Managing projects is all about communications. Leadership is all about communicating.

Leaders may define a vision for their company but if they don’t effectively communicate that vision, it will never happen. Implementing lean is the same. It cannot be done as instant pudding - mixed, served and eaten all in one sitting. It is a journey requiring great leadership and much communication.

Employees need to “buy in” to change and implementing lean is a big change for almost every contractor. To gain support, employees need to know why implementing lean is important. They need to hear the message many times so that it sinks deep into their thoughts.

A compelling story is needed to explain the reasons for implementing lean. Jim Womack, co-author of Lean Thinking and a leading lean-manufacturing expert, says to successfully implement lean, there needs to be a sense of urgency. The compelling story should include this sense of urgency in a way that connects with the employees.

The reason for implementation is not because we need it. Lean is not an end unto itself. The reason for implementing lean should tie to the company’s vision or purpose for existing.

Employees will see lean as the “flavor of the month” if they don’t understand how it fits into the bigger picture for the company.

Stay on message

Research shows that most executives under-communicate important “change” messages to employees by a factor of 10. The message needs to be said often and in many ways. When managers are tired of giving the message is when it is actually beginning to be heard.

A good approach to communicating the lean initiative is for the senior manager, CEO or president to issue a memo and follow it up with an in-person speech to small groups of employees.  Employees will listen to the top leader.

A good approach is for the executive management team to create a brief “stump speech” explaining why lean is important to the company and how it is being implemented. They would give this speech as often as the opportunity presents itself. The basic points of the speech would be constant, but executives would be free to tell it in their own way. When employees hear the same message from many managers, they begin to see it as being more important.

The better approach would include several messages from the president or CEO in the company newsletter on the progress of the lean initiative. This newsletter would also include lean success stories and recognition of individuals who have contributed to this success.

The best approach is for the executive management team to design a “road show” to be given to all departments and branches in the company. This presentation would be very clear and concise in explaining the why, what and how of lean as it relates to the company. Specific goals and actions would be spelled out. The executives as a team would give the presentation in formal settings to all employees. The road show would then be followed by the stump speeches. Quarterly updates would be made in formal all-hands meetings. Lean implementation would be second only to safety on all meeting agendas.


Lean is about visual communications. Graphs and pictures showing progress should be posted on communication boards around the company. Executives would visit pilot projects to review status and make sure roadblocks are removed. The company would also communicate through all internal communication methods typically used, which may include Intranet, “toolbox talks,” newsletters, e-mail messages, letters to homes, paycheck stuffers, etc. Employees would hear the message frequently and from several sources.

Communications is not a one-shoe-fits-all approach. There needs to be a variety of methods to reach all employees. One of the best tools is creating a matrix that lists the target audiences and key messages and how each will be communicated.

It is important to communicate your company’s lean commitment to your customers, partners (other trades) and subcontractors, but don’t brag until you are doing it successfully.

Lean is challenging conventional beliefs, including how people communicate to each other and how they do their work. Without challenge there will be no change, and without change there can be no improvement.

Lean is about experimentation. Try new approaches or you’ll never know if it works. Not all of the lean tools in construction or other industries have been thought of yet. This also means there needs to be a tolerance for failure. Not every experiment works. Much can be learned from failures. Improvement efforts and experimentation requires patience. Leaders need to show patience in all their behaviors.

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 or at (480) 835-1185.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail