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. Hi Randi, your title is ‘Sustainability Director with focus on collaboration and transparent decision making’. Can you tell us what this role entails and what sector you are involved in?

I'm the Sustainability Director for COWI's International Business Line. We are an international engineering consultancy, and our Business Line focus on large and complex infrastructure projects and energy projects like offshore wind farms, Power to X, and Carbon Capture projects. Together with my team I lead, inspire, and support our approx. 1700 employees to integrate sustainability into everything we do.

2. How were you first introduced to Lean and how has Lean shaped your career?

I was introduced to Lean in 2001 by a couple of forward-thinking lecturers at my university and I adopted the way of thinking right away. Coming from a working-class family, I understood why a long education wasn't equal to knowing what worked in practice, and I saw the value of engaging all layers of the organization in planning and decision making. Since then, Lean has always been an integrated part of my job. Lean was the topic of my PhD, Lean tools supported me in my first job at a client organization, I became the Head of Lean Construction DK and later I was the Lean and Innovation Manager at a major infrastructure Scheme in London for 6 years. Here I experienced how Lean could support better decision-making processes and lead to more sustainable projects.

3. Can you tell us a little about the importance of Collaboration and Decision Making in construction?

No matter if we need to decide on main design layouts, construction methods or materials, we need to carefully consider how we can deliver more sustainable projects. One way to do this, is always to think in alternatives and support our customers to make transparent decisions. Decision making isn't a one-person job, no matter the title, competencies or power held by this person. Our industry is fragmented and hence the knowledge and insights needed to make decisions are spread across several disciplines, organizations, and stakeholders. We therefore need efficient processes, like Choosing by Advantages, to support inclusiveness, collaboration, and transparency in our decision making if we want to drive sustainability.

Figure 1. Choosing by Advantages (Arroyo, 2014)

4. What Lean methods do you most commonly use with your teams and how do these enhance performance?

My team is working in time zones from South Korea to Vancouver, and therefore the challenges and opportunities they face varies a lot. Also, the sustainability agenda emerges in different tempi and with different focus areas across our markets. I, therefore, manage through networking, communication, and coordination to also allow our team to adapt to local circumstances. Lean tools and methods support agility and enable different means of communication. Beside Choosing by Advantages, I am a fan of methods like Visual Management, Last Planner System, A3, Systematic Learning and Weekly Huddles. But mostly, it is the focus on process management over product management that inspires me and help us progress. Because even if the maturity and ambitions differ across different markets, we can still use the same approach to how we systematically integrate sustainability into our projects, and thereby share experiences, best practices, and learn from project to project.

5. How do new teams accept the concepts and change in work practices you are hoping to introduce?

We are in the middle of a climate and biodiversity crisis and our industry is responsible for 40% of the CO₂ emissions globally, using mostly virgin materials and creating the most waste. I never come across anyone disagreeing on the need to change, and if Lean can support this change, most people are very appreciative.

6. How did you get into the field of Sustainability and explain how Lean enhances Sustainability in your working environment?

Working with sustainability these days requires ability to work within multiple agendas, bridging between strategies and implementation, being able to translate the complex targets to tangible actions and ensure documentation of progress towards sometimes conflicting goals. Lean practitioners have always accepted the complexity of project delivery in the construction industry. So instead of insisting on making a "one size fits all" solution, Lean practitioners develop tools and methods to navigate in complexity and changing circumstances. Therefore, having worked with Lean, Innovation and change management for many years, stepping into sustainability was natural. The only change was, that the constraints and success parameters now also include factors like carbon footprint, biodiversity, and social value.

7. Do you see Lean thinking and methodologies playing a role in the future expansion of sustainability within construction?

I can't see how the construction industry can successfully change to support the sustainability agenda without Lean methodologies. We might however need to challenge our perception on minimum and success criteria. Where quality or value have often been perceived as: "What can I get for this budget?", we might need to change and say: "What are the minimum sustainability requirements and what will this cost?", and then make it a go/no go decision instead. We also need to adopt to more rapid changes in our projects, than we are used to. We have already seen legislation and client policies change in the middle of projects with major impact on the project scope. We should embrace these rapid changes as they are needed, and instead of pushing back be ready to re-group and assess the changes.

8. Can you tell us how you are using Lean methodologies on a current Sustainability project?

Choosing by Advantages have shown to be a quite successful method for clients not knowing exactly what demands to set for sustainability. But by asking to see alternative solutions and ask for transparent assessment of the consequences, more sustainable solutions could make its way into projects. This could be road layouts, concrete mix, designing slimmer structures etc.

9. What are you currently learning or improving?

Leading through network, communication, and coordination – but without direct authority – is in my opinion the way to lead change. Only simple changes can be pushed, like changing an IT system. But when it comes to changing the way, we lead and deliver our projects we need to get everyone on board and help drive the agenda. I am therefore learning how to navigate in a Dual Operating system (Kotter, 2014). Here I need to consider both the line organization, with focus on delivery, budgets and resources, and the agile networks working across which focus on R&D and developing of new practices.

On our projects, more Lean tools and methods will support better integration of sustainability into our projects. As the agenda for sustainability introduces changes during project delivery, we need to constantly be able to adapt new practices, introduce new technologies and collaborate with partners and customers. So, more training and implementation of methods like Visual Management, Choosing by Advantages and Last Planner System is needed.

Figure 2: Kotter's Dual operating system, 2014

10. Finally, is there any advice you can offer to those considering applying Lean to Sustainability and Decision Making in their own construction companies?

Keep it simple and don't be afraid to fail fast!

Also, having a network within the Lean community where you can test out ideas, discuss challenges, and get support and inspiration is extremely valuable. Even if your colleagues, managers, or clients do not know about or request Lean, you can always find a way to integrate Lean into what you do. But it can be difficult to spot the opportunities on your own. I couldn't have succeeded without the support of and the two other Co-Founding directors: Annett Schöttle and Paz Arroyo.

add one

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.

Randi is the sustainability director at COWI. She has a PhD in construction management and is focused on helping teams make better and more sustainable decisions using the Choosing By Advantages decisionmaking method. Her motto is: Why not? Let's explore? Because curiosity is the foundation for development and progress... and it's fun!