Lean Construction is a Mindset, not a Toolset: when I went to the LCI Congress for the first time

Lean Construction is a Mindset, not a Toolset: when I went to the LCI Congress for the first time

By Aron Bartee, Project Manager at Herrero Builders

It was a Monday at nearly 11pm, and after 10 hours of travel, I finally made it to the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) Congress! With my bags in hand, my excitement quickly faded away to my rational inner thoughts asking the simple questions, “What is LCI? What should I expect? What will I learn?

I had never been to an LCI Congress before, nor did I even know what it was prior to being asked if I would like to go.

Lean Beginnings and Misconceptions

I joined Herrero Builders over 5 years ago for the exciting opportunity to learn and expand myself at a Lean company, working in a team environment, and diving into planning and collaborative design. With new-found motivation, I started working on a project that was 3 years in the works, had already topped out the structural steel, recently replaced the owner’s representative and IOR (Inspector of Record). To top it all off we only had two subs who knew that Lean and LEED were not the same.

With the intense schedule and distant location of the project I was working on, it was nearly two years before I would finally go through Herrero’s formal Lean training. I was able to familiarize myself with the cool Lean approaches like pull planning, Last Planner System®, Gemba walks and 5S before attending the training. Because of this I assumed I was way ahead of the curve. That’s when I discovered I had been focusing so much on the approaches as individual concepts that I had missed the point; Lean is a holistic philosophy.

When I reached the LCI Congress, I learned further that this misconception was one of the biggest struggles fellow attendees had encountered. Everyone was looking for the quick fix, the newest approach or tool or the coolest gadget to solve their problems. This reminded me of when folks seek out the new miracle diet fad or a get rich quick scheme. What I discovered is that Lean is not digital programs, funny names, or endless lists of acronyms. I learned that Continuous Improvement and working to gain team buy-in is the heart and soul of Lean Construction.

Continuous Improvement

There were hundreds of people at the LCI Congress who clearly knew a lot more about Lean than I did, and who had been practicing it for many years longer than me. Yet there we all were, gathered and engaged in an activity or training, eager and striving to learn more. People of various positions, organizations and experience level all working toward a common goal, how to incorporate Lean approaches into our work.

The people I met at Congress were on the pursuit of lifelong Lean learning and knowledge. I was amazed by their commitment to Continuous Improvement and using Lean to solve problems. Just like any professional athlete who keeps training harder even after career milestones and achievements. I can’t express enough just how refreshing it was to be surrounded by people with this attitude. To be around professionals who know so much, yet still thirst for more knowledge. The best part about this is that these people also want to share their knowledge and experience. They are eager to foster and grow this knowledge base in the community which helped me learn so much in just a few days. This mindset of Continuous Improvement illustrates so well why Lean is essential for project teams who want to foster a culture of collaboration and improvement.

What really is Lean?

As important as it is, the practice of Continuous Improvement doesn’t automatically make you Lean, it’s only a fraction of the big picture. Herrero defines it this way; “Provide customer value through streamlined processes practicing Continuous Improvement.” Building a project in the Lean method means it should be at the forefront of every task, idea, and solution, every step of the way.

In our lives we often see people who claim to be too busy to make an improvement to whatever they are doing, even if they know it will make things better. How many people walk into a grocery store convinced they don’t need a cart, then halfway through realize their error? Instead of stopping to get a cart when they come into the store to “save time”, they fumble as they collect groceries. They then continue to push through once their arms are full because they don’t want to “waste” time going back to the front to get a cart. By the time they fumble their way to the front, they acknowledge how much time and energy they had wasted by not taking an extra minute at the beginning of the process.

What I learned at the LCI Congress is that Lean is not just about fixing a problem the next time but having the courage to pull that “Andon cord” anytime in any task or any group, and to implement an improvement right then. It’s about taking ownership of all problems and applying the resources to allow it to be improved immediately.

Lean requires a mindset change, which sounds simple but unfortunately, it is often easier to teach people how to do something than it is to change the way they think. This is a huge reason why maintenance of a Lean culture seems to fizzle out or only exist within a specific project that has buy-in from all parties

Getting Buy-In is the Most Important Step

Some questions and comments that we all heard repeatedly at the LCI Congress included.

“Why can’t I get buy-in from subs?”

“How do I implement Lean in my company?”

As I found out on my first project, implementing Lean is only the first step. The real challenge is sustaining those Lean approaches when you don’t have the buy-in from those who are supposed to be your partners. I learned from LCI Congress speakers and fellow attendees that this was the main reason why so many people struggle to implement Lean.

To me, the only way to become a Lean team is to get all parties self-motivated and willing to look for areas of improvement along the way. If you can’t get buy-in from subs, it’s important to find a way to provide examples or incentives so they can see the value in using Lean. If you want to implement something in your company, it’s important to lead by example and start doing it yourself. If a project owner doesn’t buy into the team approach concept, invite them to a collaborative meeting that highlights the total time saved compared to the way it was done before. If people are losing steam after starting off then introduce those individuals to more concepts and ideas within the Lean framework to keep the creative energies rolling. Lean is about removing the obstacles in your path, not just working around them. 

Everyone understands that none of this means anything without getting our projects done and without our companies making money. This conference is not free, and it also requires several days if not a full week away from our work. But it is worth it for the content and the invaluable takeaways you get from talking with other professionals in the industry. The 1,600 attendees at the 2019 LCI Congress who took the better part of a week out of their busy schedules to attend highlights to me the value in taking a step back and investing in yourself, your project, and your company to become a more well-rounded and knowledgeable employee. The tools and takeaways I gained from attending the LCI Congress remain applicable in my work, and I look forward to learning more this year.

If you ever have the chance to go to the LCI Congress, understand that you are just one of thousands who are there to learn and who are eager to share knowledge. It is an event for those passionate about making the construction world better and about building collaboratively. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t matter how you or your company do things now because it’s never too late to jump onboard with Lean. Once you realize this, you will see that you are never too busy to learn and think Lean.

Click here to get more information about the 2022 LCI Congress in New Orleans, Louisiana from October 18-21! Registration will open in early July. Make sure you’re following LCI on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram & Twitter to get updates on this year’s program.