Lean Meetings: A Collaboration Fundamental

Lean Construction requires a dramatic increase in collaboration – defined literally as “co-laboring”, working together. For better or worse, working together happens in meetings. As important as collaboration is to Lean Construction, one of the most common laments is, “There are too many meetings! When am I going to get my work done?!” And therein lies one of the most challenging paradoxes of Lean Construction.

A basic fact of career path development is that the higher you get, the more meetings you attend, whether as a leader or participant. For most of us, our first jobs were at least 90% “Doing” – completing tasks. When it comes time for management to choose a foreman, team leader or new supervisor, the dominant criterion is usually, “who knows the job the best?” In other words, the person selected to be the new planner and manager of a work group is the best “Doer” – not necessarily the best planner or manager. But a clear message has been given: your advancement depends on what you know how to Do! “Knowing” equals success.

If you learn to Do planning and task management in your area of expertise, the next level of reward is to be assigned ever greater responsibility, increasingly complex issues and more stakeholder engagement. Eventually, inevitably, you are assigned oversight of efforts that address areas outside your original expertise as a “Doer”. For most people this becomes your first mid-career crisis. You can no longer simply be the one with the answers. You have to figure out how to get expertise and answers from people you don’t directly control and who know more than you do. You can’t simply plan for others to do, you have lead others to plan for themselves. Your work has transitioned from “Doing”, to “Planning to Do”, to “Planning to Plan” – orchestration of the actions of others rather than direction. In most cases, this is a level of leadership entirely foreign to the “Knowing” culture that has rewarded your development thus far. The only way to open one’s self to new learning is to admit you don’t know everything, and that can be terrifying for those of us who have made a career or built a business by selling ourselves as having the required “know-how”; having the answers.

As mentioned above, another reward of career advancement is that you get to (i.e., have to) attend more meetings. While line workers (“Doers”) may spend as little as 10% of their work time in meetings, it is not uncommon for mid-managers such as superintendents and team leaders to spend 50% of their time in increasingly varied meetings – short/long, formal/informal, one-on-one/team or staff, planning/reporting, problem identification/problem solving, proposing/decision making. Senior managers get virtually all their work done through various types of meetings. Their level of “Doing” is almost exclusively spent in planning and preparatory communication about the next meeting.

Almost every meeting produces at least some sort of value, but the question is, what percent of the time you spend in your meetings actually produces that value? Most people estimate that they are fully and meaningfully engaged in less than 50% of their time in meetings, and the rest is spent on low- or no-value activity. That least productive time in any meeting is probably waste. The more senior the participants, the costlier their time, the more impactful the quality of their decisions, and therefore, the greater the waste created by unproductive meeting time. If Lean is all about realizing greater value while eliminating waste, and if Lean Construction is all about effective collaboration and continuous improvement, then improvement of our meetings is essential.

Based on my work in the 1980’s with Interaction Associates, a consulting firm started (believe it or not) by two Architects, Michael Doyle and David Strauss, I developed a workshop to help people lead various types of organization development and change projects, and successfully manage collaborative efforts. If you have used sticky-notes to do pull planning, or have conducted a “Plus/Delta” process at the end of a meeting, you are using techniques learned by LCI founders Glenn Ballard and Greg Howell through training and work with Interaction Associates in the 80’s!

I called the workshop developed “5 Keys for Collaboration”. In the last 40-some years I have trained several thousand leaders in these skills. The 5 Keys are:

  1. Facilitative Leadership and Facilitative Behaviors
  2. Effective Meeting Planning and Management
  3. Effective Stakeholder Engagement
  4. Collaborative Problem Solving
  5. Collaborative Decision-Making
On March 12, I will present a Webinar through the Lean Construction Blog, to introduce the basics of the “5 Keys for Collaboration” with a main focus on Lean Meetings. Learning objectives for the webinar are that you will:
  • Understand the root cause of waste in every sort of project meeting
  • Understand the essential tools and techniques that must be mastered to increase value realization and eliminate waste in project meetings
  • Understand Lean Meetings as one of a larger set of “5 Keys for Collaboration” that will greatly enhance the effectiveness of Lean Construction
  • Receive a simple meeting effectiveness evaluation tool that can be applied immediately to improve project collaboration.

Join us to learn how you can eliminate or transform the most wasteful 25% of your meeting time while increasing value creation through productivity, buy-in, decision quality and better Lean culture development.

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