Leadership engagement in lean transformation in construction organizations

Lean Transformation: Is Your Leadership Team All In?

There is a conversation in the industry about the role of executive leadership in lean transformation. What is your opinion on this? If you ask ten people, you get probably ten different answers. What I found is that many of these opinions are spot on, however, they lead to different outcomes.

For example, to have a “lean” construction project, the CEO of the General Contracting firm may not need engagement, buy-in, or even understanding of what the team is doing. However, project leadership definitely needs to understand, buy in, and actually be engaged.

On the flip-side, if you are looking for a lean transformation of an entire organization or only parts of it, only getting the project teams engaged in lean won’t be enough to achieve this. Similarly, you may have a department head drive lean into their department where it can sustain as long as the leader can protect the department from the lack of lean outside the group. However, when that leader leaves, in many cases lean will leave with him or her.

This post looks at the story of two separate divisions within the same company. Both started their lean journey at the same time. After almost a decade, they have arrived at very different places.


The Last Planner System® is often the start of the lean journey

Both of these divisions began by implementing the Last Planner System® (LPS) with some of their project teams, which is what many construction organizations do. Across the organization, there were other consistencies around this transformation. Both divisions experienced some of the same things at around the same times: common language, common training (including Leadership specific training), consistent LPS standards, improvements to the employee development process, an internal small-wins program, and implementation of a system that allowed for standardization as well as improvement of current best practices.

During the beginning of the journey, both sets of leaders were appropriately vocal in their support of the “lean initiative.” From the very top of these two divisions, it was common to hear them saying:

  •       I’m bought into lean.
  •       We need to embrace lean.
  •       I expect our teams to use LPS.
  •       We can’t rest on our laurels; we need to continuously improve.


Mindset matters: Do you really believe in what you’re doing?

While both groups of leaders often said the same things, the leader running Division A firmly believed this with his heart and his mind, while the leader of Division B was still waiting to be convinced.

The first big shift in the journey of Division A is what set their new trajectory down a completely different path. After finishing a basic Lean Leadership training (that Division B also received), executive leaders from Division A wanted to learn more about lean. They wanted to better understand what it meant and what it meant to themselves. As we wrapped their first Lean Leadership Training, the leader of the division opted for a group study trip to the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, to learn from them. Before we went on the tour, we met and discussed what to look out for and how to observe. This wasn’t about observing how cars are made in detail, but about observing the visual nature of the work and any actions that could be seen to help them understand the bigger picture of a lean organization. As the tour ended, we had Q&As with the guide. In one of his answers, he was explaining that a Team Leader had to be able to do the job of all of their team members. One of the Vice Presidents processed that statement, then he exclaimed: “You know, we’ve been asking our teams to do the Last Planner System, and we don’t have a clue how to do it ourselves!” You could hear and feel his ’a-ha’ moment.

Leadership support needs to convert to leadership engagement to create lasting change of lean transformation in the organization.

Image: Katrina Wright via Unsplash


A better understanding for leaders 

This was music to my ears! I created a learning program that brought leaders to the job sites to observe various components of the LPS. After they observed a component, they went again and participated in the LPS with their teams, even if it was just to scribe or be the facilitator of the Do Again/Do Better (Plus/Delta) at the end. The program culminated with leaders sharing what they had learned about the techniques, the behaviors and the culture that help with LPS and that get in the way of effective LPS. This was the beginning of Division A’s leadership group being visibly invested in their lean journey.

Fast forward a couple of years, everyone in leadership for Division A had not only gone through this program, but they were making sure they participated or engaged in LPS meetings when they went to job sites. They included questions on job walks and project reviews that clearly showed the teams that they understood what they were asking and that they were there to help them. There’s a big difference between asking a team “When was your last pull plan?” versus asking them “How can I help you remove some of your constraints?”


Evolving expectations

This group of leaders built enough credibility around the Last Planner System with their people that it was relatively easy for them to set the expectation that all Project Engineers, Field Engineers, Superintendents and Project Managers use and participate in the LPS. They made sure that they had enough support and coaching that nobody was left behind. Additionally, leadership and management were now there to help coach teams to overcome their obstacles and find more value from their planning. After the standard expectation was set, they announced that if people weren’t using it on their job, there would be no promotion. Before long, LPS was being used consistently throughout Division A.

Of course, Lean Transformations are about much more than the Last Planner System. The way Division A’s leaders acted with the LPS was their starting point. They continued to grow their lean leadership skills and put them into action. They grew their coaching skills and focused on developing problem-solvers. They regularly connected things to Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA). They presented on lean topics and led lean training. They were at the center of the lean transformation for their division. All of the employees knew it and felt it.


Do you still think lean is for project teams only?

Let’s get back to Division B. Executive Leadership of Division B had not connected with lean in the same way. After they finished the initial basic Lean Leadership training, they went back to their day jobs. They weren’t interested in diving deeper or seeing what they could apply themselves. They were still of the mindset that lean was something for the project teams.

There were a few self-motivated Lean Champions and two Lean Support professionals in Division B who took real initiative to drive lean, though they were not in Executive Leadership. They would create training and try to help others in the region learn things like A3 thinking or Root Cause Analysis. They would often request Leaders to endorse or sponsor such things, and leadership was happy to send an email expressing the importance or kick off a training session, but their engagement ended there.

When Division B Leaders did job walks or had project reviews, they would ask questions such as “How’s lean going out here?” Many teams would give superficial answers, not really knowing enough to answer the question with much depth. Eventually, the leadership of Division B started saying: “If our teams aren’t finding value in LPS, we’re not asking them to do it.” Since nobody understood the Last Planner System, it was the beginning of the end for that division's lean transformation.


In summary: Leadership support needs to become leadership engagement

Take these two different ways of leaders engaging (or not engaging) with lean over a period of 5-10 years, and it has resulted in two divisions within the same company that have very different cultures around lean and have achieved very different results with their projects. Things aren’t picture perfect in Division A, but they have more stability and reliability in their work and a much stronger team and learning culture throughout.

Suffice it to say, leadership support is needed at the start of a transformation. But before too long, the leadership support needs to convert to leadership engagement, being visibly committed to creating the lasting change of lean transformation in the organization.

Feature image: Markus Spiske via Unsplash


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Rebecca Snelling, lean transformation consulting

Rebecca Snelling, owner of RS Consulting, coaches people, teams and organizations on leadership and Lean Transformation with an emphasis on advancing culture. She started in the construction industry in 1996 and began coaching companies and teams in 2006 with a focus on applying Lean principles in various organizations and project types. She works with owners, architects, contractors, engineers and trade partners, as well as full project delivery teams. She coaches leaders at all levels to integrate lean thinking into their organization and develops Lean Coaches to effectively facilitate, train and coach others implementing lean practices and behaviors.

She has been actively involved in the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) since 2008 and is a contributing author of both LCI books: Transforming Design and Construction, a Framework for Change, and Target Value Delivery: Practitioner Guidebook to Implementation. Rebecca is the Chair of the LCI Board of Directors and sits on the Board for the Center for Innovation in the Design and Construction Industry (CIDCI).

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