The Future of Lean: Four Disruptors of the Decade

In the early 20th century, management theories were devoted to the idea of “one best way” to perform tasks, designed by the manager and implemented by direct reports. Like many things that must change with the passage of time, management styles evolved.

Although manufacturing was one of the first sectors to actively seek out more waste reduction principles, the construction industry of today is being shaped by this same philosophy and continues to be revolutionized by the possibilities that Lean represents. We’ve already seen how this change in approach has impacted construction today, but what does it look like in the future? As we look to the next 10 years, four factors will greatly influence the future of Lean: leadership, marketing in the field, multi-generational workforce and technology.

Two fundamental concepts are already changing the way work is accomplished in a Lean construction environment: waste should be eliminated as defined by the customer, and “customer” includes almost everyone affiliated with the process, from the client to craft professionals on the jobsite.

Lean construction methodology is focused on creating relationships. By providing open and flexible communication channels, it encourages all project team members to contribute to the development of best practices and smarter work. By empowering people at every level as co-leaders, we are able to move away from manipulation of the workforce and toward inspiring them. The result is greater efficiency, better project outcomes, increased workplace satisfaction and retention among our teams.

As we look to the future, it’s important to recognize that leadership must remain adaptable because disruptors will always be with us. What’s more, those disruptors will change over time. While in this moment technology and generational shifts are the most obvious disruptors, in another 20 years others may present themselves, requiring a new phase of change. The good news is that Lean construction is, by its very nature, uniquely equipped to identify those changes and help our industry adapt.

Marketing in the Field
In the past, marketing was focused on frosting and packaging: communication designed to put the best face on the organization and its work for external audiences. At the same time, it called for concealing your greatest strengths to keep those secrets safe from the prying eyes of the competition.

Lean marketing turns many of those traditional philosophies on their heads, moving toward efforts to enhance communication and build relationships at every level, both internally and externally. By turning its eyes inward to establish relationships with all stakeholders, Lean marketing tells the stories of contributors from all phases of a construction project, allowing everyone to benefit from their perspective and experience. These relationships also create an avenue for marketing to become an integral part of the project, leading to more organic story generation as opposed to the “find the story and tell it” model.

Structured this way, Lean marketing doesn’t shy away from celebrating things a company does best, or from sharing failures so that all parties can learn from them going forward. Ultimately, Lean marketing creates a general conduit for industry-wide improvement and will revolutionize future knowledge and information transfer.

Generational Factors
Today, five generations concurrently make up our workforce, which is unprecedented. This is attributable to a number of things, including economic instability and lengthening lifespans. However, in just ten short years, more than 75 percent of the workforce will be comprised of Generation Y and Z workers.

How does this impact the industry? Ultimately, the vast majority of workers will be trained and motivated differently than their Generation X and Boomer predecessors. Gen Y and Z workers are more mobile, fully immersed in technology, and value mentorship and collaboration more than workers of the past. Many have spent all of their working lives in a Lean environment.

This is perhaps the greatest driver for the full implementation of Lean construction ideology. It plays to the strengths and natural inclinations of our current and future workforce, as opposed to working against them.

Like the natural inclinations of the emerging workforce, technology is another asset that can be leveraged to enhance Lean in construction. Through a Lean lens, we recognize that not all tech is created equal and it can even get in the way. By evaluating what is most needed in collaborative workflow, teams uncover the best ways to utilize technology for efficiency, as opposed to using technology simply because it’s available.

In addition to a strategic approach to technology implementation, companies are also crafting in-house solutions for many of their needs. For example, there are multiple apps currently in development at Robins & Morton that support our Lean efforts. SlatPlanner is a hybrid solution that combines the in-person, physical planning experience using movable wall tiles alongside a digital interface that makes information accessible to all parties, anytime. TimeTable, another emerging tool, streamlines typically visually cluttered construction schedules into a much more condensed and user-friendly format. Another app called PlusDelta is perhaps the most Lean-centric of all. It provides a live and interactive space for sharing what went well or went poorly with any project, creating a digital platform for continuous collaboration and improvement that is the heart and soul of Lean.

What’s next?
Each of these topics, with so many what ifs and nuances, could have their own books hypothesizing what the industry could be facing in a decade. Although we can’t possibly know the certain impact, if we continue to learn from one another, avoid stasis and train teams to fervently embrace change, we have prepared for the future the way that Lean has taught us since its inception.

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