Aron Bartee: "I went to LCI Congress for the first time..."

"I learned that my mindset was actually one of the main roadblocks that we hear about...one of the biggest problems that our industry has with Lean."

I strolled up to my hotel in downtown Fort Worth with my bags in hand on a Monday at nearly 11pm. I was struck by a realization, not just that it was my first time in Texas, nor by the fact that I had no idea it would be this humid, but in fact that I had finally made it to Lean Construction Institute (LCI) Congress! But that excitement quickly faded away as my rational inner thoughts started asking the simple questions. “What is LCI? What should I expect? What will I learn? Who do I want to listen to?…Why am I here again…?...I mean I did sign up for my own classes and learning sessions but that was like two months ago by now…I think I’m going to a Southland thing…whatever, I’ll look it up in the morning...”

If it wasn’t clear, I had never been to a Lean Construction Institute Congress before, nor did I even know what it was prior to being asked if I would like to go. One of the main reasons I decided to join Herrero Builders was their commitment to learning and to employee development, so I was very excited to attend.

Lean Beginnings and Misconceptions

After a Construction Management Degree and seven years in commercial construction, I came into my interview with Herrero with the mindset that I needed a venue to showcase my skill sets. However, I soon discovered that Herrero had a learning department and was into Lean, VDC, IPD, and many other methods and acronyms. My focus was pulled back to a lesson I’ve had to learn many times in my life already—the point  when you think you know everything is the point when you know nothing at all. Suddenly, I was fired up about learning again and expanding myself instead of just trying to show off what I already knew. 

With this new-found motivation I was excited to start working on an OSHPD project with a Lean company, using Lean tools, working in a team environment, and diving into planning and collaborative design. In reality I was being sent to a project 125 miles from Herrero’s main office, was three years into work, had recently replaced the owner’s rep and IOR, and only had two trade partners who knew that Lean and LEED aren’t the same things.

With the project schedule and location, it was nearly two years before I would finally go through formal Lean training. But because Herrero is a Lean organization, I witnessed the use of pull planning, Last Planner, VIP, Gemba walks, 5S, etc. So, over my first two years I was able to familiarize myself with all these cool Lean tools that I played with here and there. When the time came and I was finally able to make it to the company’s Lean training, I assumed I was way ahead of the curve.

On day one of my first LCI Congress, the instructor asked everyone what they expected to get out of the class and I confidently said, “I want to learn how to properly use all these Lean tools and add more Lean tools to my toolbelt!” Well, by the end of that course I learned that my mindset was actually one of the main roadblocks that we hear about. I had actually been part of one of the biggest problems that our industry has with Lean. 

At the heart of my mindset-changing experience at LCI Congress were three main ideas:

  • Continuous Improvement
  • The basic question of “What really is Lean?”
  • Getting team buy-in

Continuous Improvement

Of the 1,500 or so people at the Congress, there were at least 1,498 who clearly knew more about Lean than I did and  had been practicing it for many times longer than I had. Yet here they still were, gathered and engaged in an activity or training, eager and striving to learn more. I met some people with 60 years of industry experience and 20+ years attending Lean events.

These people were practicing continuous improvement, just like any pro athlete who keeps training harder. Can you imagine Tom Brady winning his first Super Bowl and then not training any longer because he “reached the top”? NO! Every new milestone or achievement just becomes the next stepping stone to climb higher. This is a very common sports analogy, but how many people in their professional careers practice this philosophy? Most people sit in a class or learn a lesson on a topic and then never seek any further knowledge.

I can’t express enough just how refreshing it was to be surrounded by people with this attitude, these professionals who know so much, yet they thirst as if they know nothing. But the best part is these people also wanted to share. They were eager to foster and grow this knowledge base in the community. I learned so much in just a few days. This idea of Continuous Improvement illustrates so well why Lean is a mindset, supported by its tools.

What really is Lean?

Unfortunately, our world is filled with people looking for the quick fix, the newest tool, the coolest gadget, the equivalent of the new diet fad or the get rich quick scheme. “Follow these quick ten steps and you can be Lean too!” In actuality, Lean is none of these things. 

As important as it is, the practice of Continuous Improvement doesn’t in itself make you Lean, it’s only a fraction of the big picture. And yes, removing waste is a huge aspect of Lean, but what does it really mean to be Lean? There are dozens of available books, teachings, charts, presentations and essays that can explain Lean much better than I ever will, but Herrero defines it this way;  “Provide customer value through streamlined processes practicing continuous improvement.” Building a project in the Lean method means the concept should be at the forefront of every task, idea, and solution, every step of the way. The LCI Congress highlighted this for me as a basic mindset switch: Lean is philosophy, not digital programs, funny names, or the endless list of acronyms that I had been using.

When I went through my Lean training it was very eye opening to go from focusing on details and tools to  talking about bigger concepts and ideas. We often see people who claim to be too busy to make an improvement, even if they know it will make things better. How many people have walked into a grocery store convinced they don’t need a cart, then halfway through realize their error and instead of stopping and getting a cart just push through because they don’t want to “waste” time going back? By the time they fumble their way to the register with a half frozen arm and having picked up the same item five times, they acknowledge how much time and energy they actually wasted. What I learned at LCI is that Lean is not just about fixing a problem the next time, but instead having the courage to pull that Andon cord anytime in any task and implement an improvement right then. It’s about taking the ownership of all problems and applying the resources to allow it to be improved. 

Lean is a mindset change. It sounds simple, but unfortunately it is often easier to teach people how to do something than it is to change the way they think. From what I learned at LCI Congress, it seemed like this was a huge reason why maintenance of a Lean culture seems to fizzle out or only exist within a specific project.

Getting Buy-In is the Most Important Step

“Why can’t I get buy in from trade partners?"

"How do I implement Lean in my company?"

"These project owners just don’t understand!"

"We started off good but no one cares now…” 

In my short time at the LCI Congress I heard probably a couple dozen stories of people and projects that had these same obstacles in trying to implement Lean. Struggles of a company trying to be committed but their own field management refused or sabotaged the effort. Contractors who are hired for their Lean experience, but thwarted by an owner who runs the job in a traditional way, keeps the designers isolated, and doesn’t trust anyone. 

Implementing Lean and then sustaining it is very hard when you don’t have the buy-in and the appropriate behaviors from those who are supposed to be your partners. This was a lesson I didn’t even realize I was learning on my first job with Herrero. But by staying committed and changing my mindset, I learned I could re-work the problem. If trade partners won’t buy-in, then I must find a way to provide examples or incentives so they can see on their own that there is value.

If you want to implement something in your company, then lead by example and start doing it and showcasing it yourself. If a project owner doesn’t buy into the team approach, then 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 well, then introduce more concepts and ideas to keep the creative energies rolling. Lean is about removing the obstacles in your path, not just working around them. These were all ideas discussed during my experience at the Congress. 

Back to the beginning...

Everyone understands that none of the above means anything without getting our projects done and without our companies making money. The Congress itself is a time and financial commitment. What LCI helped teach me, however, is the value gained by spending time to improve ourselves. It showed me that I can always be the voice to remind someone to grab that cart before entering the store, that not only is it ok to pause the workflow and ask “is there a better way to do this?”, but that it is usually faster in the end to slow down or stop to make a correction. The 1,500 attendees at the LCI Congress who took the better part of a week out of their busy schedules to attend remind me of the value in taking a step back and investing in yourself, your project, or your company to be able to better move forward. Just like the lumberjack who takes the time to sharpen his blade - he will always surpass the ones who “don’t have the time to improve.”

This brings me back to the beginning of my journey. When I arrived in Texas, I had some vague idea of what the LCI Congress would be, but by the time I was on the train back to the airport I realized I hadn’t had a clue. If you ever have the chance to go, understand that you are just one of thousands who are there to learn and to share their knowledge. You are surrounded by people who understand that the more people who have access to these ideas and trainings, the better our industry as a whole will be. This isn’t some exclusive club with limited membership. It isn’t some pyramid scheme where the last ones on the bus only feed those who signed up early. It is an event for those passionate about making the construction world better and about building collaborative symbiotic work spaces. 

Perhaps the most important lesson is that it’s never too late to jump onboard. You will never be too experienced and it doesn’t matter how you or your company does things now. Once you truly realize this you will see that you are never too busy to learn and think Lean.

For those who are new to Lean, here are some ideas and terms I wish I had a better understanding of before signing up for LCI Congress: Last Planner System, Pull planning, 5S, Toyota Production System (TPS), 8 forms of waste, Andon cord, Gemba walks, Scrum, Visual Decision Plotter, Rocks in the Road, Choosing by Advantages (CBA), A3 reports, Value, Flow, Takt planning, and Plan-Do-Check-Adjust.

This article was originally published in an edited version on LCI's Blog, Lean Buzz. (Lean Construction is a Mindset, not a Toolset: when I went to the LCI Congress for the first time)

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