The Lean Way
By Dennis Sowards
Project management in construction is all about communication. While Lean does not add any unique tools to improve communication, to be successful, Lean depends on people who communicate. Communication has two critical elements - the message sent and hearing the messages that come back.
The Lean Message We Send
Leaders may define a vision for their company, but only if they effectively communicate that vision, will it happen! Implementing Lean is the same. It cannot be done as "instant pudding" - mixed, served and eaten all in one sitting. It is a journey requiring great leadership and lots of communication. It starts with the leaders painting a vision for the Lean journey.
Employees need to "buy in" to change, and implementing Lean is a big change for almost every contractor. To gain employee support, they need to know why implementing Lean is important. A compelling story is needed to explain the reasons for implementing Lean. Jim Womack, co-author of Lean Thinking and a leading Lean expert, says to successfully implement Lean there needs to be a sense of urgency. The compelling story should include this sense of urgency in a way that connects with the employees.
The reason for implementing Lean is not because we need to implement a new idea. Lean is not an end unto itself. The reason for implementing Lean should tie into the company's vision or purpose for existing. Employees will see Lean as the flavor of the month if they don't understand how it fits into the bigger picture for the company.
Research shows that most executives under-communicate important "change" messages to employees by a factor of ten. The message needs to be said often and in many ways. When managers are tired of giving the message, that's when it is beginning to be heard.
A good start at communicating the company's Lean initiative is for the senior manager (CEO/president) to issue a memo or e-mail, and follow it up with an in-person speech to small groups of employees. Employees will listen to the top leader. Having it in writing also helps employees hear (read) the same message.
Next, the executive management team should create a brief "stump speech" explaining why Lean is important to the company, including the need for urgency and how it is being implemented. They should give this speech as often as the opportunity presents itself. The basic points of the speech should be constant, but each executive would be free to tell it in his/her own way. When employees hear the same message from many managers, they begin to sense its importance.
There needs to be communication from the president/CEO announcing the progress of the Lean initiative. The company should do this through all the internal communication methods it typically uses, which may include intranet, toolbox talks, newsletters, e-mail messages, letters to families, paycheck stuffers, etc. Communication is not a "one shoe fits all" approach. There needs to be a variety of ways the same message is communicated to reach all employees. These messages should include Lean success stories and recognition of individuals who have contributed to this success.
Lean implementation plans and progress should be second, only to safety, on all meeting agendas. If it is part of the basic company meetings, Lean will be seen as important. Lean is about visual communication, and graphs and pictures showing progress should be posted on Lean communication boards around the company.
It is important to communicate your company's commitment to Lean to your customers, partners (other trades), and subcontractors. In general, one does not want to communicate to the external sources until Lean is part of the company's culture. (Don't brag until you are doing it successfully yourself!)
Hearing the Lean Message that Comes Back
Lean is about involving all employees to make continuous improvement. To engage employees in the Lean efforts, management needs to ask for and listen to their ideas for improvement. Some ideas will seem simple, some outlandish, some will be too expensive and some will be right on target. The first response from the manager regarding the idea is "THANK YOU for sharing your idea." If the idea is implementable and of any value, big or small - do it and do it now. Many employees have previously been shut down by foremen/managers and are not sure their ideas are really valued, so sometimes the employees will 'test the water' by submitting a simple idea. Sometimes a little idea has more value than at first thought. When considering an improvement idea, ask "Why not?" instead of "Why?"
If an idea improves safety, value to the customer, productivity, or reduces costs, time, labor, pain, or hassle without negatively impacting the work somewhere else in the company, then DO IT! If it is not clear how the idea will work or help, it is the role of supervision to help the worker develop and clarify the idea, not challenge them for suggesting it.
If an idea is not doable or cannot be afforded at this time, the manager should not respond negatively right away. He or she should study the idea and its merit then give the employee a brief explanation why the idea cannot be done at this point in time. Explain why and show respect for the employee. We can all accept "No" when we have an understanding of why.
While not responding immediately with a "No, we can't," the manager should not wait very long (in days) to give the response back to the submitter. Waiting for an answer creates a communication vacuum and human nature will fill the vacuum with the worst possible thoughts as to why there has been no answer given regarding the idea.
Lean is challenging conventional beliefs, including how we communicate to each other and how we do our work. Without challenge there will be no change, and without change there can be no improvement. We don't do Lean to employees. We bring about change with the employees' help. Workers need to understand and buy-in to the changes. Managers need to be sure they hear the Lean ideas from their employees and work to implement all useful ideas. This may mean that supervision and management need to change how they value and communicate with employees. Project management is all about communication.