In a March article, we discussed the importance of creating a “lean” company and not just implementing a few “lean” tools.

Having figured out who will lead your efforts, one of the next critical questions to answer is: How will you educate everyone?

Skilled and engaged employees are critical to maintaining a competitive advantage in today’s tough market. Your employees are still the only resource you really have that your competition can’t duplicate. They may steal your employees from you, but they can’t clone them.

Consider the following principles as a foundation for answering this question in a lean way.

Remember that everyone is part of the company and all need to be educated about lean.

This may sound too simplistic, but often in construction not all employees are considered with the same priority. Sometimes only managers and supervisors are involved in learning sessions.

Frontline workers who do the install work may be excluded from any learning based on the false assumption that they are only there for the project and have little loyalty to the company.

Travelers are often treated as second-class employees. If an employee is doing work - install, shop, delivery, office, etc. - that employee needs to know about lean and why it is important to apply it.

While every employee needs to learn about lean, everyone does not need the same training at the same time.

Some may need to learn a little about lean, and then through on-the-job training learn how to apply the tools. Another employee may need to learn only one or two tools while others will learn many. The issue is not whom to educate but how much each should have and when.

Any education is most effective when applied soon after the learning experience.

Lean is no different. Teaching a tool that the employee will not use for years is of little value. Whatever the learning system used, it must include opportunities to try it.

When managers consider doing training, they often look at the costs.

Training is an investment - not an expense. There is a great difference in the two and how participants and sponsors perceive them. If one looks at the cost of education one must also consider the cost of not training, including the cost of learning by error and mistakes.

What should one include in lean education? There needs to be more than an introduction to some tools. Employees need to understand why doing it is important and some basic principles, including:

  • Value, as seen by the customer, and waste.
  • The meaning of the value stream
  • Why we want flow, and to avoid batch thinking
  • How pull works
  • Continuous improvement.

Tools that are most useful in construction to be taught include the Five S, the Lean Construction Institute’s Last Planner System, “Kaizen” events, value-stream analysis, quick-changeover techniques, “Kanban,” “spaghetti charts,” “muda walks,” rules of release, visual control techniques, and “Poka-Yoke.” See sidebar for definitions.

Besides lean principles and tools, there are some other areas relevant for employees to learn. One is problem solving. While most employees know how to solve problems - or they would probably not have a job - most do not know root-cause analysis and often solve symptoms, not causes.

Engaged workers

Another area is the importance of having engaged employees involved in improving processes and serving customers. Many tools will fail if the employees don’t want to apply them. Managers need to understand the importance of and how to keep employees engaged.

In designing the learning system for implementation, a good approach is for all employees to receive the same training. Many companies do this by running all employees through the same workshop or seminar. This gets everyone started on the same plane and does not discriminate by rank or type of work. In fact, it usually makes for a rich discussion in sessions that have a mixture of management, non-management, field, shop and support functions. A skilled trainer or lean consultant who understands the construction industry usually teaches the sessions.

A better investment of resources for educating employees on lean is to identify various groups of employees and target based on the needs of each group. A training matrix (see chart) often represents this approach.

While it takes more time to identify the needs of each group, it also pays dividends in making the learning experiences more meaningful to each participant. External experts or lean champions usually teach the sessions with the company.

The best approach is to build on the training matrix discussed previously and have most of the sessions taught by senior managers and experienced project managers. While it is easier to bring in a lean expert, having those who lead the company teach is much more effective.

This approach includes periodic assessment of the educational progress. Refresher courses may be taught annually.

Besides educating company employees at some point, the leaders will need to determine how to educate new employees as well as suppliers and subcontractors. In some cases, a supplier may already be involved in lean techniques and can assist in developing and delivering training.

Involving subcontractors early in the sessions can provide synergism for current or future projects. This is especially true in applying the Last Planner System (see chart) for a specific project. Having the project manager, all trades and subcontractors - even the owner’s construction manager or representative - learn how to apply the system can do much of what a partnering session does to create teamwork.

To just teach a few people or just a few tools will lead to limited success. The companies who are serious about becoming lean educate their employees in a systematic way to create lean thinkers, not robots.


Five S: The Five S system came from automaker Toyota. They are used to organize and visually control the workplace to eliminate waste. They stand for: sorting, simplifying, sweeping, standardizing and self-discipline. They eliminate many “treasure hunts” common to construction.

Kaizen event: A quick-hit method for lean process improvement, typically consisting of several days of intense training combined with immediate application of the concepts just taught to identify and eliminate waste. It takes place at the production work location.

Kanban: Japanese term meaning “a signboard.” A communication tool used in just-in-time production systems. The signal tells workers to pull parts or refill material to a certain quantity used in production.

Muda walk: “Muda” means waste and there are seven basic types of waste in doing work. A muda walk is where an observer, usually management, invests the time to go to the work area and look for waste. This differs from “management by walking around” (MBWA) because the observer would typically invest an hour or more observing just one area or function. MBWA is usually a quick walk through the entire operation. Detailed observation yields many improvement opportunities.

Poka-Yoke: A mistake-proofing method or device developed by Shigeo Shingo that is used to prevent an error or defect from happening or being passed on to the next operation.

Spaghetti chart: A physical map of the work area that shows the path taken by the specific product or a person being observed. A line is drawn from start to end indicating the path moved by the product or person.

Value-stream analysis: An evaluation of all the processes and activities used to design, produce and deliver the product or service to the customer. Each step is categorized into value added, non-valued added but necessary, or non-value-added and not necessary. Improvements are made by eliminating or changing any non-value-added activities.