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Steel and Sticky Notes Part 2: Lean, Scrum, and a Priority Culture 

Set of tools, pen, and sticky note over a wood background.With its focus on delivering value, process efficiency, built-in quality, and reduction of waste, Lean Thinking, and its derivatives are starting to make an impact on the Design and Construction industry. It’s easy to see why. Lean leads to building better, faster, and less expensive projects. This means happier customers and better profits.

But think about this fact – and yes, it is a fact. 

The average tool time on job sites still hovers stubbornly around 25%-35%.  

You don’t need to be a mathematician to see how much time is not being spent building the project. 

Similarly, you don’t need to be an expert in Lean Construction or Lean Thinking to see just how much process efficiency can be increased and how much waste can be cut. 

Lean is great and should be used – but it only gets you so far. To achieve more, you need to approach every aspect of Design and Construction with something that accelerates Lean and goes even further. 

Lean is one of the foundations of the Scrum framework. Scrum stands on the shoulders of Lean to help companies and teams achieve more, innovate, deliver. 

Your Structure is Your Culture

Many modern Design and Construction job sites are a masterclass in hierarchies, no matter the phase they’re in. And I’m not just talking siloed skillsets and trades. Nor am I ignoring regulations, Unions, and compliance.  

I’m acknowledging that there can be hierarchies within each of the individual trades, hierarchies in seniority, or purpose, or job to do. They’re rigid, and they’re everywhere. 

Yes, that’s the way it has always been. And that is the problem. Scrum Inc. CEO JJ Sutherland nails it in this section of The Scrum Fieldbook:

“Your structure is your cul­ture. And your culture defines your limits. A rigid structure be­gets a rigid cultural and product architecture. It makes change dramatically more difficult. That’s true at the Team level, but it’s even truer and more important at the organizational level.”

What JJ is describing is better known as Conway’s Law, penned by Melvin Conway back in 1968. Like Scrum itself, Conway’s Law may have started in software, but it has been widely embraced as universal. Change the structure of the system and you will change the culture. True in any organization, any industry.  

Consider this common construction scenario; when a carpenter drops a nail on a job site, who picks it up? Likely it will sit there until a laborer comes around to clean up. 

Why does that matter? 

If you structure your job site with such strict hierarchies that it’s easier to say “that’s not my job” than it is to get the job done – you have a problem. Actually more than one. 

Construction workspaceTradespeople, no matter their field, take great pride in their work. They’ve taken years, sometimes decades, mastering their craft. They want to take part in creating the extraordinary. They need to be empowered to achieve. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink identifies three intrinsic motivators; Autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Additionally, you’ll establish a culture that looks at 25% - 35% average tool time as being good enough. Your costs will remain high, your profits low, and your ability to inspect, adapt, and change won’t exist. 

To be clear, I’m not saying you should have your plumbing teams working electrical or a CAD expert pouring foundations. Skillsets are real, quality is key, and regulations are clear. 

What I am saying is you must create a structure – and therefore culture – focused on achieving the priority and working together to do so. It seems like common sense - and it is - but so is creating an inclusive culture, something that also can be lacking on job sites. (Spoiler alert - inclusive means bringing Unions into the conversation. More on that in a future blog.)

A point easily illustrated back at the McCarthy construction site in Sacramento, CA I introduced in the first piece in this series.  

Removing Impediments to Achieve Priorities

Scrum thrives in the realm of the complex. Scrum addresses what Lean alone does not - addressing the complex work in addition to the complicated work. Without addressing complexity, there will continue to be problems for Lean Thinking in the Construction industry. 

Think about something like the weather. 

While I was visiting the future home of the Ernest E. Tschannen Eye Institute, mother nature threw Lean Thinking a curve. 

 Structural steel was ready for treatment with spray-on fire protection. But it was a cold day, and the temperature of the steel was too low for the spraying to take place. 

The Fire Inspector was there, the workers were ready, but this work couldn’t proceed because the steel temperature was too low. The delays could have taken days. The trade partners could have been stuck doing non-critical work to achieve the week’s goals or being sent home without pay. And, this kind of delay of work in place hurts the bottom line of contractors and subcontractors alike.  

The Project Superintendent, Casey Cowan has a point of creating higher-performing, diverse teams and a structure that values achieving the priority and maintaining or improving quality. Project Engineer Erika Sullivan of McCarthy

The culture of this job site mirrors these values. 

Project Engineer Erika Sullivan is proof. I first met her when she conducted the extensive safety orientation found at every McCarthy job site. 

She, like Cowan and many others, is an active participant in all the Scrum events. 

Collectively, they know the cost of delay, dependencies, and what any impediments will do to their backlog. 

Sullivan and Cowan quickly grabbed the Fire Inspector and discussed their options. They took stock of the complexity and created a plan to adapt. They embodied what Lean and Scrum bring together to construction; eliminate waste, collaborate, ideation, and Owner feedback. 

Cowan brought in the necessary equipment to raise the temperature of the steel. The Owner Representative, Tyler Slothower, worked in partnership with Cowan to make it all happen.   

The team soon discovered a second impediment that would again delay the fire treatment. The exterior condition of the steel’s surface also needed to be conditioned. Sullivan grabbed a box of sandpaper and started scrubbing the steal to bring its surface temperature up to code. The inspector approved. 

Others, seeing what Sullivan was doing quickly joined. This is a concept the Scrum community calls swarming.

Taken as a whole, this example shows how Scrum and Lean work together to decrease the time it takes to decide and act (also known as decision latency), waste, breaking down silos, and creating a culture that adapts and overcomes instead of hitting the pause button. Delays mean lost revenue and unhappy workers and owners. 

Delays are not inevitable. How we approach the root cause of each delay defines how well we work. 

The hierarchies could have easily taken hold. But here the structure and culture are focused on achieving what must be done – the priority – for the project. 

And they managed to decrease the unavoidable delay to hours instead of days. That’s real money in Design and Construction.

When you empower a culture dedicated to delivering value and quality and can do it fast, that is a competitive advantage that will dominate any industry.  

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