Cigar-loving author Mark Twain is reported to have said, “Anyone can quit smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times.” Similarly, many people go on diets and lose some pounds but few are able to maintain the lower weight.

Lean construction is one of the hot ideas in the industry. Many sheet metal and HVAC contractors are starting to adapt some lean tools. If applied correctly, they will prove useful in reducing waste and improving productivity.

But just like many dieters and people who try to quit smoking, few contractors will be successful in maintaining the changes because they are doing it as a fad. For lean construction to be truly successful, it requires a cultural change in the company, not a few random uses.

Most serious discussions of lean lead back to automaker Toyota, considered one of the leaders in lean thinking. While Toyota never called its efforts “lean,” it has always taken a long-term view of how to keep its culture thinking that way. This approach is typically illustrated as a building. It’s often called the “Toyota way.”

The ‘Toyota way'

It includes people and teamwork as a main part of the building because a lean culture requires employees, partners, stakeholders and managers to trust and respect each other. The Toyota way is to engage the employees in continuous improvement by developing their skills and capabilities, by effective and frequent communications and by creating a shared vision and goals.

While it is not possible to copy Toyota’s Way exactly, much can be learned from it. For an excellent explanation, read Jeffrey Liker’s book, The Toyota Way.

Each company must integrate lean into its existing culture, changing what doesn’t fit and adapting what does.

Contractors that are serious about implementing and maintaining lean will develop their own answers to the following questions:

• Who will lead your lean efforts?

• How will you educate everyone?

• How will you measure success?

• What company systems and processes need to change to support lean?

• How will you sustain your efforts?

• How will you communicate these efforts?

This will serve as the start of several articles sharing good-better-best answers to each of these questions. Committed contactors will use the “Robin Hood” approach and take from what is shared to apply for their own lean efforts.

This is not a lean “program.” Like construction projects, programs have a start and end. Lean must be a journey. If employees view the efforts as the “flavor of the month,” they will resist the tools and behavior changes needed to ensure success.

Who will lead?

Before exploring various approaches to leading lean, some principles need to be understood.

To have a successful implementation, someone needs to “own” it, drive it and champion it. While doing lean is everyone’s job, nothing will progress without ownership.

With ownership must come capability and accountability. Many initiatives and programs fail because those responsible to implement it do not have the capability - leadership skills -  and the knowledge and the authority to make decisions and take action. Accountability comes when leaders must answer for their progress and approach. Even if they answer to themselves, they have to hold each other accountable.

You’ll find that middle management will often hold lean efforts hostage. In most organizations, senior management wants to see change and improvement and front-line workers crave opportunities to improve. It is the middle managers whom usually resist change the most. This is because they grew up watching how other managers became successful and now they are doing the same. Lean demands change and these middle managers don’t often see the change as part of their winning strategy.

Often middle managers will give lip service in support of implementation, but quietly undercut it in their own areas of responsibility. This makes it hard to see why the efforts are failing.

Three choices

There are good, better and best ways to lead lean implementation.

The “good” way is to designate a new position and title it lean manager or manager of lean implementation or something similar. This position would report monthly to a steering committee. Usually the person for this position will be an outsider with previous lean experience or an internal champion with great energy.

Some form of learning will be needed either way. If the person comes from outside the company, the learning must concentrate on the company’s culture and organization. It may also include learning about the sheet metal or HVAC industry.

If the selected manager comes from within the company, the learning will need to focus on lean principles and techniques. A budget and long-term expectations should be set prior to filling the position. By defining the position as a “manager,” it gives authority to take action, and reporting regularly to a steering team provides accountability.

A better approach would be to establish a lean implementation team led by a senior manager and staffed with members who are key leaders within the company. This gives more ownership to developing and implementing the initiatives, but takes longer to develop a strategy.

Since many of those assigned to the team will have little knowledge about lean manufacturing, there will need to be a large learning opportunity. Rather than send everyone to a class and assume it will be enough, a better approach is to have everyone go through some basic training supplemented by a learning experience.

Study required

This learning experience is often called a study-action team, where the team reads a good book on lean and meets regularly to discuss what was learned in each chapter. This implementation team would report progress monthly to the company’s executive team, giving accountability and allowing the executives to assist in addressing barriers.

However, possibly the best approach is for senior operations management to own implementation with help from support functions. The reason why this works best is because if operations management determines what to do, it will happen.

This takes even longer than the implementation-team approach and will require the same type of learning as the “better” approach. It will require support functions, especially for administrative work such as arranging for a training room, writing communication articles in the company newsletter or preparing manuals. This will also require senior managers to identify waste and take it out. Since senior operations managers are responsible for implementing the approach, they will be required to report monthly to the executive team.

Future articles will address the rest of the implementation questions.

Dennis Sowards is an industry consultant and author of the research book Thinking Lean - Tools for Decreasing Costs and Increasing Profits, funded and published by the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association-affiliated New Horizons Foundation. His company is Quality Support Services Inc. and he can be reached at dennis@YourQSS.com or at (480) 835-1185.