Miracle in Kazakhstan: Creating a Lean Culture in 18 Months

It is hard to believe that I am on my fifth book "Miracle in Kazakhstan." In January 2015, I accepted an invitation to come to Kazakhstan’s largest construction company - BI Group - to speak about “2 Second Lean”. My job was simple; build a lean culture in a company through interpreters, in a language that is as foreign to me as painting a Van Gough would be. However, this was a little daunting since I honestly didn't even know where Kazakhstan was! When I arrived in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city, I was surprised how modern and forward thinking it was. More surprisingly was meeting such an engaged and curious company that was humble enough to make it happen. This blog post, the first in a series, will set the context for future blogs detailing BI Group’s lean journey and how it is being sustained within the company and their supply chain. Each blog will leave you hanging a little bit and hopefully wanting more!

The BI Group

The BI Group was founded in 1995 and is listed by ENR (Engineering News Record) as one of the top 150 largest construction companies in the world. Their 2020 goal is to be within the top 100. Their strategic goal by 2021 is to become the most preferred employer of Kazakhstan. They have revenue in excess of $1 billion per annum over the last 21 years delivering road, civil, infrastructure, residential and industrial construction projects. They have over 7000 direct employees and 500 trade partners with more than 20000 additional employees. The video links in the references show just how far a large organization and its supply chain can travel on their lean journey in 18 months1.

An Overview: Then and Now

During the last 18 months I traveled back-and-forth to Kazakhstan seven times. The lean cultural transformation at this mega company has been nothing short of miraculous. A highly functioning lean culture is emerging from what appeared to be chaos when I first set foot on their job sites. They are improving everything they do in a tectonic fashion. For example, external insulation scrap – previously wasted - is now gathered and reused, façade construction has moved from 600 sq. meters in two months to 700 sq. meters in one month! Using the same amount of labor!!! In addition their workshop productivity creating their facade panels jumped from 90 seconds per panel (workshop was set-up four days) to 17 seconds per panel (workshop set-up refined over 45 days). They measured six seconds of this activity being value added. They are producing hundreds of videos a week on their improvements. At every site I visit throughout the country people greet me eagerly. They are so enthusiastic and want to show me the videos of all the improvements they are making to their work. They are producing so many there is not enough time to watch them!1

To put these improvements in context, I get emails from people every day that manage companies between 10 and 100 people. They tell me how difficult it is to get their organizations to participate in continuous improvement and lean transformations. So how did an organization of 7000 people and all their trade partners begin to take lean seriously? The answer is "great lean leadership”. The missing link to so many failed lean transformations2.

Great Leaders Make Things Happen

Over the coming months I will share how it all happened but first I must thank two people for this miracle. Firstly, Steve Jobs: I wouldn't be who I am if he hadn’t taught me to think boldly. He said "you can change things, because the people that invented everything around you are no smarter than you”. How can any person be the same after coming to grips with such a powerful concept? Remember, Steve Jobs never graduated from college, he was adopted and came from a family of humble means and he has fundamentally changed the world. While I never met Steve, the books written about him and his accomplishments and videos on YouTube replay over and over again in my mind. While it's popular to say "what would Steve do"? I'm so far past that. I do what Steve does because in my mind, there is no other way. Thank you Steve for making such a profound impact on this simple carpenter’s life.

Secondly, many thanks to Aydin, President of the BI group in Kazakhstan. Aydin is as relentless as Steve Jobs. It is impossible to say no to him. You just have to figure out a way to make everything happen. So, in July 2016 we had dinner and he suggested that I write a book about the BI Group’s lean transformation.

Figure 1. Paul and Aydin in St. Tropez

I loved the idea but I just had no idea how I would find the time to do yet another project on top of everything else that I was doing. However, it was not long before Aydin’s expectations grew. He invited me to spend three days on vacation in St. Tropez in France with his family. As we sat outside by the pool overlooking the water on a beautiful August night I said to Aydin “you know I have not forgotten about the book. I really want to do it, but I don't believe I can start until January”. He looked at me quizzically and with his distinctive Kazak accent he said "oh really?” This comes from a man who built and runs a $1 billion organization, and is planning on doubling the size of his company in the next two to three years. He is signing contracts with Chevron Oil to build one of the biggest construction projects in the world worth $36 billion. He races Dakar on the BMW Team and is 9th in the world. He has six children, three of whom are adopted from a very poor and difficult background, yet somehow he finds time to entertain me on his family vacation. Oh and he is also training for an Ironman race which includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a marathon!3.

Needless to say, I was not thinking like Steve or Aydin at that moment, I was thinking like Paul. All I have to do is write a book about the last year I have spent working with the BI Group and their lean transformation. It seems so simple compared to everything he's doing.

So here I sit, at 3:36 in the morning in St. Tropez starting my fifth book, "Miracle in Kazakhstan”. Thank you Aydin for being Aydin. You have changed the lives of so many people and you have profoundly transformed the vision of this simple carpenter. I am sure your vision, example and decisive leadership will transform many companies in the United States and around the world.

The references contain links to a couple of the videos made on my most recent trip to Kazakhstan during the summer of 2016. Watch this space for more updates from Kazakhstan!


1. Kazakhstan Day 1: BI Group Lean Progress - Green Quarter
2. Mann, D. (2009) “The Missing Link: Lean Leadership”.
3. Wikipedia: Iron man race
4. Kazakhstan Day 2: Green Quarter Gemba Walk
5. Kazakhstan Day 8: Road Construction

Featured Post


LeanBIM: Unleash BIM Possibilities and Make Lean Construction Even Leaner

The main goal of implementing Lean Construction is to generate value and to minimize waste. This value can be maximized by implementing BIM alongside with Lean Construction. Lean provides the framework for understanding waste, while BIM enables the project team from different disciplines to work together in order to achieve the lean ideal of removing it.

Building Information Modeling Read more


Introduction to SMED: A Neglected Method in Lean Construction

Exchange of Dies, refers to a method in the Lean Production System that is used for quick, simplified and efficient production set-up and changeover from one product/process to another, which often constitute the major causes of production downtime (non-productive time/stoppages). It is one of the foundational blocks of a continuous, improved production flow.

SMED Read more


Teaching Lean Construction II: Last Planner

Glenn Ballard and Greg Howell developed the Last Planner System of Production Control throughout the 90s1. At the same time, Lauri Koskela was working on developing a theory of production which provided the theoretical framework for the LPS2. The LPS has been successfully implemented and is becoming an important part construction management3. However, the transition from theory to practice has not been easy.

Teaching LeanRead more

Copyright © 2015- Lean Construction Blog