Lean IPD and Diversity are getting the best results for complex construction projects

Why Lean and Diversity are Going to Get You the Best Results

In my article Confessions of a Social Researcher in the Building Industry, I shared the challenges we face in the construction industry because we don’t have a formal research structure.

What I have been working on lately is the tie between Lean and equity exploring what is a lean equitable practice. I’m basing my work on my earlier findings and other research that looks at organizations showing that the more diverse a team, the better results are likely to be. You won’t get people’s best ideas unless you welcome voices from diverse points of view, and it's hard to avoid groupthink in homogeneous teams. Innovation and high-level creativity is much more likely with a diverse team.

Of course, there are homogenous teams that are really creative, and it's also important to note that you can get incredibly poor outcomes from a diverse team. If you have a diverse team and you have not found ways to harness their differences positively, you will have conflicts and misunderstandings, in other words, a lot of problems.

Some of the research I draw from in my work shows that the majority of diverse teams actually fall in the low-performing categories and are underperforming the worst homogeneous teams. But there are a smaller number of teams that outperform the very best of the homogeneous teams in terms of innovation and creativity, and these are the teams that have found ways to work with and across differences. Since our industry brings together teams of individuals that are different in their training and points of view, this research is pretty interesting for us to look at.

You can define differences as gender, race, or expertise areas. For example, designer, owner, and contractor. If you can work across those differences, you can welcome people's best ideas, which results in higher productivity and a better outcome.


IPD teams are transparent

One thing that sets IPD teams apart from traditional teams is transparency. They share not only their budget numbers but also their internal practices and metrics, which can result in tough conversations, sometimes conflicts, that you usually don’t have in other teams. Over the course of these discussions, their different practices, and how they play out their values become clear. It's my belief that these conflicts, when well-managed, lead to a team that comes up with a more creative and innovative outcome.

IPD teams also have to be clear. For example, they might choose a single definition of quality, and add it to their criteria for releasing the risk-reward pool. Most teams don't talk about common definitions at the beginning. They come in and say: I'm a designer, I've got my agenda. You're a builder, you've got your agenda. You're an owner, you’ve got your agenda.

But, continuing with this example, the reality is that everyone has a different understanding of what quality means. When the designer, builder, and owner each say “quality”, they are all thinking of something a little bit (or maybe significantly) different. If the team does not clarify what quality means and does not come to a mutual understanding, everyone agrees to deliver a “high-quality” project without knowing what everyone else’s perception of quality is.

And on project teams, these differences are not talked about, maybe because people think they do not matter.

But it turns out they do matter. These differences can even lead to pretty unpleasant conflicts. So you want to identify and resolve the conflict before the project actually starts because you are having the tough discussions when there is less at stake. As soon as we come to the end of a project and conflict arises, everyone has already committed time and money, there are fewer options for resolution and we have to deal with lots of negative emotions and stress.

Diversity in Lean production teams explored by Renee Cheng


Culture is the silver bullet

The ability to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion, which makes it to bring forward many voices is a strength of Lean IPD that is usually not mentioned.

I see integrated project delivery and equitable practice as very much intertwined. Clear communication and guidelines are part of a team culture. IPD teams have rules that everyone is supposed to follow. I’ve seen some teams set expectations on attendance, which means that you can’t keep coming late to meetings without consequences. Most Lean IPD teams have a defined onboarding process that is explicit about their team’s culture. For example, meetings start promptly, which means that new people joining the team know what's expected of them from the very beginning.

IPD brings accountability and hopefully more diversity into our industry. When the word diversity is used, it's often a euphemism for a desire for more racial diversity, or to be more specific, to have more Black professional leaders. The lack of precision in our language often means we don't spell out what it is in our culture that is making Black professionals feel like they are not welcome or that they need to assimilate, as opposed to being able to bring in their own points of view and their own strengths.

Lean and IPD are natural fits with these discussions lately around justice and inclusion because they're both about culture, and culture is the silver bullet for Lean teams to do their work well.

Many people thought the cure for all the industry’s ills was BIM, other people thought it was co-location, still others believed it was IPD. I would say all of these things are tools and means to help you establish and foster a team’s culture. But keep in mind that if you're co-located and you don’t have mutual respect, conflicts may become more overt. If your culture is not based on trust, your BIM is going to become a warzone. That’s why I believe culture is the silver bullet that everyone's overlooking when they focus on tools and methods. 

Unfortunately, culture is perceived to be squishy and soft, hence, hard to grasp. But it's actually measurable and it can be honed and nurtured to improve. I believe healthy culture is the main reason why a project is successful..

How often does a project team miss their goals if their culture is healthy, strong, robust, transparent, and trusting? I think almost never.


More from Renée

Confessions of a Social Researcher in the Building Industry
5 Myths about IPD and Lean


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Renée Cheng joined the College of Built Environments as dean on January 1, 2019. Dean Cheng comes from the University of Minnesota where she was a professor, associate dean of research, head of the school of architecture, and directed an innovative graduate program linking research with practice and licensure. Prior to UMN, she taught at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona. She is a graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and Harvard College.

A licensed architect, her professional experience includes work for Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners, and Richard Meier and Partners before founding Cheng-Olson Design. Dean Cheng has been honored twice as one of the top 25 most admired design educators in the United States by DesignIntelligence. She has received numerous honors and awards including the 2017 Lean Construction Institute Faculty Award and was named to the American Institute of Architecture’s College of Fellows in 2017.

Cheng is a leader in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and advocates for equity in the field of architecture and in the practices related to the built environment. Recently, Cheng led the research effort for the AIA guides for equitable practice in the workplace. Cheng has pioneered research surrounding the intersection of design and emerging technologies, including work on industry adoption of Integrated Project Delivery, Building Information Modeling, and Lean.

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