by Jim Cavaness, MMC Contractors West, Inc.
You have probably been using Lean ideas for years but did not know the process was called Lean. It is hard to build a team or to get a group of people to achieve a common goal without using some Lean principles. It is not that Lean invented these efficiency ideas but more that Lean has gathered them into a process that can be studied and implemented. Not only can these ideas be studied, the ideas themselves become a common language for the team.
When bringing people and companies together to achieve a common goal, most bring their communication skills and processes with them. This can create confusion for the team. This confusion can lead to miscommunication, which can lead to mistakes that affect the bottom line and ultimately the delivery and quality of the project. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone spoke the same language and had an agreed upon process for the achieving the common goal! The Lean process and Lean tools are just such a system.
There are many types of Lean practitioners. There are the ones where they have heard of it and are sitting on the sidelines to see if they ought to get involved. There are those that have been directed by their boss to become Lean. Sometimes even the boss does not know what he means by that statement. There are those that are accused of practicing “Lean Lite.” Then there are the Lean practitioners who believe that you use all the Lean tools, all of the time.
These are all stages of the growth in someone’s Lean journey. They represent a willingness to change, to try to do better. Like any new endeavor, it is nice to start at the beginning. However, where is that? The beginning is anywhere you start. Just start somewhere. Pick a Lean tool and start to use it. See where it fits in your operation. See how you can possibly make your operation better or improve the use of the Lean tool.
Lean is not a panacea. It is not something you can buy. It is not a commodity. It is not a pill you can take or a single book you should read. It is a process of learning as individuals and teams of people with common goals, to add value to the end product. It is a lot of hard work. It is thinking outside the box. It is taking chances. It is a way of doing things differently. You have heard it said that the definition of insanity is doing the same old things, the same old way and expecting a different result. Being a Lean practitioner, working to become “Lean” is like searching for Nirvana. You cannot really get there, but you can get closer!
In the Lean world, everyone is held accountable. That’s right. Accountable. It is a staple of the Lean process. Everyone is counting on everyone else to do what he or she said they were going to do, when they said they were going to have it accomplished. It is better to admit a problem in the early stages of a project than it is to wait until it becomes an emergency. This applies to all team participants. All team members hold themselves and each other accountable and look for ways to either get help for themselves or help others meet their goals and deadlines.
So, why should you care to start on your Lean journey? Money. The short answer is money. However, money is only one of the many conditions of satisfaction why subcontractors are in business or should care about implementing Lean. Most subcontractors and specialty trade contractors have already developed a process where they are as efficient at making money as they can be, or so they think. It is a belief of the general Lean practice population that you can always do better. There is always room for improvement, which is one of the two pillars of Lean. Although, money may be one of the many reasons to practice Lean, there are many connected benefits. Employee engagement, employee satisfaction, employee safety and value delivered to the customer.
Efficiency equals money, right? Nevertheless, it is the efficiency of the whole system that is truly important. There is a paradox between the efficiency of the resource and the efficiency of the flow. One department in the system may become incredibly efficient unto itself. However, the department that feeds into very efficient department may experience a backup and not be able to effectively transfer work into that very efficient department. At the same time, the very efficient department may take longer to be so efficient that they slow their feed into the next department. This creates a “log jam” and destroys the flow of the process.
The second pillar of Lean is respect for people. Respect is given in many ways and employee satisfaction comes in many forms. Ownership in the process is one way to show the employee that the company does not just look at them as a number. That they and their families matter. When employees have input as to how a process is supposed to be, they will more often follow it because it was their idea. It is easy to understand. If people and not computers or machines do all this work, how our people think and feel will greatly affect the quality of the work being put in place.
Everybody gets to go home as they left their home to go to work. Safety is of the utmost importance. People have many reasons for being in the construction industry but most of them stay because it affords them a good living. Now, if they get hurt in anyway, it will affect their ability to do so. Therefore, it is imperative that working safely should always be planned and thought about when executing the job. This planning starts before actually doing the work. It is well documented that if accidents happen on a project, its costs will affect the bottom line. It also makes sense that no team members or owners will want to work with a company that has a history of accidents. The accidents they cause sometimes affect others and are not always confined to their own employees.
Customer satisfaction is another reason to practice Lean. The customer most always wants what they want, when they want it and the value they expected to get. If the customer feels like you really want them involved in the process, they will feel they have a better chance of getting what they want. By participating in the process, the owner will also understand why certain things need to happen the way they do. This can help to solidify a relationship for future work. It is hard enough to get new customers. It is easier to keep existing customers.
As owners, general contractors and trade partners continue to evolve toward Lean, it only benefits the whole if everyone shares a common language. It benefits the individuals by giving them a vehicle that at least has the tools to assist them in being successful in their journey. It is really not that difficult. You are already doing it under a different or no name at all.
Jim Cavaness is the service general manager for MMC Contractors West, Inc., Las Vegas, Nevada. He can be reached at (702) 889-6800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.