A recap of Snips’ series on lean manufacturing: In the March issue, the importance of creating a whole lean company - not just implementing a few tools - was discussed.

In the May issue, the topic was how to develop a lean-education system.

In August it was lean measurement. It’s now time to address the systems and processes that need to align with your lean implementation strategy.

Disconnects between where you want to go - lean - and the internal “structures,” such as systems, policies, procedures and processes will sink your lean initiative and any success will be very short lived.

Lean thinking is a behavioral change for a company and the company’s culture is influenced and dictated by its systems and polices.


Water what you want to grow.

If you live in the desert, to grow anything green or colorful you must water it very frequently. The same goes for companies with behaviors leaders want to change or maintain. You must encourage the behaviors you want to flourish and weed out the undesired ones. For example, if you want the key lean attribute “teamwork,” you cannot reward project managers who are mavericks. Even if they are successful on profitable projects, if they do not work as a team, it sends mixed messages.

Managers must walk the talk.

You must follow the same systems and procedures you expect your employees to follow. One engineer design manager said that his team must use the Five S at their workstations. They started doing them and got rid of a ton of unneeded reports and old designs. They organized their desks so files and reference material were easy to find.

However, the manager who insisted on Five S was always too busy to do the same to his own work area. When his employees walked by his office and saw the unchanging clutter and disorganization, they lost interest and commitment in keeping their own area clutter free. They failed at the fifth “S”: self-discipline. Don’t ask them to be lean if you are not willing to do the same.

Methods and procedures are mostly guidelines and should be improved.

Most processes and systems are set up to help perform work better. Employees need to be trained to follow all existing procedures and yet be willing to question them at the same time. Asking questions is healthy and demonstrates a lean-thinking culture. When anyone questions the applicability or effectiveness of a system or method, supervision should not become defensive and punish the employee who raises the question. Instead, supervision should listen to the employee question and work with them to try and find an improved way.

Employees may not understand why requirements are the way they are, but they often see the barriers that keep them from doing a good job.

Support functions need to support field installation.

While to some this may seem obvious, it is often not done. The No. 1 priority in managing construction work is to keep the crews working. Any time they wait is waste. Of course they must be safe and productive, but they need to be installing so you can complete the job and get paid.

Support functions such as shop, warehousing, tools and equipment, delivery, payroll, purchasing, etc., have a job to do, too - in support of the crews. They should never do anything that creates less work for themselves but more non-install work for the crews.

For most companies, the systems that must be aligned with a lean strategy include:

• Performance standards, employee performance reviews and how compensation and incentives are determined.

• Hiring and employee development.

• Generation and implementation of improvement ideas.

• Layoffs. In construction, people are let go as jobs are finished, but lean contractors will work to grow the business and minimize this impact on the workers. Even more, there should be a policy of no layoffs because of any lean improvements.

• Job-scheduling process, including the software. Lean does not eliminate the need for scheduling but the Lean Construction Institute’s Last Planner System will change how it is done.

• Contracts with general and other subcontractors. Dysfunctional behaviors on jobs are often encouraged by current contracts. To get everyone to focus on flow and reliability, contracts need to be re-examined and written to encourage teamwork and continuous improvement.

• Other systems that impact fabrication and installation processes such as estimating, turnover meetings, material procurements, material delivery schedules and material stocking and inventory controls.

How to do it

A good approach to improving the systems and methods is to keep all policies and procedures the same when you start implementing lean. React to, explore or change them as hot spots happen. This is easy to apply since little is done initially. The main problem is recognizing problems soon enough to avoid major damage and discouragement.

The better approach is to have the company’s lean implementation team identify possible policies, procedures or system problems early in the implementation process. This group will prioritize the list and design and deploy changes. This approach is more proactive than waiting for problems to surface.

Perhaps the best approach is for a designated lean implementation sub-team to do a systematic review of all key systems and processes. This team needs to be run by a key senior manager and include representatives from both field and support supervision and front line employees. The sub-team will not just look at areas they think need addressing, but will review all key processes against criteria to test its alignment with lean. To do this, the members need to be well trained in lean principles and the tools the company is using. This approach takes longer to complete but will also create more complete lean-friendly systems and procedures. The company’s structure will truly follow the lean strategy.

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.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.