Is lean failing at your firm?

Jan 01, 2023

The best way to foster a lean culture is by engaging with people, celebrating what they do well, and empowering them to be a part of the change you seek.

I’ve made many mistakes on my lean construction journey, but the most considerable detour has involved leveraging lean as a set of tools versus leveraging lean as a culture. Early on in my leadership roles, I stumbled in other ways, such as enforcing processes rather than outcomes and requiring compliance to a fault, even above commitment.

As I’ve continued to learn and grow, I can share that the best way to foster a lean culture in your organization is by engaging with the people who do the work in the office and in the field, celebrating them for what they do well, and empowering them to be a part of the changed mindset versus having it forced upon them. If you are on your journey and feel that lean is failing you and your team, please make sure you haven’t dropped into any of the pitfalls listed below.

  1. No support from the top. One of the worst lean killers is not having support from the top. I’ve seen leaders go out of their way to ensure that communication was siloed with all information filtering through them. Without the top person’s full support, lean efforts will never fully realize their maximum potential. Lean requires company leaders to be unyielding in the pursuit of the elimination of waste and continuous improvement.
    If you’ve seen the command-and-control and silo approach at your firm, you must understand that many in our industry (and in general, if we’re being honest) are resistant to change. Fear of not being in control can lead to this resistance. Some ways you can help a leader shift their mindset and provide support include treating them with respect, earning their trust, helping them see the gaps, and being an example in the workflow you can control.
  2. Lack of training. Another shortfall to successful lean culture at your organization is in not properly training your team. It’s hard to find absolute value in something when you don’t understand it. I’ve seen this rear its head when teams focus on their planning with disregard to other departments’ workloads or deadlines, or when weekly planning is done without reflecting on the past week’s work plan for percent complete or commitments missed.
    But the biggest miss is not onboarding departments and new employees. Onboarding your team provides a way for them to reach standard levels of learning and understanding. Creating an onboarding presentation or manual for employees to orient them to the company and processes is a lean way to get everyone on the same page. This can be done with an introduction of all team members; overview of the goals for the company or initiative (conditions of satisfaction); review of requirements and resources available; outline of deliverable and quality expectations; and confirmation of lean culture expectations.
  3. Focusing on tools, not culture. One of the reasons Joe Donarumo and I wrote The Lean Builder is that we got tired of watching so many project teams fail with lean by focusing on tools and not culture. While the book was created for those in the field, the principles are just as relevant for those working in the office.
    Without a focus on creating a culture of trust and transparency, the tools will eventually fail. Equipping your team to identify the “eight wastes” and understand their root causes is a significant first step toward shifting your culture. The “eight wastes” were initially created as jobsite examples, but are just as relatable in a corporate environment. We can all relate to the concept of “waiting” or “defects” – the non-value-added items that fill too much of the day for many people.
    With just a few hours of training, your team can begin to change the lens in which they see waste in their work, allowing them the awareness to start generating ideas on how to reduce or eliminate each one that comes across their path.
  4. Not keeping score. An old superintendent once told me, “You can’t get to where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re at.” To continuously improve on your organization, you must be focused on metrics. Identify the top three to five metrics that matter the most to your organization and commit to regularly monitoring and reporting on them. Take corrective action when you see the numbers slipping and celebrate the victories when your team hits the goals.
    Are you measuring percent complete for milestones and activities? Are your team members hitting the commitment? If not, why? Are you reporting out on a regular basis to the full employee base for transparency and accountability? To execute at the highest level, you must make sure you’re keeping score, otherwise you have no idea if your team is progressing with lean.
  5. Thinking there is an end. The beauty of lean is that it is never complete. It’s a journey, not a destination. It is always focused on learning, sharing, and continuous improvement. Many times, teams will take their foot off the gas when they achieve success. Through not huddling every day, becoming lax on metrics, and not setting new goals, teams that achieve success with lean can quickly lose what they have gained by abandoning what helped them achieve that success in the first place.

Don’t get complacent. Reward a culture of continuous improvement and accountability, allowing anyone to call out those who are not striving to be the best.  

Keyan Zandy is CEO of Skiles Group. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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