The Lean Construction in Action is a series that features Lean practitioners who are working in the field. In this series, Tim interviews lean leaders, superintendents, and foreman who are actively applying Lean Construction. The goal of this series is to connect people with the lean practices that they are currently using. We want to share stories about what they are learning and how they are improving their practice.

1. I know you're deep in the lean community. You’re one of the OG lean superintendents, so I'm looking forward to our conversation. To get started, maybe tell us a little bit of background about yourself – where are you working currently and maybe a little bit about how and when you first learned about this whole world of lean and what it all entails?

I have been at Skiles Group now for 14 years. About 8-9 years ago, Keyan Zandy came over here. So, I got a little cheat sheet kind of deal going with Lean, based on getting the information from him. We started that journey about eight years ago and we've been kind of pushing it ever since.

2. Was that the first time you heard about Lean, when they came out to site, or was it kind of floating around the industry before that?

For me personally, that was the first time I'd ever heard of it. I've been doing a lot of different ways (of planning), but that was the first time I'd heard of that.

3. When they came out, did everyone over at your company jump into it and think that was the greatest thing? Or was there some apprehension there?

Oh no, it wasn't received really well. They found a couple of us (it was surprisingly, a couple of the older guys) that saw the value in it and kind of jumped on it. 

So, you know, you hear these stories all the time about you needing to find some kind of lean champions and kind of get them bought in and then kind of work your way through getting everybody else on board.

4. Were some of those older senior superintendents, more the guys that jumped on or were they the ones that kind of had that apprehension to begin?

It was kind of a mix because it just so happened a couple of us took on to it pretty heavily.  Then we kind of had to go figure out. That’s the way we did it – based on who would be the most receptive and who would have the most trouble with. And then we attacked the easy, low hanging fruit.

5. What were some of those first steps you guys took towards implementation?

Keyan already had the board concept (the visuals) and already figured out where he had come from before. And we had some board made-up and basically just tried to get the daily huddles going first. We’d stand there and talk about visuals and stuff like that. Mark things up and it kind of worked. 

It was kind of slow. I tell everybody. You know if we had to go back and do it, we'd probably do it a different way. We concentrated on the superintendents for several years. And that's the old school deal - Inside the fence is mine. Outside the fence is the project managers, you know? Don't come in here and tell my trade partners what to do. Just come see me. Let's have the meeting and then leave.

And the superintendent had all the pressure of the project, you know, everything that happened either good or bad, was my responsibility.  That’s a lot of weight on the shoulders.

We started rolling it out and making the project managers and other field managers responsible for learning it too and helping with it.  That to me was kind of a second or third turning point, because it was a team thing then.

The first way (superintendents only) we learned that if I was off, it wouldn't get done for that week or whatever. When I came back, you know, everybody was out of the habit. It was trying to start it all over again. I had some bad habits around the holidays. When people weren't there, they let it kind of slide a little bit.

And so you learn if you can at least get other teammates in there with you that can cover for you when you're out, then it keeps going and also it's kind of an accountability thing they can help me with it.

Lean is not something to be scared about. If you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, it doesn't matter who's watching you. And so come on, help me. That's kind of what I've seen that I like the most about it. I don't need all that pressure on myself.  If I was giving anybody advice, it would be don't be stubborn about it. Don’t be so hard that you don't let others help you because they might see something that they could suggest and make it a little easier. Even so, I think getting other people to buy into it besides just the superintendents is another way that helps push this thing along.

6. So it sounds like you've probably done quite a few projects, we'll call it the old school way, and you've done quite a few projects with lean construction practices put into place. Why do lean construction practices make for a better project?

First off, it has to do with the schedule because we're doing pull plans where we're bringing trade partners in to, you know, collaborate on, with other trade partners.

In the old days you'd have a biweekly or monthly meeting and you passed the schedule out. Everybody kind of looked at it and then half of them would be left on the table when the meeting was over. They weren't bought into it because it was my schedule, not theirs.

When you get them in there, committed to each other and talking to each other in those pull plans about “You can't have the room by yourself” or “you can't have those five rooms by yourself.” “We've gotta be able to start this a little sooner”. Then they start thinking about it and they're not as closed-minded about it. 

They kind of open up a little bit and they start collaborating with each other. Next thing you know (that's why it's called pull plan), it starts pulling that day in and gets it back in line with where it needs to be at.

And then also just watching them when they come up with a constraint or, you know, a problem. I say “So write it on the board” and they say “What?”.  It’s like yeah, go write it on the board, you know? Don't tell me.  And it's like, oh, cool.  And then, when you get it done and you can all agree, you can erase it.

All that stuff used to live in my pocket or in a notebook or date planner or something. All those issues that they would tell me about. And several of them would get misplaced. The way it was and now with it all being visual and on the boards, everybody can see it and agree that it got answered.

7. That constraint board you guys have; is that open for the trades to use at anytime or is it only something that can be used during your sessions?

It's mostly when we're doing our huddles. But they can add things if I'm not in the office or whatever. The guys let me know they added it, but nothing can be erased off of that board unless the groups there agree on it since sometimes it affects more than one trade.

And so that's the only board that we have that can be erased. Anything can be erased from it during the week, because we want to know when we miss a date. We want to know when somebody's adjusting manpower.  I'll let them come in and mark up our visual boards (we'll throw some plans up on the wall for different trades) so we kind of keep track of what work is getting done out in the field.

They come in and mark it up daily so we can keep up with, say, ductwork. You know they can go up there and draw in what they got done so that we can track the percentage completed on the duct work. And then toward the end, we just erase that and just color code the duct that is not done.  Stuff like that is easy to keep up with, but it's better if they do that during the day or at the end of the day so that the next morning when we do the huddles, everything's current. Everybody kind of knows what's been done.

8. What do you think is the biggest hurdle that lean construction faces in the industry? Why are more people not jumping on board with lean construction? Is it a lack of knowledge? Is it just too hard to make the change? Do you have any thoughts about that?

You know, you just hit two of them right there. A lot of it is lack of knowledge. If you don't see it working - like we've had trade partners, it was kind of new too. And they got on board, “OK, we're going to do it”.  And you know, at the end of the job. They came to us and basically praised everything that happened because they got out of there quicker than they’d scheduled and they made a little more money than they thought they were going to.  Now, if they're giving us a price and they're giving a non-lean contractor a price, we're going to get a better price just because they know what we're doing what we're doing and know that we're going to get them out of there quicker.

So then you're going to do it with one or two jobs. You really have to know the value of it to know that it's worth the couple of years transition and jump into it and don't turn back. You have to just go forward. And that continuous improvement, we're not all going to get it at first. It's going to take a while to do it. But this organization, this group of people that are in it, wouldn't be so big and wouldn't be growing as much as it is if it wasn't some something, right?  

When Keyan and Joe wrote The Lean Builder I was thinking, (and I tell the story all the time) “what the heck are we doing here? We're giving away the secret sauce?! Who does that?”

But when you get out into that community, and you see that you can talk freely, it opens up a lot. We had a Superintendent session this morning that Adam Hoots put on and I don't know how many different companies were involved in it, but we're sitting there going through daily problems with each other. 

Where was that a few years ago? If you were talking to somebody that worked for a different company, your company would think you're looking for a job or something. We're not looking for jobs. We’re looking to get better. And that's continuous improvement.  And what better than to be on call with industry leaders that you know might be going through something similar?

9. What would you say is the number one, best trait that a lean builder could have? Something they could bring with them to work every day.

An open mind; be open to change. And then be open to continuous improvement. Culture is a big word that is moving around a lot more than it used to be. We had a program for one year to get everybody aligned and going in the same direction. And if you had some folks that weren't, we had that difficult decision of “maybe they need to be working someplace else”. That's a tough stance, but some people going in the wrong direction can pull your team down about as fast as anything. It's like a little cancer that just keeps growing.

Combative superintendents are not the way to go anymore. People will walk off the job. You have to treat people right. And that's as it should be. You get more out of them, especially as these guys talk to each other in these huddles. You can see how things get worked out a little easier in the field. Those guys talk to each other. It's just different and that culture has gotta be all of that.  It's gotta be driven from management first. From management down and if the management does not buy into it, it's not gonna go anywhere. It's gonna get stalled from somewhere down the line.

10. What do you think the industry's largest misconception about lean construction is, whether that's people not practicing it or from owners or trade partners? What do you think people don't quite get right about lean construction?

The biggest thing is when they think they know what to do with it and they really don't. They might have been a job that was trying to do it, or they've read up on it or something like that. But until you actually get out there in the field and see it working, you don’t know.  

It really does change opinions. Owners that we work for now are more involved in it and see it work.  They see the value of it. We'll bring owners in on the design phase, with the user groups and maybe the supply chain, and get them to start thinking about when you need things and how far out they need to plan.A lot of times things come a little too late. But if you'd been planning a little sooner and brought them in a little sooner they might have had the stuff on time. Or if you're keeping everybody in the loop and you look like you're trying to finish too much early, it doesn't do a bit of good to finish early if they're not prepared to take the building because you weren't keeping them updated.

It's the same thing with all your trade partners. If they're sandbagging you and they can do it in five days, but they tell you 10, it doesn't do us any good. We're not gaining those five days because you didn't tell me upfront. If you had told me five days, we'd have put five days in and I would have had the next trade ready to go.

There's a fine line there between people understanding that you gotta be as accurate as possible on those days. But don't pat it because we're gonna lose those days.

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Tim is a Superintendent for CRB Group. His construction experience focuses heavily on the biotech and life science industry. Tim is an advocate for incorporating lean construction techniques into all aspects of a project lifecycle.

Buddy has over 35 years of construction experience, and is a “Lean Champion” within the firm where he helps to teach Skiles Group’s Lean processes and tools, drives adherence to those protocols, seeks innovative solutions to achieve the firm’s Lean goals, and generates enthusiasm for the firm’s Lean initiatives.