The Lean Construction Champions Spotlight is a series that features Lean champions who are actively transforming their company's culture, practices, and lean journey. In this series, Justin interviews lean leaders in order to learn how they approach the teaching, coaching, and scaling problem. The goal of this series is to learn how lean champions can make meaningful progress while not triggering resistance. We want to share stories about what they are learning and their best practices.

1. Who is Dominic Desmarais?

As an engineer specializing in the design of production systems, I found myself in construction when I received a call from a company involved in modular construction and prefabrication. Intrigued by the challenge, I made the decision to join them in 2008. It was a fascinating experience to work in a factory where the focus was on people rather than machines. I implemented lean practices like standard work and 5S to enhance productivity in the factory.

Eventually, I was entrusted with managing the entire facility, overseeing a workforce of 250 employees and a significant monthly output. After several years in that role, I had the opportunity to work for a general contractor in 2017, which exposed me to a different perspective of lean principles in construction. I immersed myself in concepts such as the Last Planner system, Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), and target value design. With a total of around 15 to 16 years of experience in the construction industry, I thoroughly enjoy my current role as a lean manager and the challenges it brings.

2. What was your first exposure to lean?

My first exposure to Lean was during my time in school. Lean was a topic in our curriculum, particularly when studying factory layout. However, it was when I started working for a company called Thomas and Bets that I truly delved into Lean. They were serious about implementing Lean principles, so I received extensive training and participated in SM (Shopfloor Management) sessions. We were also fortunate to receive coaching from the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI).

Working full-time, I collaborated with individuals on the factory floor and in management, reimagining work cells and departments. I even had the opportunity to lay out a factory in Western Canada. A unique experience occurred when I traveled to Denver to set up a new shop. Sitting in an empty building with my laptop on a couple of pallets, I planned the layout, material flow, and established the foundation for the facility. I’ve been involved in Lean for over 20 years and I can confidently say that it has been an incredible journey. This is not just a passing phase for me; I am deeply committed to Lean. Some may dismiss it as mere enthusiasm, referring to it as drinking the Kool-Aid, but I disagree. Lean is a substantial and valuable approach. It may not be easy, but it is far from a passing fad.

3. What was your first impression of lean?

When I first encountered lean, it felt different to me. Growing up on my uncle's farm, I was used to working closely with the business leader, which made it counterintuitive to see managers not supporting workers. The traditional way of managing, with a separation between those who do the work and those who think about it, never made sense to me. Lean, on the other hand, made sense because it focused on improving work and eliminating internal conflicts, allowing more energy and time to be spent on competing in the marketplace. Lean created win-win situations where customers, employees, and the company could all benefit.

As I witnessed the benefits of implementing lean principles and saw how it could positively impact the customer, employees, and the company simultaneously, I became more passionate about it. By removing infighting and barriers, we could become more productive and adaptable compared to our competition. We could create win-win situations where nobody had to be a loser. When everyone feels energized and motivated to contribute, the collective energy helps propel things forward.

4. What are some things you are currently implementing at an organizational level?

At an organizational level, we have implemented Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), which is a collaborative delivery model. Although I wasn't here when we first adopted it, I'm proud that our company was among the pioneers in the country. Internally, we operate within the IPD framework, utilizing tools like the Last Planner system and pull planning to establish production control systems. This serves as the foundation for creating flow and improving efficiency.

In construction, we have embraced concepts such as just-in-time material delivery, material logistics, and 5S organization. However, I believe that without reliable production control and a trusted schedule, job sites tend to accumulate excess materials as a precaution rather than receiving them just in time. That's why I consider Last Planner and similar methodologies as crucial precursors to decluttering job sites and establishing flow. We are currently investing considerable effort in building a team of local coaches who can support project teams. My role involves developing our internal curriculum, training materials, and coaching plans. This allows us to tailor our approach to each project and work closely with the project teams, providing them with the tools and methods that best suit their specific circumstances. It's important to recognize that not every approach is universally applicable, and adapting to the unique requirements of each project is key. I've gained this understanding through personal growth and experiences, including receiving feedback from superintendents who expressed their frustrations. Now, my focus is on developing a tailored approach that demonstrates value across the hundreds of projects we undertake.

5. If someone asked you to describe IPD, how would you describe it?

If someone asked me to describe IPD (Integrated Project Delivery), I would explain that it is a flexible delivery model that fosters collaboration among various stakeholders involved in a construction project. It brings together people from the design world, general contractors, and selected trade partners to establish a project-first culture. Within this model, specific systems and controls are deployed, tailored to the project's unique needs.

One distinguishing feature of IPD is its open-book approach. It changes the traditional contractual and transactional dynamics by promoting risk and reward sharing among project participants. Cost and profit are separated, and all profits are pooled together. The performance of the project determines how much is distributed to each stakeholder at the end. This shift in approach creates a more relational framework for project delivery.

6. What is some of the feedback you’ve gotten from folks in your organization about lean implementation?

The feedback we've received from people in our organization regarding lean implementation has been diverse. Some trades have reached out to us, wondering why certain project managers and superintendents are not deploying the Last Planner system on their sites. They see the potential benefits and are curious about its implementation. I remember a conversation with a trade partner who noticed a significant reduction in labor but wasn't sure why. After spending a day with them, teaching them about waste and introducing concepts like the parade of trades, they embraced lean and even hired a consultant to further their lean journey.

Many individuals who have experienced an IPD project express that if given the choice, they would definitely build that way again. It's a positive affirmation of the effectiveness of the approach.

When it comes to the Last Planner system, as we deploy it across various contract models, the feedback becomes more varied. Sometimes it works exceptionally well, enabling the creation of flow, while other times it can be more challenging depending on factors like team dynamics, constraints, consultant responsiveness, and owner decision-making abilities. Delays in procurement and material due to late decisions or poor information can disrupt the flow. The lack of instruction and materials leads to a halt in construction progress.

Deploying lean doesn't guarantee a smooth experience on every project. Some may encounter difficulties initially, but that doesn't mean subsequent projects will be equally challenging. It's important to note that even those who have had phenomenal experiences with IPD can face difficulties when transitioning back to the lump sum world.

7. What are some of the ways you see lean misused?

In my opinion, one way I see lean being misused is when the crucial aspect of pull planning is overlooked. Pull planning is about making commitments and fostering conversations, learning, and information exchange within the team of last planners. However, I have observed projects that tend to skip this part because it is challenging. It's often said that nothing is as difficult as self-skills. The intangible elements like connection, exchange of ideas, and trust are harder to measure compared to tangible metrics like days on a calendar.

Some teams may revert back too quickly to traditional methods, such as using sticky notes for look-ahead planning or relying solely on software technology. This allows individuals to create plans from their own locations without needing to come together in the same room or have face-to-face discussions. It may give a false sense of efficiency, assuming that less time spent together or less writing means greater efficiency. However, I always emphasize that it's better to have a better plan, even if it takes more time and collaboration, than to be highly efficient at creating a plan that ultimately proves ineffective.

8. You’ve spoken about fitting lean to the project, can you share an example or story of that?

Yeah, so I've come across various examples where we tailored lean practices to fit different projects. For smaller projects, we utilized sticky notes and wall-based production planning efforts. It was a simple and effective method. On larger projects with more contractual documentation requirements, we adjusted our P6 schedule framework to be location-based. This allowed us to govern our pull plans by location and transfer the information to the software. So, for larger projects, we could blend both worlds by incorporating Last Planner and P6.

Another aspect to consider is the direction of planning. In Canada, there's a misconception that any sticky notes on a wall represent pull planning. However, I've seen pull planning done forward, backward, by zones, and in multiple ways. It's about understanding the work elements and adapting the planning approach based on our knowledge and uncertainties. Some work elements are planned forward, while others are planned backward. It's a matter of adjusting our plans according to the project's needs and what we know at a given point in time.

We can also adapt the tools we use for weekly work planning. It can be done on a board with sticky notes or on a piece of paper. The key is to be flexible and find ways to adapt the tools to the specific project requirements.

9. What piece of advice would you give to someone looking to implement lean at an organizational level?

For someone is looking to implement lean at an organizational level, my advice is to consider four key ingredients, which I compare to a pizza. First, you need leadership support, which is like the crust of the pizza. It allows you to spread the other ingredients and create a foundation for implementation.

Second, internal expertise is essential, just like the sauce on a pizza. It gives flavor and depth to the lean journey. While consultants can provide initial guidance, it's important to build internal capacity and have someone who can guide the journey internally. This person can understand your company's specific challenges, have access to data, and live the problems alongside the team.

The third ingredient is building your internal system, which is like the meat on the pizza. This involves developing training materials, tools, and systems that align with your company's existing processes, such as quality management, safety management, project control, and scheduling. It's crucial to create stability and a place where people can rally around and drive improvements.

Lastly, you need local coaches, represented by the cheese on the pizza. These coaches should be close to the projects and readily available to provide guidance and support when needed. They play a vital role in the day-to-day implementation of lean practices.

If there are no existing resources or pizza parlors in your neighborhood, so to speak, you can start by forming a core group or committee of individuals who are interested and invested in lean. This group can support each other, share experiences, and develop your own unique approach to lean implementation. As you gain traction and success, you can expand and learn from project to project, building consistency and generating momentum.

Remember, just like a pizza, lean implementation requires the right ingredients and a careful balance to create a successful outcome.

10. What words of wisdom do you have for the industry?

I would say that achieving real flow and the ultimate goal of lean is challenging and sustaining it is even more difficult. There will always be obstacles and new problems that arise along the way. Lean is a continuous pursuit, and it's important to understand that there is no final destination or "there" to reach. The ease of feeling the benefits may vary from case to case.

If you face failures or setbacks as a lean champion, don't be too hard on yourself. Take the time to analyze why it happened, and remember that it's most likely not solely your fault. Learn from the experience and make slight changes to improve the outcome next time. There are significant benefits for everyone in the industry, including owners, consultants, general contractors, subcontractors, and workers. Embrace the journey of lean, remain resilient, and strive for continuous improvement.

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Justin is a Project Superintendent with 10+ years’ experience in the construction industry. I’m passionate about lean construction and making the project experience better for everyone involved. I’m also passionate about teaching and training the new generation of construction professionals. Justin has successfully completed projects in the office, retail, interiors, high rise, education, and manufacturing sectors. Justin graduated from Clemson University with a Bachelors in Civil Engineering and Western Carolina University with a Masters in Construction Management.

I am a Canadian professional engineer with over 20 years’ experience in both construction and manufacturing, including responsibilities over a 100M P&L with over 300 employees as a senior leader. As a lean Director for Graham Construction and Engineering, I make it my mission to be influential and support our project and industry partners in the advancement of the practice in both Canada and the US.