Clay Harrison, Lean Construction

The Zweig Letter: Tell a Story, Build a Better Project

June 1, 2020

By Clay Harrison

The next time you have a critical project or important concept to communicate, forget the jargon and consider telling a story.

Since biblical times, when parables communicated religious philosophy, stories have been used to engage audiences and help them comprehend even the most difficult or esoteric of concepts. More recently, fables have been used to communicate management principles. For example, The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt, uses the story of a manufacturing plant manager to teach about strategic capacity planning and constraint management. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, tells of another fictional company as a way to learn about work team dynamics and improving team performance.

For decades, Lean principles have been used in manufacturing to minimize waste, improve operations, and enhance productivity. Lean has also been applied in construction, but often less successfully and to a much lesser extent than in manufacturing and other industries. One reason Lean has seen more limited adoption in construction is because the effort typically initiates at the top of the organization chart, via the executive leadership team, and then filters down into the field where front-line practitioners (superintendents, foremen, tradespeople) do the tangible work of construction. In the face of pressing project deadlines and competing priorities, this information can feel intimidating, overwhelming, and easy to ignore in favor of what’s already known and comfortable. Also, the value of Lean practices is often inarticulately or ineffectively conveyed, and superintendents can find it difficult to connect the dots from academic, theoretical Lean philosophies to the immediate relevancy in their daily work.

Recently, one of my colleagues at Skiles Group, COO Keyan Zandy, partnered with another construction professional, Joe Donarumo of Linbeck, on a project that uses the age-old technique of storytelling to make Lean principles and practices relevant to those in the field. The Lean Builder: A Builder’s Guide to Applying Lean Tools in the Field tells the story of Sam Brooks, a young construction superintendent who has been given responsibility for the largest and most complicated project of his career. Through different events and stories, Sam’s friend, mentor, and co-worker Alan Phillips shares his experience and knowledge of Lean construction tools and processes to help Sam learn how to improve the performance of his project. In the novel, Zandy and Donarumo use real-world scenarios to teach core Lean principles, including:

  1. Daily huddles
  2. Visual communication
  3. The eight wastes (through the lens of a construction project)
  4. Constraint management
  5. Pull planning
  6. Last planner system and look-ahead
  7. Root cause analysis through percent plan complete

The secret to The Lean Builder’s effectiveness in communicating these somewhat esoteric concepts is that it uses language and situations with which the “boots on the ground” – onsite construction superintendents, foremen, and tradesmen – would be familiar. As opposed to a dry instruction manual of Lean concepts, Zandy and Donarumo distill down Lean construction theory into an engaging, easy-to-read story that delivers practical, usable tools. In addition, they recognize the importance of field personnel developing a holistic understanding of Lean – starting with “why” and ending with “how” – thus they provide a true bottom-up version of Lean construction, enabling Last Planners (the people on a construction team responsible for making the final assignment of work to specific performers) to learn how to make immediate changes and transform their projects.

Why use creative storytelling to communicate a concept like Lean? Because the real-world impact on your projects can be substantial. For example, Skiles Group implemented the practices outlined in The Lean Builder on a very complicated vertical expansion of an existing hospital, Methodist Richardson in Richardson, Texas. The application of Lean construction techniques enabled the team to complete the hospital expansion project 75 days early, 10 percent under budget, and with no man hours lost due to injury. Those kinds of numbers translated directly to the bottom line and would not have been possible without front line workers having a real-world, intuitive understanding of how to use Lean each and every day.

So, the next time you have a critical project or important concept to communicate, forget the jargon and consider telling a story. You might just be surprised at how much more effective and impactful you are in getting your point across.

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Originally published by The Zweig Letter; you can read it here: