Lean from the Bottom Up – A Grass Roots Journey

Almost five years ago, our formal Lean journey began when a client asked us to facilitate a Lean transformation on a large, ongoing construction project.

It was considered the largest Lean implementation of its kind. Our team, more than 200 of our salaried staff, a similar number of client management and roughly 1,200 craft personnel, began our Lean journey together at the midpoint of this project. The results were dramatic and the metrics generated exceeded all prior metrics from equivalent projects for that client.

At the conclusion of the project, our internal Lean champions began to review lessons learned, evaluate our existing corporate culture and determine how best to implement Lean practices on ongoing and future projects.

What we learned is that Lean transformation can begin in and be sustained from a grassroots effort and that cultural transformation can be realized by focusing on three key areas.

  • Creating an environment of continuous improvement
  • Building your people
  • Equipping and empowering your people to lead change

Many companies have continuous improvement programs, but not all have continuous improvement cultures. To create a culture of continuous improvement you must cultivate an environment where people are empowered and encouraged to make positive changes. If your people feel their opinions and ideas are valued, know they have the authority to implement change in their workspace, and are recognized for their ideas; they will believe in and sustain a culture of continuous improvement.

You have to build your people by investing in them with training and education that will help them grow in their position and attain new levels within the organization. Building your people can include mentoring them, providing them with skills coaches, and offering training to help them succeed in their jobs. If you are investing in them, you are investing in your company.

Equip and empower your people to lead change. Providing your people with the tools they need to complete their tasks is an obvious requirement of any employer. Beyond that, enable them to use those tools, their individual skill sets and champion the idea that change is good to motivate them to do their jobs better. Give them authority and responsibility, let them determine what they can change for the better, empower them to make the change and they will make improvements you didn't even know you needed.

In our organization, we continue to inspire and promote continuous improvement. We go to great lengths to encourage employees to go to the Gemba and think critically and creatively about what the work involves and to make improvements to that work. We recognize all ideas and reward those that are implemented. We retain the ideas, publicize the ideas and celebrate the value created for our employees and clients with those ideas. We also invest heavily in our people. Between jobsite training, district programs and corporate seminars, our employees are in some form of formal training more than 100 hours per year. We promote the training of your replacement. While you are training your replacement, someone is training you to be theirs. It's a constant cycle of growing people into their next role and sustaining the growth and success of our company. This is an example of the respect for people cultivated in Lean cultures. Lastly, we empower our people to make change. Each of our job sites and district support groups endeavors to work smarter and not harder. They have the authority to implement changes and make improvements. If something isn't working, or could work better, they can make that decision and implement that change without layers of corporate approval.

As simple as implementing Lean seems and ultimately is, it takes commitment and trust in your people. Make the commitment to foster a culture where Lean thinking is encouraged and celebrated, trust your people to do what they need to do to succeed and you'll be all the more successful as a company for it.

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