Lean Expert Insight: Pioneering Lean from the Trade Partner’s Perspective

Lean Expert Insight: Pioneering Lean from the Trade Partner’s Perspective

Lean Expert Insight: Pioneering Lean from the Trade Partner’s Perspective

By Henry Nutt, Sheet Metal General Superintendent, Southland Industries

About the expert: As Sheet Metal General Superintendent for Southland’s Northern California Division, Henry Nutt is responsible for managing shop and field staff, assisting with project scheduling, personnel assignments and training, managing tools and equipment and project safety, as well as interfacing with the unions. He is directly involved with Southland’s lean construction delivery method, also is a Lean Construction Institute (LCI) LCI Improved Instructor and a frequent participant at the LCI’s quarterly trainings at the annual LCI Congress seminar. Mr. Nutt sits on the Lean Task Force for both SMACNA and the Association of General Contractors (AGC). He has several published articles written on the topic of construction innovation. As a mentor for students, Mr. Nutt is also very involved with several non-profit organizations that prepares underprivileged San Francisco County and Alameda County residents for employment in the trades.

Can you describe your role as a Sheet Metal General Superintendent at Southland Industries?

Nutt: I oversee all labor on the sheet metal side for the installation and fabrication with anywhere between 25 people to a little more than 200, which is the largest manpower I’ve had thus far. In addition to that, I am one of Southland’s Lean Champions in Northern California, so I began going to LCI’s Northern California Community of Practice (NorCal CoP) just after starting with Southland Industries in 2007. My role grew from there. I realized the audience didn’t have enough from the field or the construction side, and I always felt that void needed to be part of the conversation. I found myself getting more involved, training my own people and having projects that would require teams to be versed in that leadership and Lean principles.

How have you helped Southland Industries become a pioneer in implementing Lean on projects?

Nutt: I think for me, it’s really about believing in the whole system. There is no way I could do this to this extent if I didn’t whole-heartedly believe in it, so it doesn’t seem like an extra effort. It seems like the right thing to do. It is easy to convey the message to people who either agree or disagree with it because I focus on the ability to reach them in a place that seems logical and practical so that at the end of the conversation, they are scratching their head wondering why they aren’t doing it [Lean] either because it makes sense.

It’s about changing how we do things and, more importantly, it’s about why we changed – that’s the direction I take.

How do you approach those field and trade partner workers who are skeptical about the Lean advantage?

Nutt: I encountered a question at the 2017 Last Planner®s Workshop in Dallas about how some field workers believe that anything relating to transformation and continuous improvement will have a negative impact such as by taking work away. Once we get them to understand what Lean principles are really designed to do, they may see it does remove or change some specific roles but that those individuals do not need to be eliminated – they can instead be transferred to another area that brings more value to the process. It’s just like new equipment in a shop. It changes how we do our production and fabrication, but it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the job – it just moves it somewhere else.

Lean design and construction streamlines processes, and if we want to stay relevant and competitive in this business, there is no way that we can continue to do things the way we are doing now. We have to continuously look for improvement opportunities and sometimes people have to reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant – that is the challenge I give those who have doubts. They can embrace the change and recognize how they fit in the future or they can try to hold on to something that is eventually going to go away.

Can you explain the collaboration between trade partners and general contractors from your experiences?

Nutt: Most of the general contractors (GCs) that we work with know we use Lean proponents not just on a specific job, but in all that we do. It is how we do business, and it’s our culture. Whether it’s in the design stage or the actual installation phase, we’re looking to help GCs not as experienced with Lean and encourage them to reach out for support from the beginning. We provide training on Last Planner System® (LPS®), and when one of the GC superintendents asked about building trust on a previous projects, we had a 2-week session on how to build trust on the foremen level, and it helped. Sometimes the GCs believe in Lean approaches but are not sure how to mitigate or move forward, so Southland Industries offers suggestions.

When I go to an interview to win jobs, I let them know that this is part of what we do to help because at the end of the day, if it helps the project, it helps us as well. Most companies that work with us are open to that, and if not, our workers are still going to operate to improve the project where we can.

What was Southland Industries’ greatest challenge along your Lean journey and how did Southland overcome this challenge?

Nutt: A challenge on a previous project was working with an owner and GC that did not embrace Lean principles at all. Maybe it was part of the sell initially but there was a breakdown and we were essentially trying to find a way to stop the bleeding. Our Last Planner®s were either not in the room or there were 20 other people with them attempting to plan work, and no one knew who they were. It was an intimidating environment. The project team was more focused on the visual aids on the wall showing progress in the field when there were no real walks to the project site to see what was going on.

My point is that presenting things in a positive light should never take precedent over the actual work being done in the field. Many groups can reflect that work is going great but when you walk out to the jobsite and talk to three or four people, they say the job is the complete opposite. You can’t remove yourself from reality and get caught up with just showing pictures that tell only part of the story. Everyone wants to understand things are going well, but sometimes they’re not. You have to deal with the truth or else others will not want to implement Lean because they think it is a façade.

I think the biggest challenge is taking responsibility of any breakdown or failure on a project. It’s a way to build relationships and trust across the project team. One of the worst things that can happen in a project is the sprinkler head breaking and water spraying everywhere.

Accidents happen, but the one thing owners and GCs appreciate is not so much that we broke it, but what we did when it broke.

Did your whole team rally behind with buckets? Was someone sweeping water out? Did the whole team stop what they were doing and go attack the situation to remedy it as fast as possible to reduce the damage?

At Southland Industries, we try to teach that there are going to be breakdowns, but it’s how we respond that your project team members will remember most.  

Check back with the LCI blog for more interviews with Lean practitioners and updates on the new Last Planner System® e-learning!

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