Common Misconceptions Construction Managers have about Lean

Of course this could work if every job we did was the same, you know, like they have in manufacturing, but all our projects are different” —   A.Projectmanager

“Well you know, we have lots of peaks and troughs in our workload, feast and famine, sometimes we don’t have enough staff and other times there is not enough to do and we have guys sitting around, I can see how this lean stuff might work when you have a predictable workload, but it wouldn’t work here” —– A.Director

These are the kind of statements we hear all the time and are representative of some of the most common misconceptions about lean thinking.

In construction, there appears to be a perception that all manufacturing is lean. Also that manufacturing is totally predictable and simple, with essentially identical repetitive tasks taking place and so “of course you could do lean” under these circumstances.

Lets look at some of these common perceptions surrounding lean, manufacturing and construction.

Perception 1.

Manufacturing is Lean.

Wrong! – should read:- Some exemplars in the manufacturing sector are Lean but there are very many companies that are far from it!


Perception 2.

Manufacturing is simple compared to construction

I once visited Rolls Royce in Glasgow. This factory makes a few rubber seals and some small high tech pieces of metal called stators that form the outer ring of a jet engine. The factory is about a mile long and contains machines as big as houses, all very high tech. The startling fact is that this is only one of seven factories across the UK that are needed to make just a jet engine, let alone the rest of an airliner. – Really simple then!


Perception 3.

Offsite is lean isn’t it?

Oh no it isn’t! – it just happens somewhere else!


Perception 4.

Lean means doing BIM doesn’t it?

Well it depends what BIM is nowadays. It started off as 3D cad. Well it’s certainly lean to be able to visualise process. However there were exemplars of lean in existence in the 1980’s, about the era of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, so no 3D cad back then. The new PAS 1192 calls for collaboration and joined up thinking in the design process and this is BIM. Isn’t this evident in a lean organisation anyway? Trying to mandate collaboration may be akin to herding cats.


Perception 5.

Lean doesn’t suit bespoke projects like ours.

This is maybe one of the most prevalent. The idea that lean will only work when you have stable and repeatable tasks that is. Actually the opposite is true. The real key to lean is flexibility and the ability to adjust very quickly to changing conditions. This includes being able to easily flex the workforce by 30% to cope with varying demand, multi-skilling, having processes that are transparent and visually managed so that the thread can easily be picked up by a colleague or anyone else involved when necessary.

Leadership and Management – Which one is more important in a lean construction?

Is there a difference between leadership and management? Many will say “yes, huge difference”, if so, why do most lean construction improvement projects lose momentum, not follow through, not achieve longer term benefits or sustain changes? According to a McKinsey report, 70% change programmes fail in some way.

Good leadership is required on all levels. But what differentiates leading from managing? A few collated answers from companies and peers clears the picture and stimulates personal debate on whether we, as individuals or companies, are managers or leaders, a bit of both or more so one than the other?

  • Managers have subordinates while a leader have followers (following being a voluntary action)
  • Leaders have vision while managers have objectives
  • Leaders gets followers to transcend self-interest for the sake of the team while managers is responsive to immediate “self-interest” (immediate dept/project/activities) if it can be met by getting the work done
  • Leaders seek change while managers seek stability
  • Leaders pave the way and sets directions while managers plans details
  • Leaders facilitates decisions while managers makes them
  • Leaders sells and induce actions while managers tell

Many people lead and manage at the same time. Leadership alone without good management will not help achieve the vision. Good management alone only allows achievement of established objectives. In the era of true innovation, only companies with a balanced proportion of good leadership and good management will be able to truly differentiate themselves in the industry.

6ix has and is now working with hundreds of companies and projects. With increasing demand for lean thinking in the industry, we can now, to put it bluntly, identify the wheat from the chaff. With experience we are now able to identify companies that have leadership and management, lacks leadership but have good management, have leadership but lacks good management, lacks leadership and lacks good management (with variable gradient dependent on company as a whole or individuals). So, what makes a good company (macro view) or project (micro view)?

We want and need leadership qualities in all levels of the company. Most people when asked who the leaders are, more often than not the reply will be “higher ranking” people, not understanding that we are all leaders individually on all levels. From a simplistic point of view, we need leadership from Director level to make decisions to implementing change, we need leadership in upper and middle management to pave the way to make changes and we need leadership in lower management to sell and action the changes. We need the people we come into contact with during activities, whether it’s business or construction processes, to have the vision, to facilitate decisions, to set directions, to seek change, to challenge or sell ideas and close actions i.e. lean doing. Lacking in good management? No problem, we have tools and techniques for that. Leadership however, requires fostering. The culture of the company and its supply chain, is dictated by the people working within it. Leadership is borne from individuals at all levels.

01/00/1998. File pictures of Mahatma Gandhi

“We must become the change we want to see” – Gandhi.

In a nutshell, good management is good enough for short-term gains but leadership is critical to longer-term sustainability of improvement and change. Most of us (the managers in us) believe we already “are the change”, we already “are good leaders”. Hence critical self-analysis is vital to continually moving us from good managers to great leaders with good management skills.