The Upstream Series is an essay series where Dean Reed engages with the leading practitioners within the AECO community. The goal of the upstream series is to improve how design and construction projects are delivered by asking the question "what should be done upstream to make design and construction better?". In this series, each person will share a few ideas that the industry should adopt and use to make projects faster, safer, and better value for the money.

Too often, it seems to me that design and construction leaders may delegate Lean, rather than inspiring it. They may not sufficiently educate themselves to understand and appreciate its philosophy and opportunities.

The Center for Creative Leadership says, “As leaders move up to more senior management positions, they must be able to see the whole system of their organization to be most effective”.

Toyota leaders did not begin with an organized Production System (TPS). They went seeking problems to solve and continued to improve with PDCA!

Their leaders set the tone and led the evolution. Because it was important to the leaders, it became important to the people, and the people followed.

Some design and construction leaders may only see Lean as the Last Planner ®, something for the project personnel to do, rather than a company way of being, behaving, treating each other as an organizational system and culture.

Such leaders may only be practicing business as usual, whereas they could be inspiring Lean as a platform for deeply competitive capability building.

Problem seeking and capability building is asking a lot of questions about what we don’t know, and what we don’t know that we don’t know.

Problem seeking has often not been thorough and effective. Most problem seeking failure is the measure of oversight and carelessness, shallow inquiry, or rushing, or possibly no diligence in pursuit of the details where the Devil does indeed live.

I am urging and encouraging contractors and designers to help their clients upstream by suggesting and forming a solid collaborative team-production system with the capabilities to “read the river,” seek the problems upstream before they can occur, by avoiding the rocks, running aground or capsizing, but instead negotiating the river with smooth and effective flow.

Contractors and architects can become capable of helping the owners succeed by encouraging that all three parties assess the river from upstream and continue on ahead of the flow of the project. Forming an effective programing, pre-design, pre-construction, and construction team, can organize a mutual process that will discover and prevent the problems, creating a mutual process that will discover and prevent the problems before they diminish or capsize the project.

Example: At the first predesign meeting for an Emergency Room expansion, I asked which sources of requirements from stakeholders had not been discovered. The architect was eager to continue sketching without benefit of knowing all of these requirements. Our team convinced them not to draw anymore, until we knew all of the concerns and requirements. By seeking these problems before drawing, we avoided what would have become a major rearrangement and redraw, which, in turn, would have diminished the outcome that multiple minds had been able to discover.

In another case, designing and constructing a cathedral intended to last for many years, I assigned two young people the role of being “intelligent rain drops” who were to seek out the building’s vulnerabilities to leaks and work with the designers to tighten leak barrier details. We called this our “raindrop program,” and so far after 15 years, there have been no leaks.

All teams and projects will benefit greatly from intense, continual upstream team problem seeking, PDCA, and eliminating wastes before they occur. I have observed that many engaged in pre-construction are only reacting to designs, rather than seeking to influence the design by problem seeking upstream.

Problem seeking best begins upstream, before the problems show up in the rear view mirror! Seek to assess the team, the ends, means, budgets, schedule, project definition, value definition, constraints, design, materials, logistics, collaborative process.

The leaders will do much better to systematize their collaborative organizations, partners, and clients, around intensive and continual problem seeking, value stream mapping, pull planning, relationship building, trust building, scrubbing the documents and PDCA. A thorough problem seeking will help ensure that all parties continuously increase and improve capabilities, and continue to improve the services they are providing to each other.

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Dean is a long-time advocate, organizer and educator for Lean and Integrated Project Delivery at DPR Construction and throughout our industry. He is member #1 of the Lean Construction Institute and co-author of the book Integrating Project Delivery, along with Martin Fischer, Howard Ashcraft and Atul Khanzode.

I began my Lean journey in 1997 through Linbeck Construction, one of the first five member firms of the Lean Construction Institute. I have been a Lean Design and construction disciple, enthusiast, and champion, trained directly by Glenn Ballard and Greg Howell in those early days. I have employed Lean on every project of my association since 1997.