Resistance to Lean & Integrated Project Delivery Part I: Three Root Causes

In my role as an “Integrated Lean Project Delivery (ILPD) Coach”, I struggle everyday to understand and address resistance to positive change in the Architectural, Engineering and Construction (AEC) Industry. Many reasons for this resistance have been suggested in various articles and posts. In this first of a two-part blog post, I will share some insights about what I believe are three root causes of resistance. In the second post, I will review how Dr. W. Edwards Deming - one of the original contributors to the Total Quality Management (TQM) and what has become the Lean movement - provides guidance to address these root causes.

In the late 1970’s, architects Michael Doyle and David Strauss [1] wrote a little yellow paperback book that changed my life. It presented the first comprehensive explanation of meeting facilitation methodology and offered guidelines for the engagement of diverse stakeholders to collaboratively solve problems and improve organizational performance. I joined their company, Interaction Associates, in the early 1980s and in the intervening years have trained thousands of leaders in effective collaboration techniques and in leadership of organization transformation efforts. The insights and techniques developed by Doyle and Strauss have been successfully applied across public and private sector industries and are finally being applied to capital projects. If you have ever evaluated your meeting effectiveness using a “Plus/Delta” technique, used Post-It Notes to do pull planning, or used a facilitator in a construction partnering or other project meeting, thank Doyle and Strauss – also thank LCI founders Greg Howell and Glenn Ballard who worked with Interaction Associates in the 1980’s and have brought so many of these techniques with them to LCI.

Two critical insights from Doyle and Strauss are useful when addressing resistance to change. The first, from their list of “Principles of Collaboration” is: “If you don’t agree on the problem, you probably won’t agree on the solution.” While this may seem obvious, agreement on the “problem” is profoundly important at this point in the evolution of the AEC industry. IPD contracts and Lean Construction tools, from the Last Planner® System to Target Value Delivery (Design) and co-location approaches, are all “solutions”. But what is the “problem” these solutions were created to address? And even more importantly, what are the root-causes of the problem? I think many Lean practitioners would be hard-pressed to come up with a commonly agreed response.

If you have attended any sort of “Introduction to Lean Construction” session you have probably seen some version of the chart (Fig. 1) below.

Figure 1: Industry Productivity Index (Source: US Bureau of Economic Analysis)

This chart shows that Construction is not keeping pace with productivity improvements in other industrial sectors. But, is this a “problem”? If you believe that significant, possibly equivalent productivity gains are possible in the AEC Industry, and that these gains are not being realized, then it is. It means that capital project owners are over-paying for capital projects due to poor productivity. And Owners are beginning to perceive this productivity deficit as both a problem and an opportunity to realize greater value for their capital project dollar. There is a rapidly growing body of data demonstrating the benefits of productivity improvement efforts (Lean, IPD, Design-Build, etc.) However, a majority of hands-on, down-to-earth AEC providers remain mostly inexperienced in recent emerging methods, continue to see “business as usual” all around them, and therefore don’t perceive a great need to change. Nor do they know how to change. The industry remains mired in traditional mind-sets and practices.

If the “problem” is a combination of relatively poor productivity bolstered by a general failure to perceive the current situation as problematic, what are the root causes that must be addressed?

Root Causes

I use the plural “root causes” because, as we have learned in other industries, there are actually several root causes that must be grasped and addressed simultaneously. Three of the most important and challenging root causes are:

1. “Knowing” vs. “Learning” Culture
The AEC Industry is rooted in skilled craftwork, including both “white collar” design and engineer trades, and traditional “blue collar” construction trades. Each trade takes pride its particular capabilities and is rightly proud and protective of their unique skill sets. When Owners or General Contractors look to hire, they look for people with “know-how” rather than willingness to learn. Therefore, AEC Industry practitioners sell services based on past experience, and tend to devalue learning. Even the suggestion that learning and performance improvement are needed, can be seen a threatening, rather than exciting. Money to invest in learning and continuous improvement is scarce and requires commitment of time and resources. This perspective leads us to the second root cause.

2. Inadequate Strategic Leadership
In the 1950s, Japanese corporate leadership realized the need to radically rethink operations management. With the help of mentors from the U.S. like W. Edwards Deming, and with brilliant Japanese leadership at Toyota and elsewhere, a strategy that emphasized quality through continuous learning and rigorous self-improvement was created. This led to transformative quality and productivity breakthroughs. In the 1980s, Japanese quality and speed to market created huge competitive pressure to which U.S. corporate leadership had to respond or go out of business. The modern “Total Quality Management” (TQM) approach was born and morphed into Lean, Six Sigma, Operations Excellence, IPD and other approaches to continuous improvement. But, due largely to the diversity and discipline-centric structure of the AEC Industry, this competitive wake-up call has yet to significantly impact the AEC “Knowing Culture”.

Books [2, 3, 4] and universal Lean research stress that Lean Transformation is more than a collection of new behaviors and tools, it is nothing short of a new “enterprise operational strategy” – a concept many leaders in the AEC Industry would find challenging to articulate, even for their existing business approach. While “management” seeks to stabilize and standardize, “leadership” seeks to disrupt. Therefore, change of any magnitude requires a combination of vision, determined intrinsic motivation and an environment where healthy conflict is encouraged. What constrains the required disruptive leadership in the AEC Industry?

3. Inertia
The lack of productivity improvement momentum in the AEC Industry stems from a combination of factors: the absence of market pressure, ignorance of new ways of thinking and performing, and habituation – our comfort with doing what we do in familiar and practiced ways.

The second insight from Doyle and Straus applies here. When people anywhere are asked what problems they experience in their meetings, they come up with very similar lists. Whether the problem is getting off track, confusion about desired outcomes, inappropriate behavior, or whatever, Doyle and Strauss realized that all the problems were rooted in how the meeting was run, not what the meeting was about, i.e. Process vs. Content. If the problems consistently identified are process-based, not topic/content-based, consider how much time is typically spent to explicitly lay out and manage the meeting process? Most folks say, “none”. Doyle and Strauss concluded people tend to be “process blind”. If we are to overcome inertia, we need to start “seeing” our work in new ways and become process aware.


This post was the first installment on “Resistance to Lean and IPD”. This post takes the position that failure of the AEC industry to keep pace with global productivity gains is a problem, and that we must 1) transition from “knowing” to “learning” and 2) develop strategic leadership that 3) creates momentum for change. If you agree, or at least want to explore more, the next and final blog post in this series will provide recommendations to address these three root causes of resistance.


[1] Doyle, M., Strauss, D., 1976,1980. How to Make Meetings Work, Jove, New York
[2] Seed, W. et al, 2016. Transforming Design and Construction, Lean Construction Institute, Arlington VA
[3] Womack, J., Jones, D., 1996. Lean Thinking, Simon & Schuster, New York
[4] Lareau, W., 2000. Lean Leadership, Midland Press, Davenport, IA

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