The Lean Construction in Europe is a series that features Lean practitioners working in Europe. In this series, William Power interviews lean leaders and shares lessons learned. This series highlights how people are currently applying Lean in their projects and how they are progressing on their lean journey. 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. What is your current role and how are you involved with Lean Construction?

I am an independent lean coach and facilitator. I help design and construction teams improve the way they work. I “preach and practice” kanban, last planner and other lean methods, and support and mentor construction professionals on their “problem projects”.

2. What kind of projects are you currently working on? (Design offices, construction sites, other?)

Italy is enjoying healthy growth in construction due to government subsidies that promote energy efficient renovations and seismic retrofitting of existing buildings, so I’m helping a number of scale-up engineering companies come up with lean construction methods to streamline and standardise this type of work.

3. When did you start learning about Lean Construction and what made you decide to do it?

In my previous role as a director at an Italian contractor I remember being very frustrated with my work. I kept thinking “there’s got to be a better way”. I was already familiar with Six Sigma, that’s where I started from, which eventually led me to lean. I was puzzled as in the beginning, I remember thinking “we’re not making widgets at scale, we’re building one-of-a-kind artifacts, how does this apply to me?”. Then in 2019 I came across the Lean Construction community. I attended IGLC 27 in Dublin in 2019 where I met a lot of amazing people. I always say that my superpower is hanging out with people who are smarter than me. Luckily, all these smart people have been very patient and incredibly generous with their time and insights. Fast forward a couple of years and I am now 100% living and breathing lean every day.

4. What are the main obstacles you faced when applying Lean Construction and how did you overcome them?

On top of the usual resistance to change that I think everyone is up against, I have to say that the Italian market has a few “native” challenges. The domestic market is enjoying a healthy growth right now, but unfortunately most of the players are very small. If you look at the trade members of ANCE, the Italian Association of Builders, 90% have a staff of less than 10. It’s hard to promote a structured production system, such as The Last Planner System, to such small contractors. However, I think a winning argument is that if these small players learn to collaborate (and Last Planner is a great way to do it) then they can bid for bigger work.

5. What is the extent of Lean and Lean Construction implementation in Italy currently?

Large construction companies have reasonable experience with lean construction methods, but as I said, the industry is composed mostly of very small players, and lean construction is almost unheard of.

6. What lean methods are you currently applying and how are you doing it?

I think the most rewarding activity for me is facilitating A3 problem solving sessions. I lead a team of professionals on a systematic journey to attack a very specific problem. First, I try to get them to clarify the problem, what the problem is and most importantly what it isn’t. The team then describes a world where this problem does not exist anymore. Next, the team applies the “5 why’s” methodology to identify the root cause(s) of the problem they are trying to solve. Next, I let the team brainstorm solutions and identify the necessary tests and measurements (for example, how will we know this action works? what does good look like?). I ask them to document the whole process on flipchart sheets, and I make sure they hang them on the walls. By the end of the session their whole thought process is hanging on the walls; they can literally walk along the walls and explain every step that got them to where they are.

My final comment invariably is “see? You did this, not me. I’m just the traffic cop. I merely made sure everyone’s voice was heard, gave everyone the space to express themselves. But these solutions are your own.” The more the people started from adversarial positions (“oh, this could never work because I can’t work with him or her”), the more they are amazed at the results. They feel empowered.

7. Can you describe your most recent project and how the application of Lean made a difference?

A midsize Italian General Contractor was falling way behind schedule on several renovation projects. The Last Planner System provided them with a systematic way to improve project delivery, with the help of trade partners. After trialing the system on a number of new projects they are now retrofitting Last Planner System on all their existing portfolio, including the “problem builds”, with promising results.

8. What challenges to Last Planner System did you experience?

I think as a facilitator the most common pushback I get is always a variation of “this guy can’t even hang an IKEA shelf, and he’s telling me how to do my job??”

9. How did you overcome these challenges?

I happen to be an amateur beekeeper, so my usual reply is “who knows how to make honey, the bees or the beekeeper?” I don’t tell bees how to make honey and I don’t tell pipefitters how to fit pipe. Instead, I try to create the best possible conditions for bees and pipefitters to do their thing. Believe me… the last thing you want to do is upset 60,000 “coworkers” by telling them what to do… Bees do their bee thing, you just make sure they CAN do it.

10. What advice can you offer people who are just starting with LC?

LThe best advice I can offer is from David J. Anderson, one of the “Founding Fathers” of Kanban (capital K, as applied to knowledge work, not small k, the Toyota flavour as applied to manufacturing). I think “start with what you do now” is the best advice. It acknowledges that you must at least be doing something right, and you should build on that, rather than overhauling your whole production system and throwing out the baby with the bath water.

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William Power is an experienced Construction Management professional with over 30 years of experience in project delivery across all sectors including residential, commercial, pharma, life sciences, marine, infrastructure, underground and overhead utilities. William, a holder of Honours Degree in Construction Management and Honours Master of Business in Lean Practice, is currently undertaking doctoral research in Continuous Improvement in Construction Project Delivery in SETU, Ireland.

I'm a passionate Lean buff coming from the construction industry. Ask me how lean and agile methods can help your teams thrive in an ever-changing work landscape. I like wayfinding into uncharted territory, then coming back and tell clients "here, let me guide you through it. You're going to love this."