Why Lean?

Aug 03, 2020

Lean methodologies can truly move the needle in an industry beleaguered by workforce shortages and increasingly pressed for our most valuable commodity – time.

If the headline of this article sparks the thought, “Great, another article about ‘Lean,’” you may be wondering why you should keep reading. After all, if you’ve been working at your firm for years, have never missed a CO date on your projects, and have earned your firm a pot full of cash, you may not think that “going Lean” is relevant to you. But let me assure you, Lean methodologies are not just a sales and marketing buzzword, but can truly move the needle in an industry beleaguered by workforce shortages and increasingly pressed for our most valuable commodity – time.

Let’s start with a deep dive into the design community, and what our design teams are up against.

  • Intense pressure for more speed. Design teams are expected to produce design and construction documents at an alarming pace. The speed to market that owners need does not give our design partners enough time to complete a well-validated set of documents.
  • Lack of talent. We in the construction management business aren’t the only ones feeling the pains of a lack of quality folks. The design industry is facing a similar lack of qualified talent.
  • Commoditization. Unfortunately, the procurement of construction management services isn’t the only deliverable that has been commoditized. Design firms are in the same boat, constantly designing against a work plan that doesn’t have enough resources to deliver the desired work product.
  • Technology limitations. To bridge these gaps, we have become increasingly dependent on technology, resulting in a copy-paste culture that lacks the time, people, or money to produce a well-coordinated set of construction documents of the same caliber delivered 40 years ago.

People power. Other challenges exist on the human side of construction. For example, when is the last time you saw a master mason, a true craftsman, on your jobsite? They are as scarce as unicorns today.

We’ve all heard about the lack of highly skilled labor, which has many root causes. One of the biggest has to do with our K-12 education system. I highly respect and appreciate educators’ marvelous work in the molding and shaping of our country’s next workforce and leaders. However, have we lost sight of the fact that college isn’t for everyone?

For the past two and a half decades, the education system’s mantra has been “no kid left behind.” But, why haven’t we shown more students that there are other opportunities to pursue meaningful careers? We need to teach kids that it’s OK to work with your hands and get dirty, and it’s OK to not have $75,000 in student loans. Kids need to know that they can have a great quality of life and wear a blue collar proudly.

As for the subcontractor world, I encourage my millennial colleagues to find an older individual in their organization and ask them, “Did trade partners show up better prepared 35 years ago, or today?” I promise you will get chuckles.

In my experience, 75 percent of time that a trade partner shows up for the first time on one of my projects, they have never seen the documents nor put an ounce of forethought into how they are going to plan their work. And it’s not their fault.

Our trade partners bear the brunt of the labor shortage epidemic and are constantly balancing how to load projects with workers and keep their companies on the up-and-up. There is no time between jobs to allow for plan review and proper work planning. Half the time, I’m printing out the construction documents for the trade partner because they left one job that morning and came straight to mine in the afternoon.

Digging a little deeper into the labor shortage, there’s something else fighting against us. For the first time in history, we have five generations in the workforce.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were formal, predictable hierarchies within most general contracting firms. Presidents or CEOs would be in their late 50s to 60s, executives in their early to late 50s, senior project managers and supers in their 40s and 50s, and project managers and supers in their 30s and 40s.

Now that we have industry gaps and generational workforces, it’s not uncommon to have an executive in his or her mid- to late-30s, with a senior project manager or super in their mid- to late-50s reporting to them. Their communication styles and techniques differ greatly, often resulting in misconception and frustration. And, the general contractor of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t have to prioritize communication like we do today – it was probably No. 7 or 8 on their list of things to worry about. And why should they have had to? Their drawings were better, they had an abundance of skilled and general labor, and their trade partners showed up prepared and ready to execute the work plan.

Today, the battle is won in the communication from the job trailer to the man or woman who is working on the wall. The only true value-add role in the entire construction industry belongs to field craft workers, and whatever our roles may be, we should all support them in every action and decision we make.

Why Lean? Let’s go back to where we started. You’ve been crushing it at your firm for several years, never missing a CO date, and making your firm a boatload of cash. Why should you care about Lean approaches?

Let me ask you this: When was the last time you worked 40 hours? Fifty hours? Sixty hours? Does it not seem harder and harder each year to push, pull, or drag our construction projects across the certificate of occupancy finish line? Can we at least agree that the current state of the industry described above is accurate, and possibly reflects your current day-to-day experience on the job?

Our industry is broken, folks. It’s not getting better anytime soon. It’s up to us to find a way to work within our current state and do more with less. We must remove the waste and inefficiency that holds us and our projects back. I’m here to tell you that Lean tools and methodologies, leveraged properly in the field, are the first step to take in the right direction.

Keyan Zandy is chief operating officer for Skiles Group, a national general contracting and lean construction management firm. Joe Donarumo is senior superintendent for Linbeck, a national building construction firm. Zandy and Donarumo are the authors of The Lean Builder: A Builder’s Guide to Applying Lean Tools in the Field. The Lean Builder was recently honored with the Shingo Publication Award, which recognizes and promotes writing that has had a significant impact and advances the body of knowledge regarding operational excellence.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.