It’s gotten to the point that when we mention Lean Construction to a subcontractor, we get an eye roll rather than an enthused response, and that’s troubling. The approach, which applies research and experience to maximize client value, is hugely beneficial when done right. But a deep divide has developed between the concept and its application.

What should be a proactive and collaborative approach has become  daunting and frustrating. A big reason is an overemphasis on jargon, as this process excerpt shows:


“You need to create a Pull Plan which turns into your project schedule and then from your project schedule, you develop your 6 week make ready plan. And then from the 6 week, you populate your constraint log. Have your weekly work planning meetings also based on your 6 week plan. Don’t forget daily huddles during which you check back to your weekly work plan that you then use to generate percent planned complete. Use PPC to identify your categories of variance and from there you figure out where to allocate resources to fix deficiencies.” 

Those tag lines are turnoffs and roadblocks in efforts to introduce clients to Lean practices. So are lack of management support and basic human resistance to change, but incessant buzz words distract everyone from Lean fundamentals.

Recently, our company was involved in a project that required installing a new air handling unit on a hospital wing to replace two existing units. Before construction even began, the hospital’s project manager pushed us for the date to schedule the cutover of the existing units. When told it was more than six weeks away and there wasn’t a clue as to the date we would be doing the cutovers, the project manager got angry. I had to tell him why he couldn’t have what he wanted.

Any date given, I said, would be unreliable; our subcontractors had to inform me when they would be ready. I also asked him how much notice the hospital needed to coordinate this shutdown. He wasn’t sure, but he knew it would not take more than a few weeks. I let him know my strategy to meet with all contractors to create a plan on which everyone would agree. 

Intentionally, I never talked about pull planning or used any Lean buzz words. Once I got the subs in a room, I was able to manage the conversation to engage them in the planning—and we developed something reliable as a result. We identified more critical details working through the process together than I would have by blindly setting a date as requested.

Strong Fundamentals

Ultimately, setting up channels of communication proved to be as important as deciding on an end date. When the weather turned bad and we had to reschedule our first equipment placement, it was clear who needed to be informed and how it would impact everyone. Subtly applying Lean principles to the project, we had identified uncertain weather as a potential risk ahead of time and developed an efficient and effective Plan B.

To ensure a smoother process across the board, make sure to emphasize basic fundamentals. Imagine two hockey players. Player A spends thousands of dollars on state-of-the-art equipment and skates an hour each week with the rec league. Player B picks up rusty skates, torn pads and a heavy stick from a second-hand store and skates three hours a day, six days a week—including an extra two hours after practice to drill fundamentals. In a skills competition, Player B out-skates, out-shoots and out-handles Player A because shiny and state-of-the-art are not what the game is about.

Lean is the same: if you practice basic fundamentals, your process will be strengthened. Project complexity is the new norm; the industry needs to embrace a process-level approach to adapt and succeed. You can have all the pull-planning meetings you want, but if you don’t consciously apply Lean to the process, you won’t improve the result. It is never-ending, and communication is the first step. When you get a group of professionals talking about work they’re accountable for, the plan comes together. If we shift the conversation from new tools and jargon to objective-based dialogue, we will boost the willingness to participate in lean processes.

Now go grab your team and start collaborating. You might just solve your problem.

Cade Keyes is a superintendent at Columbia Construction Co., North Reading, Mass. The viewpoint is a collaboration with colleagues Siggy Pfendler, the firm’s improvement and innovation director, and project manager Neal Swain. They can be reached at 978-664-9500.

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