40s, many of us are thinking about how to recruit the next generation of construction workers and retain organizational knowledge as experienced team members retire.
Millennials and Generation Z both favor work that’s collaborative and employs creativity, critical thinking and purpose. Lean-based practices that promote problem-solving, constant communication and use of LPS are ideal for these groups. Digital Lean solutions can give team members the ability to track schedules, finances, processes and milestones in real-time with a high-level view of their progress daily (not just at the end of a project). This supports an intentional jobsite culture where each employee (millennial or other) knows what they’re working toward and can recognize the purpose and logic behind their tasks.
Planners perform the work
If designed to support LPS, digital Lean platforms can empower those who perform the work to plan the work. This approach can result in a more attractive jobsite where trade contractors, foremen and superintendents have clear information to help reduce common pain points like trade stacking, unavailable equipment, unreliable material deliveries, incorrect time estimations and poor coordination. By taking the promise of Lean construction from potential to reality, communication-heavy digital Lean platforms support major improvements to jobsite cultures across transparency, collaboration and morale.