Lean Initiatives in the Construction Industry -- Can they succeed?

Just this month, Gary Santorella published a new edition of his forward-thinking book, Lean Culture for the Construction Industry: Building Responsible and Committed Project Teams. Much has changed in the construction industry since Gary published the first edition of his book back in 2010, so I contacted him to discuss what he has observed and learned working with professionals in this industry during the past seven years. One of the questions I asked was:“What are the main obstacles to a Lean initiative in a construction environment?” Here is his very candid and insightful answer:

The main obstacle is not an intellectual one, but psychological. In an industry that relies heavily on a multitude of personalities and companies, all of whom have competing interests, there is a natural tendency to resist tools that were developed in a controlled manufacturing environment. When you allow people to talk freely, there is a sense of skepticism that Lean practitioners “just don’t get us or what we do.” And, in many ways, they are right. Many of those trying to implement Lean in the construction industry are a bit tone deaf. They hear resistance as an intellectual challenge, and therefore counter it by generating copious amounts of data, imposing weighty (and sometimes faulty) measurements, and implementing Lean tools in such a way that is cumbersome – all of which only serves to justify the divide.

Given that most Lean practitioners are engineers by training, I understand the inclination to go straight for the analytics rather than attend to interpersonal struggles and issues influencing workplace culture, but in doing so, they ignore the realities of our industry. On any given day, the average Project Manager interacts with scores of individuals, each of whom comes from a variety of different backgrounds. From owners, architects, and city planners, to inspectors, workers and various employees and departments within their own company,  managers in construction, more than any other industry, have to be able to navigate the murky waters of human dynamics and interpersonal politics. That’s not to say that there aren’t ample opportunities for measurement and Lean tool implementation. Pull-planning, Value Stream Mapping, 5S and Kanbans have literally transformed businesses that were bleeding money in the form of waste. We know the flow stoppages that are the result of people choosing to store information idiosyncratically on their personal hard drives rather than using the standard practice of uploading to a common share drive. But when we emphasize data, and measurement, and tools we are taking Lean out of its proper context and missing the most transformative element of Lean – it’s ability to transform a culture.

The construction industry is, unfortunately, fraught with blame, finger-pointing, and self-protective cover-your-butt behaviors. The average Owner-Architect-Contractor meeting is more of an exercise of the fine art of attack and counter attack than productive waste identification and problem solving. Teaching people to use Lean tools in the context of their interactional realities is far more productive than measuring everything. When all of the competing parties understand that there is far more to be gained – financially and psychologically - by viewing problems as opportunities to improve, rather than as weapons, that’s when people start to understand the true power of Lean.

As Lean practitioners, we need be as interested in helping people to embrace the concerns of all of the parties, as we are in implementing the tools. To me, this is the true power of Lean. I love the framework because if implemented properly, it melds process and measurement with the psychological realities of human interest, and embodies the true meaning of the word teamwork by empowering people to change their working environment for the better. It’s exciting and humbling to see people come to the realization that they are far better off as a united whole, than a bunch of separate competing interests who are resigned to doing battle with each other. To me, this is the true power of Lean. The tools should be a means to get there, rather than the end result. 

What do you think of Gary's comments? For those working in the construction industry, do you agree with his observation of behaviors and habits?