This post is a continuation of last week’s interview with Kyle Woody, Kraus-Anderson project manager about Lean Construction and its implications for our industry. Woody is a certified instructor of AGC Lean Construction Education Program Units 1-5.
Q. Explain “push” vs. “pull” as it pertains to Lean Construction.
Woody: Traditionally we “push” things into production without a thorough enough understanding of what the outcome of that will be. We do it because we are always under the gun and our approach is everything just needs to go as fast as it can if we’re to have any chance at making the deadline. But when we instead “pull” we have worked backwards in our minds as we plan. We know where we are going because we began the planning process with the destination in mind. We know much more about what will happen when production starts. In a pull environment an upstream activity waits for signals from the downstream activities (i.e., metal studs are not installed until the trades that work in those walls signal they are ready to start roughing in that area). We don’t produce things until they are needed. As a result our projects start to flow, they become more reliable, and although it feels like slowing down in the beginning soon we realize we are actually going faster.
Q. Where did this movement come from? Who has “vetted” it?
Woody: It’s roots go back much further, but it really started to crystallize in the late 90s when the founders of the Lean Construction Institute started diving deep to understand why manufacturing was doubling productivity and construction was getting less and less productive. As far as who’s vetted it, you can simply visit LCI’s website and look at their sponsors. These are the most cutting edge design and construction companies on planet earth and now your starting to see lots of fantastic Owner organizations like Walt Disney join the movement.
Q. By what metrics is Lean Construction considered more successful?
Woody: By every traditional metric. Sophisticated Owner organizations are reporting 15% – 30% reductions in cost and time while at the same time improving the quality and safety of their programs. Insurance companies are starting to study this phenomena as an opportunity for them too because of how much safer a Lean led project is. And that’s all good stuff, but what really excites me is that while it does all that it also helps people enjoy their work more. It does this because it helps us connect better with the people who are working all around us, and deep down we humans long for these connections. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a superintendent who wants to retire change his mind because he begins to enjoy his work so much more. And boy do we need that, so many of our best and brightest are getting to the age where they are considering retiring and it’s really going to hurt the industry because they are taking so much knowledge and wisdom with them. We need them to stick around!
Q. What happens when this idea of creating a more steady, streaming work collides with Murphy’s Law?
Woody: What happens when a job runs into ferocious weather that stops or slows normal progress? Or any other unforeseen contingency that slows desired progress? We need to understand the law of the vital few. Also known as the 80/20 rule. 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So think of your closet at home. I’m willing to bet that only 20% of those clothes in it you actually wear. The other 80% are a distraction.
In a construction setting, we are often focused on the wrong things going wrong. Or put another way, we are spending too much energy thinking about and moving around the 80% of the clothes in our closet that we don’t even wear.
So what is the “vital few” in a construction project? Each project is unique and there are a lot of things that we are concerned with, but I think there are two that we always have to start with. Understanding value from the perspective of our clients and getting/giving reliable commitments. With those two things in place, if weather interrupts us, when our boots hit the ground afterwards we’ll be going just as fast as we were when it stopped us.
Q. You’ve said there are two pillars to Lean—respect for people, and continuous improvement. Talk about why both are vital.
Woody: You can’t stay in business if you’re not improving. There are countless examples of companies that went out of business because they stagnated. That part most people understand. As a result most companies that enter into their Lean journey focus too much on continuous improvement. That’s the reason I chose to work for KA, because I could sense from the leadership that they do deeply respect their people. All you have to do is visit any company that is “Lean mature” and most will tell you that their biggest mistake early on was that their strategy was weak on the people side. At the end of the day that approach will backfire on you.
Q. You’ve been leading group exercises among various members of construction teams to demonstrate the Lean approach. What happens?
Woody: Hopefully the teams walk away with an understanding of “why” they should consider moving into the lean direction. I learned years ago that working with teams and telling them “how” to implement these ideas into construction is a really bad idea. I learned from Simon Sinek that you have to start with “why”. If you haven’t ever watched Simon’s talk “start with why” you should and you’ll understand what I mean by that.
Q. Do you see a difference in how architects, owners, project managers, project trades, etc. all take to Lean?
Woody: Yes. I think the biggest struggle is making the design world comfortable with it. For example the Lean Construction Institute is often thought of by design professionals as a club for builders. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is an organization that fosters the development of Lean thinking applied to the entire construction industry; which includes architects, engineers, owners, subcontractors, and the entire supply chain. Every one.
What’s interesting to me is that when builders start to develop Lean thinking they learn to think more like designers. We start asking guys who do the work to design how that work will get done. They love that! Builders learn to fail early and often and to iterate. They learn that the “design” is not the set of documents in front of them. Those documents or that model is just the medium in which it was communicated. And when designers get to work with a construction team that doesn’t just understand their intent, but also shares their concern for it, trust me that makes their work more enjoyable.
I think design firms have become so used to being told that their design is too expensive by the CMs that they don’t even realize how much it bugs them. With a Lean approach we don’t estimate to a detailed design. We design to a detailed estimate. This helps inform the designer’s work so that they do it once and they do it correctly. We reduce design overproduction. I can’t imagine working all night to meet a deadline only to be told to do it over again.
Most designers will never go back to traditional delivery methods after they experience a well executed Lean approach. Getting them to take that first step is really the only struggle.
Q. Don’t project managers have to give up a lot of control in order to take this approach? Isn’t that hard for them to adopt?
Woody: Some people do perceive they have less control, but it in reality they have much more. It just feels different. The people who struggle are typically what I call our heroes. Construction more so than a lot of other industries is a hero culture. We value the individuals that are able to swoop in and fix things. These are our fire fighters. Under the traditional system our organizations can’t survive without them. But when we change the system to prevent these fires from ever occurring suddenly our heroes find themselves in more and more situations that aren’t a crisis, and therefore they aren’t the linchpin of those situations. It’s really tough for them to adapt, but when they do they’re often your biggest champions of the concepts.
Q. Is Lean approach only workable if it is implemented in preconstruction? Or can it be applied at any time in the course of a project?
Woody: Anytime is the right time. It is never too late, but your return on investment only dwindles the longer you wait.
Q. How prevalent is this approach in our industry and in our region? What’s your forecast for its future?
Woody: I’m often asked why the Lean transformation of our industry hasn’t been faster. I tell them the story of how long it took for the science of epidemiology to take off in Healthcare. For decades doctors refused to clean or swap instruments between surgeries. Now the lead epidemiologist in a hospital wields more power and influence over the design of a new facility than just about anyone else.
So why did that take so long? I think it’s because the doctors couldn’t see what the problem was. Those little microbes were just too small.
And in Lean our issue is very similar. You can’t see wasted time. It doesn’t litter the floor. We are visual creatures and if we can’t see something we have a hard time coping with it. But trust me, Lean’s time has come. Just like those doctors didn’t want to make people sick, people who resist Lean don’t want to waste time. They just can’t see the microbes yet.