Leaning in Together – A General Contractor’s and Structural Engineering Firm’s Growth in Lean Together

By Alex Hesse and Alex Gregory 

Encourage collaboration, curiosity, patience, and positivity within your organization. Allowing for people to have this space, rather than constantly dealing with the problem at hand, results in more productive discussions that often result in small incremental changes.

Many organizations have stories of implementing a new process or tools within their organization, to then revert to their old way of doing things only because instantaneous results were not achieved. What these organizations may not realize is while new tools are great and can be wildly effective, they are nothing without the correct mindset. Until an organization has a culture that promotes improvement, optimization, and respect for people, the tools will at best result in minor improvements and at worst spoil people’s impression of the tool and revert to the “old way”. The following is a story of how GH Phipps, a general contractor, and KL&A, a structural engineering and steel construction firm, grew together to develop the right mindset over the last 20 years.

Both of our stories begin in the early 2000s in a comparable way but on separate paths. Each of our organizations had a small group of people that had early exposure to lean concepts and tools. GH Phipps began training and experimenting with Study Action Teams, Last Planner System, and creating the internal drive to make it a sustainable change. KL&A was founded on the principle of integrated design and construction and started using the Last Planner System in Design early after their founding. Both small groups excitedly brought these ideas back to their organizations and tried incorporating them into our internal processes. These tools only gave our organizations modest improvements, however. What these tools did do, though, was provide an appetite of learning and provided exposure to a like minded community.

Soon after each of our organizations got exposure to the lean community, our paths started to intertwine. Through these interactions, we soon became trusted industry partners and began to share ideas through focused and intentional interactions that were heightened by the organizations’ roles together on several prominent projects, including an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD)-lite project for a new sports facility. We also both had representatives on the newly formed Lean Construction Institute’s Colorado Community of Practice. Through these experiences and conversations, we learned that the secret to effective processes and projects is having the right mindset, not the right tool. Once a group has the correct mindset, the implementation of tools and processes becomes second nature and achieves the full potential of the tool.

All this exposure, learning, and knowledge sharing led us to working together on a multi-party agreement (MPA) IPD project north of Denver starting in the winter of 2017. During this project, we were able to leverage our organizational relationship and knowledge of improved mindset to become leaders on the project. This allowed us to implement high performing team training with all the signatories to the MPA. This training helped set a baseline on the expected behaviors and allowed us to hold each other accountable on the expected mindset the team should have. Through ours and other MPA partners’ leadership and guidance on this project, we were able to effectively implement Target Value Delivery and the Last Planner System. The success of these tools was largely due to the collaborative mindset of the project team.

After the completion of this project, we were able to bring back what we learned to our organizations to improve upon our internal cultures. We have focused on a “fix what bugs you” culture that emphasizes that small and incremental changes can result in significant improvements in the future. Both our organizations continue to work together to expand our toolboxes and improve our processes, such as Target Value Delivery, Lean Boards, Value Streaming, Coaching Systems, and Root Cause Analysis. Our organization’s paths have separated slightly but are still intertwined. We still work on projects together and rely on each other as trusted advisors.

We have learned over the last twenty plus years that it is the relationships that matter. So how can you start developing these relationships tomorrow? The first would be putting an emphasis on developing the internal relationships and culture, rather than tools. Know that no matter how much effort and buy-in to a specific tool an organization has, it will never be as effective as it could be with a weak culture. Encourage collaboration, curiosity, patience, and positivity within your organization. Allowing for people to have this space, rather than constantly dealing with the problem at hand, results in more productive discussions that often result in small incremental changes. Before you know it, these small changes can lead to big cultural impacts to the organization.

These organizational traits also allow for people to vet and implement a new tool and change it over time to meet specific project or organizational requirements. You should also know that your organization is not alone. There are plenty of like minded organizations out there that are willing to share different perspectives to promote growth. Look for specific people and organizations who can be trusted advisors that you can share ideas with. The more sharing we can do, the more growth you, your organization, and your industry will have.

Alex Hesse, Structural Engineer with KL&A, Inc. in Loveland, Colorado, brings a collaborative and integrated perspective to his projects. He has served on his local LCI Community of Practice and has presented at LCI Congress multiple times.

Alex Gregory is the Director of Preconstruction with GH Phipps in Denver, Colorado. Through his experience, he has gained a strong knowledge of lean tools and worked on multiple IPD and IPD Lite projects. He served several years on various LCI committees and has presented at LCI Congress multiple times.


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