3 Keys to Learning Lean Practices for Continuous Improvement

Highlights from the Lean Coaching Summit keynote address.

In his keynote address at the recent 2018 Lean Coaching Summit in Seattle, Charles F. Murphy, senior vice president of the New York business unit of Turner Construction Company, discussed why Turner Construction Company and he personally have begun a lean transformational change. The New York business unit has more than 1,300 employees and will complete $2.5 billion of construction in 2018. My company, Lean Project Consulting, Inc., has done work for Turner in the past.

Turner began their lean transformation several years ago, with a mandate that project teams use the Last Planner® System and other lean practices on project sites. While this field-based implementation continues today, Murphy’s address focused on the more recent work at the senior management levels of the company. He discussed three major themes.

  1. It is important to learn lean practices as a group. Murphy is part of a group of ten people that began the initial senior level of coaching. Learning as a group allows people to share insights, ideas and struggles and enhances the experience of learning.
  2. Coaching is important in learning the lean approach to problem solving. Murphy and others are learning the A3 Problem Solving approach developed at Toyota and used in organizations around the world. Coaches from the Lean Enterprise Institute are guiding this learning.
  3. There is a time to teach, a time to coach, and a time to direct. Coaching enhances learning by focusing the learner on developing understanding rather than consuming information through a pure teaching process. While learning through coaching is emphasized in a lean organization, Murphy stressed that there will be times when a leader simply must provide answers through teaching, or when necessary, give a directive. The latter is most necessary when time pressures or safety is a concern.

As Murphy and his colleagues continue their lean development, a second wave of 60 Turner leaders is beginning a development program. The expectation is that this group will develop the capability to ultimately spread internal coaching practices to directly support all 1,300 New York area employees.

Murphy was invited to speak at the coaching summit to people working in several different industries because the lean transformation approach taken by Turner is a model recommended to all organizations. Too often, coaches are exclusively outside consultants or internal departments and not the managers of people doing the principal work of the organization. In a lean organization, it is the main job of a manager to coach and develop the people for which they are responsible.

Turner’s focus on learning problem solving as a coaching practice stems from an emphasis in lean on continuous improvement. Recognizing a gap between the present condition and a desired condition facilitates continuous improvement. Once the gap is revealed, the A3 Problem Solving process comes into play. It’s a methodical approach to determining what more needs to be learned, understanding the causes of the gap, developing ideas about how to close the gap, and then making and executing a plan for testing those ideas.

Companies that practice this approach to problem solving-based coaching show remarkable gains in productivity and employee engagement. That these practices are making their way into the construction industry is an encouraging sign that companies can retain their vitality even with a shrinking labor pool.

 

Tom Richert is a Principal with Lean Project Consulting, Inc., a consulting practice dedicated to improving the experience of project work. He is a project and enterprise leadership transformation coach who began his career working on both design and construction teams in the building industry, managing the development of projects in the educational, commercial, entertainment, and infrastructure sectors. Tom began his work with lean practices in 1999, and has presented and taught workshops at national Lean Construction Institute (LCI) conferences. He is the author of a book, “Lean Conversations,” and will be leading a lean coaching workshop at the October 2018 LCI conference in Orlando.