Ways to sustain lean construction activities

Jan. 1, 2012
The challenge, to those contractors implementing Lean, is to make and then sustain the improvement. Here are five ways to help sustain the changes, once you have implemented them.

There is much evidence and research now showing that Lean helps contractors deliver projects on time or often early, and usually under budget while still making a profit. Many contractors are jumping on the Lean bandwagon. It makes a lot of sense to implement ways to reduce wasted resources, especially in a down economy. However, implementing change is hard work, and maintaining the change is even harder. It is easy to say someone else needs to change, but it’s much more difficult to change oneself. The challenge, to those contractors implementing Lean, is to make and then sustain the improvement. Here are five ways to help sustain the changes, once you have implemented them.

Use checksheets
To change a culture you must change behavior. To change behavior you must change habits and to change habits, you must change daily work activities. Checksheets can help to ensure that workers do the new daily work activities right. In implementing the 5Ss, checksheets help determine what is to be done, in what ways and what progress has been made. Standardized work will often employ checksheets to help employees produce quality work, done right the first time. To change a habit it takes somewhere around 30 times of doing the new way before it becomes the new habit. Workers need to follow the checksheets for doing daily tasks consistently to sustain improvements.

Audit use of checksheets
You may have experienced going into a public restroom and seeing a cleaning schedule posted on the door. This is to ensure the facility is cleaned regularly. The scary part comes when it is noted that the last time the room was cleaned, per the required initials, was nine months ago. It tells us two things: the workers aren’t engaged in maintaining a clean room and management doesn’t care. The more management shows they care, the more likely the workers will be engaged.

Too many times, especially in construction, we create checksheets with great enthusiasm and attention to detail, then we don’t use them! Checksheets only work if used. A best practice in management, and this applies to Lean, is that management must regularly audit the use of checksheets. Part of a consistent regular Muda Walk (also know as Gemba Walk) should be to see if the designated checksheets are being used as designed. One company has management using a management checksheet. This sheet listed all of the operations/shop checksheets. When the managers walked the work area regularly there was a greater behavioral change and sustained improvement.

Celebrate successes
Steven Covey, noted management guru, says that 19 out of 20 times workers do things right, but only hear about the one time they failed. (He says this usually applies to how we treat our children too.) To maintain success in Lean, we need to celebrate wins, even small wins. We can take before and after pictures of a shop, yard or work area where the 5Ss were applied. We can bring in lunch when a facility or jobsite achieves a certain score on their 5S’s audits. This doesn’t have to be when they are perfect, but when they have made real progress. We can provide recognition when a project maintains a high level of PPC and when a job is completed ahead of schedule and/or under budget. We need to adjust our thinking to see the 19 things done right, but not forget the one learning opportunity too.

Show WIIFM for workers
For workers to accept new ways of doing work, they need to see "What's In It for Me" (WIIFM). We can't assume that simply by order of the boss, workers will buy into change. They may do what they are commanded if forced. But they will not keep doing the new way when not being watched if they don’t understand and accept the "why." Managers need to share the real messages of why we need to do Lean, to be more competitive, to win more work and provide more jobs (and to keep our jobs). Saying this once is not enough! The message needs to be shared many times (start with 10 times) so that workers hear it and realized the importance. The message about why we need to change should be restated in many ways, at daily huddles, during all-hands meetings, at foremen meetings, in company newsletters, in safety meetings, in informal discussions and anywhere management has the chance to talk Lean.

Help management support change
Lean construction and other management change efforts sometimes fizzle because senior management looses interest and doesn’t support continuous improvement. If there is no senior management visibly following through, the efforts will not last. Like planting a flower, without nourishment and care the flower wilts and dies. Senior management should do regular Muda Walks, not to spy, but to ensure that things are being done right, and to spot when the workflow is not normal.

Even with senior management’s support, middle management often is a big barrier to continuous improvement. This is usually because they don’t see any value. To combat this, work to demonstrate the benefits to them. Middle managers are pulled between the demands of the front lines wanting more time, materials, tools and equipment, while being pushed by senior managers to improve quality and reduce costs and schedule. Help the middle managers see that Lean works to reduce the need for more resources and will reduce cost and schedule. Lean also improves quality. Show them that Lean delivers. Show that it makes a positive impact on job performance. Give them reasons to brag to their managers. Let them take the credit along with the workers.

Sustaining change is critical to realizing the benefits of Lean. It takes effort and can be done. Lean is also about trying and experimentation. Try these five ways to sustain your efforts.

Dennis Sowards is a construction industry Lean consultant and frequent speaker at the SMACNA and PHCC National Conventions. He is a guest writer for Contractor Magazine. His company is Quality Support Services Inc. and he can be reached at [email protected].

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