Navigating Transformational Change

In my previous post (The Matter of Metrics) I postulated that having sufficient data is not enough to launch a transformational change. So what does trigger change? Some say a burning platform is needed. Where corporate viability is at stake this may be true. However, I suspect in a majority of cases organization leaders are blissfully unaware of a need to adopt Lean or do not view a change to a Lean approach as a priority. It is the fortunate company with a senior leader high enough in the food chain to communicate the burning platform that elevates Lean as a strategic priority. For the rest of us proponents of transformation I share lessons learned from my own journey.

The Doldrums – The head banging phase

Fresh from a two year project in Japan I knew we should do better on our U.S. projects. I visited a couple Lean projects in San Francisco and was convinced we could be better. With a newly found zeal for Lean I was on a mission to change my company. Surely my colleagues would share in my enthusiasm after seeing the documented positive outcomes supported by the facts and data gathered from research by others. I was met with moderate interest, but not enough to transport folks out of the doldrums of busy schedules and demanding workloads.

Wind in the Sails – Multilevel marketers and late-night infomercials got it right

After laboring a couple of years under “a prophet is not without honor except in his own country1” syndrome I had to change tack. One thing I did right was to connect with a community of likeminded leaders who were ahead of me on the Lean journey. I invited several of these executives to present their own stories to our project leaders and executives. Whoosh! Interest in Lean skyrocketed! The strategy and plans I had developed received fresh wind in the sails. We were on our way. To date we have completed or launched 20+ IPD projects with shared risk/reward contracts.

So what made the difference? The stories my colleagues told reached hearts; I had only targeted the minds of my audience. What I initially didn’t understand is that a person’s decision to change is first emotional2 before the facts can be accepted and turned into action. This is why infomercials and multi-level marketers successfully rely on the testimonials of their customers. We should, too!

The Crew – If Lean was like Safety…

…and vice-a-versa. “How many believe safety is the highest priority on your projects?” I posed to my audience. I assured them this was not a trick question. Hands went up all over the auditorium. “So if safety is everyone's number one priority, why do we need a Safety organization?” After a minute the point sunk in. Whatever is important to an organization is typically supported with qualified staff. And not just with superintendents with a side role as Safety officers. It takes more than a warm body assigned to a role to lead change. Likewise, plenty of companies are all for Lean, however it is not until they invest in leaders, practitioners, and in training staff do they start moving through the water.

The Helm – Champions, Lean Leaders and Other Mythical Beasts

I borrowed the nautical metaphor from author Tom Rose who wrote, Managing at the Leading Edge, since the Lean journey can be likened to a voyage. The following are what I have observed as the key roles needed for change based off of Tom’s insights:

  • Champions – the internal “navigators” providing directional guidance over an open ocean devoid of landmarks. This role is high enough in the organization to promote Lean at a strategic level for project delivery.
  • Coaches – the “pilots” who provide tactical guidance and expertise gained from their experience with the shorelines and harbors; in most cases they are consultants. Traditional minded project accountants struggle with bringing coaches onto projects because of cost. To help them get around the cost barrier I ask the simple question, “Would you spend a dollar to save two dollars?” Then we are onboard!
  • Lean Leaders – the “captains” who turn the winds of resistance into forward progress. These folks are the agents of change. What follows may sound self-promoting, but my fellow Lean Leaders would agree that this role engenders a passion coupled with experience, thick-skin with empathy, and an indefatigable, optimistic “cheerleading” that Lean will prevail as the overarching strategy to project delivery.

One person may initially take on a couple if not all three roles, however in time as the ship gets bigger the roles become more differentiated. My point is to staff the helm and start building a crew. Enough said!

Accepting the Challenge of Navigating Transformational Change

Undertaking the stormy waters of transformation is not for the faint of heart. Even if the one leading the change follows my advice, resistance is inevitable. I heard somewhere that the only people who want to be changed are babies in wet diapers! To accentuate this point I conclude with an excerpt from Machiavelli’s book, The Prince3 that I’ve often used to end some of my presentations:

"It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them."

I've made it an aspiration to outlast the naysayers. So far I’m doing OK. And I also want to do my part by adding my story to the ones told by those who’ve gone before me. Why? My friend and colleague Bill Seed said it best, “when the tide rises all the boats will float!”


1., “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country”
2. The Intentional Workplace, 2012 “How Emotion Shapes Decision Making”
3., Niccolò Machiavelli > Quotes > Quotable Quote “It ought to be remembered…”

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