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By Jennifer Lacy
There are moments when I’m sitting in a group of accomplished Lean construction professionals, and I experience imposter syndrome.
I’ve never built a house, or managed the construction of a hotel or a hospital. Instead, my career path has included coaching, teaching, and marketing. In my current role as a Lean practice leader, I’m often surrounded by academics, seasoned superintendents, and veteran Lean leaders—all who typically have a background or direct experience in construction work.
When I began my Lean journey many years ago, I was a marketing manager for my company, construction firm Robins & Morton. In that role, I supported sales to existing and new clients and business development. After working in the industry for more than 12 years at that time, I understood many elements of construction, and as I captured project stories, I could see there were gaps left by traditional construction management methods. As I learned more about Lean construction, its ideology and the tools to support it, I wanted people to understand how Lean could benefit project teams and clients.
For years, I looked for ways to help while growing my knowledge and experience. At work, I learned the tools, gained insight into what builds a positive culture, shadowed teams on jobsites, and helped to tell stories that would demonstrate the value of Lean. Outside of work, I became involved in my local Community of Practice (CoP), found strong mentors, and read (a lot). I educated myself academically and in the field.
The more I searched for career development opportunity within the Lean community, I found that—although I wasn’t a builder—I was good at this.
I was good at understanding the bigger picture. Probably from my time as an undergraduate studying operations management at what is now Texas A&M University. I was also good at rallying teams around a cause; likely from my time as coach. Finally, my co-workers viewed me as a helpful resource in the way I could explain concepts, because I had experience teaching.
With these realizations came another one—I wasn’t a lesser Lean construction leader because I wasn’t a builder by trade. Instead, I contributed in the ways that only a coach, teacher and marketer could.
As I became more comfortable with my place in the Lean community, I took on leadership roles in industry organizations, and pursued my Certificate of Management in Lean Construction (CM-Lean). In February 2018, I earned my CM-Lean and the following year, I made a significant career leap.
After careful planning, I left my full-time marketing role in early 2019. With the support of my company’s senior leadership, I moved into a full-time Lean Practice Leadership role. Suddenly, I was a department of one with a monumental task ahead of me: create a comprehensive education program that teaches tactical Lean tools and culture-building while also maintaining enthusiasm for the program among employees.
I always thought that passion and hustle were key ingredients to the secret sauce that is success, but now I know it to be true. Without structure or precedent, I was now responsible for the future of Lean education at my 1,200-person company, and candidly, I was afraid to fail. Over the last few years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, including making inaccurate assumptions, not properly engaging resistors, and structuring education support in a way that didn’t work the first time. However, I never let my passion or the sense of curiosity that fuels it, die. Instead of hustling harder, I found a way to hustle smarter, sourcing the insights of industry veterans. Our most significant failures led to PDSA cycles that helped us find a viable solution.
Today, Robins & Morton’s Lean education is organized around more than a dozen resource groups to promote the application of tools, and there are more than 80 advocates to provide support and accountability on jobsites across the country. Next spring, we’ll have our second annual companywide event, centered on employee engagement and learning. We’re collecting usage metrics, success stories, and advancing Lean practices every day. Although we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go—but that’s the goal of this journey. It will always be a journey, and we’ll never be finished.
Although I say that my experience is unique because I didn’t start as a practitioner, I hope that it becomes less of an anomaly. There is so much knowledge in the construction industry, in both operations and in its support. When we create a coalition of passionate leaders, with an unyielding desire to move the needle, we will succeed—no matter what’s stamped on our diplomas.
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