Lean Failures: 6 Critical Components to Successful Lean Implementation

The Lean Construction Institute says the industry is broken. You know it has its challenges. Construction labor productivity has decreased, while efficiency in other industries has doubled over the past generation. More than 70% of projects are completed late and over-budget. Fatalities are not isolated events. In the face of these issues, lean project delivery is an attempt to improve this chaos.

Many contractors have thrown countless time and dollars at lean initiatives. Some have made modest progress in the short-term. More have discarded the effort as it waned over time. A precious few have embedded it in their DNA and are realizing significant benefits for the effort. In my observations over the past few years, I have detected 6 common reactions that will derail your efforts:

The first and, perhaps most prevalent, response to a Lean initiative is, “I already do a good job; now you’re telling me I’m not doing it right?” The reply to that is, while there was nothing wrong with the way the work was being done, it might be time to do it differently.

Even with that gentle redirect, people can still have a hard time looking objectively at their behavior and the processes that have served them well for so long. As a professor of mine once said, “Ideas become actions, actions become habits, habits become processes, processes become religions, and religions die hard.” Your lean initiative must be accompanied committed leadership and maybe a credible internal marketing campaign to rally the troops and assure them that this is not about cutting labor.

The second-most-often heard reply comes from those in the “It’s not my job” camp. These folks view process improvement as the work of somebody else. This group thinks that, as long as they get a certain amount of work done every day, they’re fine; anything that might hinder that is bad.

To get this group on board, you might need to address job description and compensation. More important, you must demonstrate the value of process improvement so they can see for themselves that it is worth it. Run a test project and cite the gains, or get these naysayers involved in planning.

For the third reaction, fill in the blank: “Anything worth doing is worth doing _______.” Most of you will say well. I say poorly—at first. If something is worth doing, then it is worth taking the time to do it right. When you learn something new, you probably won’t be good at it right away. Knowing that stumbles are to be expected makes it easier to stay the course. In fact, production might go down initially as you try new things, but if you keep at it, you will see improvements.

Regarding response #4: We all know that what gets measured gets done, and lean needs data and metrics to make a real impact. Unfortunately, many contractor organizations do a very poor job in this area. I have often seen the benefit of a proposed lean initiative described in such vague terms as “improved production” or “better customer service.” Those phrases don’t have much meaning.

The lack of real metrics in the first place will make it very hard to quantify measurable impact and remain committed to the change. This gets us into a Six Sigma conversation, and I often hear the term “lean six sigma.” Is that redundant? Maybe, but maybe not. Villanova University puts it this way:

Six Sigma and Lean systems have the same goal. They both seek to eliminate waste and create the most efficient system possible, but they take different approaches toward achieving this goal. In simplest terms, the main difference between Lean and Six Sigma is that they identify the root cause of waste differently.

Lean practitioners believe that waste comes from unnecessary steps in the production process that do not add value to the finished product, while Six Sigma proponents assert that waste results from variation within the process.

Of course, there is truth in both of these assessments, which is why both Lean and Six Sigma been so successful in improving overall business performance in a variety of fields. In fact, these two disciplines have proven to be especially successful when working in tandem – hence the creation of Lean Six Sigma.

My initial point remains: measurement is the key to a successful initiative.

In reaction #5, we discuss that lean is a collaborative process, whereby teams work to discover better ways of doing things. The key here is that the teams work together. That takes time, and time is money. Leaders are tempted to steer the conversation for the sake of time; they should not. Leaders also need to remain silent during brainstorming and other team exercises. I learned in the Marines that the wishes of a superior should be taken as an order. When my boss said, “I think we should do X,” that meant, “We should do X.” In a lean process, if the leader offers their opinion, it might well stifle the conversation. Leaders need to learn how to facilitate, and not direct, a conversation. They must guide, not mandate. If the leader wants to decide and mandate, that is fine–just don’t do it in a lean situation.

Reaction #6 mirrors our first when an employee resists a lean initiative because they think they are pretty good at what they do. This happens at the company level too. People have hard time changing. Organizations have a really hard time changing. Too many firms think they are doing well because net profit is good. But is it really that good compared to their competitor? Or merely good compared to the poor year they had last year? Further, what about ROI? ROA? And other deeper financial measures. If you are running dead last in the race, so far from your next competitor that you cannot see them, you might think you are in the lead.

We know the industry is broken. As part of the industry, your projects may not be broken but they might be cracked. Lean is a worthy effort that can pay handsomely on the bottom-line. It can help create friction-free teams and processes that excel at doing the work and adding value. I encourage you to consider this profit strategy, but I also caution you that these six responses can cause your initiative to fail. That need not be the case.

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