I started working in construction, as many did, at a young age, beginning as a gopher and working my way up. Now 55 years old, I was part of the generation that entered the workforce as computers and new technology were being introduced, and I often had to teach the old-timers how to use the newfangled “whatchamacallits” while also instructing the greenhorns in skills they needed to survive and go home alive.

But there’s another, different type of generational problem now.

Lean construction protocols that have helped improve on-schedule and on-budget completion by limiting waste and improving efficiency are slipping back to the old ways under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trying to enforce Lean protocols often became impossible during the height of the pandemic. Many uncertainties remain.

Adam Post

Adam Post

Contracts take longer because of new language concerning cost escalation and delay. A manufacturer recently informed me that simple, run-of-the-mill garage doors will take 36 weeks lead time for delivery. Hiring is a big problem, too. If you find qualified individuals—and that’s a big if—they may not show up for the interview or the first day of work. If they do start work, they may disappear after a few weeks.

Lean construction protocols have proven value, offsetting or preventing troubles that would otherwise push a job into “troubled project” status. Lean works partly by tapping into a crew’s desire to vibrate at the same frequency and deliver the highest quality construction as quickly, efficiently and cost effectively as possible.

But we are stopped by our conscious minds and all the biases, personality traits and baggage we collect and develop as human beings from birth through retirement. These lead us to become our own worst enemies—frequently creating environments and relationships of chaos and conflict in our professional lives.

By 2008 the system of Lean construction in America had developed from a grass-roots movement to an accepted managerial philosophy. Partly as a result, construction during my career has become more refined and safer as modern management techniques broadened managers and craft responsibilities.

Lean construction protocols create what seem to be a bit more work for project managers and require keener attention to detail on every aspect of the project. The project manager creates more interaction with owners, engineers, architects and suppliers. He or she coordinates with the waste management team, and of course—this is something I want to stress—cultivates a real relationship with the different craft and jobsite workers.

For my part, I invest my energy in planning and pre-construction. Those efforts offset the stress and chaos typical on projects when clients urge us to rush, rush, rush to get the shovel in the ground.

But training employees to take up the Lean construction initiatives—waste management of materials and time, inventory control and increased efficiency—has become more difficult. Independent-minded U.S. craftworkers are less willing to work under Lean protocols that emphasize teamwork.

To complicate the issue further, the pandemic and the ensuing and constantly changing health protocols we are forced to adhere to have divided staff between the vaccinated and anti-vaxxers and between maskers and non-maskers.

The new emphasis on separation and distance has disrupted some of the communication and cooperation on which Lean is based, too. Not to mention simple and interpretive communication that depends on facial expressions to be clearly understood. And that has meant, for me at least, doing more of the old-fashioned, face-to-face communication. Managing by walking around makes it easier to obtain buy-in and develop close interpersonal relationships. Those bonds facilitate Lean implementation. By directing my passion for Lean practices to craftworkers, listening to and motivating them, I sometimes eliminate the need for upper management buy-in, which can be harder to win.

Quantifiable results can easily be obtained if the project manager is adept at influencing the hearts and minds of the workforce. Managing by walking around, once believed to be old-fashioned, is proving once again that the old ways and new ones aren’t mutually exclusive.

Adam Post is a senior-level construction project manager who has a graduate degree in construction project management from Wentworth Institute of Technology.