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My name is George Zettel, and I’m with Turner Construction. I’ve been with Turner for 16 years. I started my Lean journey in Turner in 2004. I had the opportunity to get coached by some of the best leaders in the lean construction industry; Greg Howell, Glen Ballard, Roberto Charron, Hal Macomber, John Draper, and Kristin Hill, and I worked alongside some of the very early adopters of Lean who worked as owners, architects, engineers, trade contractors, suppliers, and other general contractors.

I was privileged to have a coach like Roberto Charron who worked with me on multiple projects where I was able to observe how he helped others understand how to apply Lean in their daily work. Roberto and my other coaches helped me adjust my approach to things including my observation and my perception of what Lean was and how we could use it to help our teams.


Here’s one interesting story about Lean, I was working on a project in Southern California, the Temecula hospital project, and we were working very hard to improve our team’s productivity. One of the ideas that came to me was the use of “Ohno circles” or what we now call “observation circles”. It was very powerful because we got to work one on one with the trade Foreman. The first trade foreman I worked with was Larry from the framing contractor and we went out to the job and I asked him to just stand with me for 15 minutes while we observed his crew. Larry was very nervous at first. He goes “You know, I’m not sure I can stand still for that long”. So, we went out and watched his crew doing layout and it wasn’t a minute after we started, he said “George, this is really hard. I can’t just stand still”. I said “Larry, just hang with me”, and so we were observing his crew doing layout and all the sudden I heard Larry say “Wow”. I asked him “what do you mean by ‘WoW’’. Larry goes “well if I wasn’t standing here, I wouldn’t see what I see”. I said, “So what do you see Larry?”. He said, “I see my crew walking back and forth and back and forth doing their layout going from the drawings to where they’re doing their layout, and that wasn’t our plan”. I said “Great. Well let’s just keep watching that and let’s see what else we observe”. At the end I asked Larry, “So what was the plan for your layout?”. “Well”, he said, “George, I was only asking our crew to do layout on one side of the corridor of the hospital, but they were working on both sides of the corridor, so they were doing a lot of walking. And it’s clear that I don’t have enough drawings available to them and they’re just doing a lot more walking than we had planned. I’m gonna go make that adjustment as soon as we’re done here”. So that’s one of the things that we use those observation circles for that job and soon Larry was coming to me and asking me if I would observe his crew doing various tasks or operations during the job. It became a way that we would do our work every day.


We’re trained as Turner staff to do these observation circles so that we can help each other look for things that we might improve. The team completed the project in record time and the teams were all very productive and profitable and the customer got their hospital earlier than anticipated. So, it just that little example of applying lean principles was huge for that team, and we continue to do that today.





Have you performed any exercises using the Ohno circle?


  • To improve the productivity of a project, George had the idea to implement an observation circle.
  • The exercise was for trade foreman to stand in a circle and observe his crew for 15 minutes.
  • The value of observation circle became obvious – the foreman saw his crew walking back and forth and back and forth.
  • By finding things that should not be happening, simple and timely adjustments can be made for daily improvement.

How far along is the construction industry on our Lean journey? I would have to say that, because there are so many different companies, so many different specialists, so many different key stakeholders, that it’s anywhere between 5 and 10 percent.


It seems very slow because a lot of Lean journeys in the construction industry some of the earliest adopters were in the 1990s. And here we are 15 20 years later. We just celebrated the 20th meeting of the Lean construction Institute. Yet we still have so far to go. Advancing everyone everyday looking for any sources of waste and ways to improve the tasks in our industry whether it’s making decisions and concept definition by the customers to design to the permit agencies to implementing the construction and moving in. There’s still so much improvement that can be added.





How far along the Lean journey is the construction industry?


  • A best guess at the progress for the entire industry is between 5 and 10 percent.
  • Even 20 years after the first Lean construction meetings, there is so much more to do.

It’s really important for us to embrace Lean. Because our customers are not getting the full benefit of the skills and the services of our companies. I think if you look, there’s missed opportunities, and the waste in our industry causes people to spend more than their budgets, account for, and projects take longer. If we look at the communities we all live in the schools take longer and they’re spending more money. The hospitals take longer to build and cost more money which are all things that could go back into the community to provide better services, whether it’s education, health care or a thriving business or manufacturing industry. I think it’s vital that we apply Lean because we need to improve our communities and the services that go to the people in the communities and to our businesses.


How do we address so many competing agendas from different specialists or trade partners on a project?


I think focusing on the customer’s requirements are key. When everyone understands that a hospital will be able to serve more children or improve the quality of their health care, all those trades would focus on adding value to that community, and to the children served by that hospital. I think they all will be motivated by working in a way that’s different so that we can add more value to the customer.





How do we encourage teams to work together rather than completing agendas?


  • The key is to get everyone focusing on the customer’s requirements.
  • A good perspective would be knowing that adding value to the hospitals means they can in turn serve more children.

When I think about the challenge to a trade contractor running a business today, there are so many challenges with respect to staff, the number of staff, the qualification of staff, etc. When I look at what’s possible with Lean, you’re engaging the people in a way that improves their quality of life. There’re so many challenges for them just to get to work every morning, that what I’ve seen is that they enjoy work more. They can leave at a more reasonable time every day to be with their family and their friends and to do the things they enjoy outside of work. So, you’re actually improving the quality of life of all of your staff from the office staff, to field staff, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past in our industry.




What “one” Lean benefit can trade partners expect early on their journey?
  • Trade contractors have so many challenges related to running a business today.
  • The right way to implement Lean is to engage people in a way where you improve their quality of life.
  • The result is that they enjoy work more and are able to leave at a reasonable time every day.

One or two things that I would recommend a trade partner do: First, would be to spend more time at the job sites where the work is done or in the shops where the work is done and just observe. Look for ways to make the work easier and safer, with potentially higher quality. A lot of times the barriers that our staff have are things that we can easily adjust. As far as access to the materials or the resources they need. The second thing I would do is, I would really encourage trades to engage an expert and lean coach. There are so many of the highest performing trade contractors that we encounter that have made that investment and have seen huge improvements to the quality of life for their staff and especially after all that quality of life, they’ve removed waste and they improved productivity. It’s really this investment of coaching that gets to their bottom line and they feel more satisfied in their business and more successful in their business. So those would be the things that I would emphasize.





What one or two suggestions do you have for trade partners starting their Lean journey?


  • Number one is to spend more time at the job site or where work is being done.
  • Observe and see what you can do to make the work safer, easier and potentially of higher quality.
  • Number two would be to engage an expert Lean coach.
  • Trade partners who made this investment have gained the benefits of a higher quality of life and removed waste in the process.

Well I tell them lean is constantly looking at ways that we might improve something. I just try to keep it as simple as possible. How can they improve what they do every day? Whether it’s at their desk or whether it’s on a project. I just show them that there are likely wastes and that we should look for ways to remove those wastes and sort of simplify our process’.




How do you explain Lean to someone who does not know what it is?


  • I try to keep it as simple as possible by asking, “How can you improve what you do every day?”.
  • I show them that there is waste in what we do, and try to find a better, more simple way to do a process.

I would say that less than 5 percent of the trades understand the Last Planner® or are even aware of it. We see that percentage is growing a little bit. Yet it depends so much on every individual. So even when one trade contractor may be familiar with Last Planner® system, they may not have all of their staff exposed to using the Last Planner® system.


With that awareness starting to grow I think some of the challenges that we currently have is that some trades have been trained in a different manner of doing the Last Planner® system. We often need to make some adjustments in their understanding on the fundamentals and really dig deeper on why we use the Last Planner® system. We try to let them feel by doing some exercises. The difference of doing things the old school way versus the lean way with the Last Planner® system.





What percentage of trade partners coming onto a Turner job understand the Last Planner® system?


  • Less than 5% of the trade partners understand the Last Planner® system.
  • It also depends on the individual on that project.
  • The awareness of the Last Planner® system is starting to grow.
  • One challenge is that the Last Planner® system training is not consistent.
  • We also run them through exercises to emphasize how it feels doing it the old school way versus the Lean way.

I’ve seen a wide range of times and it really depends on how much time coaches and experts that have done the Last Planner® system, are spending with the teams. So I usually ask teams to give me two months so that we can see the benefit and start feeling the benefit. Soon they understand because they start seeing improvements in how they do work, and their plans and tasks start getting more reliable and begin seeing and feeling flow on the project.


I usually say please give me two months and then it usually takes another month or two before the entire team has some much better understanding of the Last Planner® system and can apply it. We continue to touch bases with them, but it takes about that much time for everyone to get a better understanding and to feel the difference that Last Planner® system has on their day to day.





How long does it take for the teams to work together and take advantage of the Last Planner® system?


  • There is a wide range of times and it really depends on how much coaching they get on the system.
  • They really start seeing the benefits after two months.
  • By then they start seeing and feeling the flow on the project.
  • Then it takes an additional two months for the entire team to have a much better understanding of the Last Planner® system.

We often start with some planning meetings so that we try to work hard to pick the right milestone that we’re going to create a plan for. One of the first things that we do in the Last Planner® system is hold a phase-pull planning meeting.


It takes a lot of preparation or “planning to plan”, so we do that as a company internally. Once we have a strategy for which milestone we’re going to do a plan for, then we agree on who what trades and what designers do we need present. Then we invite those people to a boot camp or some form of a kickoff meeting. In that kickoff meeting we explain the milestone that we’re going to plan. We describe what that milestone is and then we do some exercises that are important to understand why we’re doing the Last Planner® system. A lot of people are used to doing scheduling and planning in one particular way, so we want them to understand why we’re using the Last Planner® system.


We use two key exercises. The first is the parade of trades, and the parade of trades is often the aha moment where people understand why we’re using the Last Planner® system. Our business is filled with variation and unreliable tasks. When we manage our work so that we’re more reliable and we get rid of that variation, we get smooth flow and we can rely on each other to make handoffs of all this work on a reliable basis.


The parade of trades exercise was for me a real eye opener and an aha moment as to why we’re doing the Last Planner® system. I used to think that I needed to manage everything at every station or every operation faster, but that’s not what we learned in the parade or trades. We learn that it’s more important that we have reliable handoffs that things go smoothly. The other exercise we use in our boot camps is the wood block tower exercise and that just allows a very simple practice of what a pull plan is and how to do a pull plan. It helps people really understand how to fill out a tag. All the information that’s needed and they really come better prepared to do the pull plan. So that’s really part of our standard work for preparing for a phase-pull plan using that boot camp and these exercises.





What training does Turner do for the onboarding of trade partners?


  • Internally it is decided which milestone is going to be the focus for the phase-pull plan.
  • Key stakeholders for that particular milestone are invited to a boot camp meeting.
  • In that boot camp or kick-off meeting the milestone is described and the team takes part in some exercises.

Well what changes for the superintendent, if we think of the legacy in our industry, would be that “command and control”. Our superintendents are often found directing crews, directing the trade contractors to do some particular tasks at a specific time, in a specific location. And what we find now is that the superintendents find themselves able to coach and facilitate conversations with the trades so that we again work on this smooth flow concept. We had one of our superintendents who is recognized by his trades as being their teacher and coach. One of the big fundamental changes that we saw is that they were facilitating the work and facilitating conversations that were much clearer much better coordinated as a group. We say facilitated, because we’re asking the trades what works best for them. And we’re really trying to understand how to help them be successful. And so that conversation with a group of trades comes up with some pretty powerful ideas on how to coordinate their work and a much smoother way.





What are the changes Turner superintendents go through when performing work the Last Planner® Way?


  • The superintendents in the construction industry have operated under a command-and-control policy.
  • The superintendents used to tell the trade contractors what to do, where to do it, and by when.
  • Now…Turner’s superintendents coach and facilitate conversations with trade partners in an effort to create flow.
  • The work is much better coordinated as a result of this coaching and facilitating.

Yes, it is important, and we use a couple of different terms that may be easier to understand than takt. One is cadence, that there’s a cadence or we would say is a drumbeat of the job that each contractor is working in an area and then at the sound of the drum you know he’s done with his work and he or she can bring their crew to another area.


It’s important that there is some kind of rhythm to how work is completed in these, parade of trades that we call it. So, there’s this cadence or takt time. Where crews work from one area to another and it’s important that we define what those areas are and how long that’s going to take each trade in those areas. And what is the signal for another trade to move into that space. We work really hard. It doesn’t always happen this way, but we work really hard to find a way to have each area with one trade working in it. And then they can move out and never have to come back and another trade comes through. So, it is important that we’re clear about what direction we’re going, or what side of the room are we starting our operation on. Where do we want to exit the room and how does the work flow so that everyone is working on this flow and you start getting the momentum and you get a rhythm of a series of crews. That’s very powerful. One of our hospital projects we had a long corridor and it was powerful because we had this rhythm or cadence or takt, which you could see the flow where I was standing. We were painting some of the drywall in the hallway and as you look down the hallway you could see where we were installing the drywall and if you look further down the hallway you could see contractors installing conduit and wiring and further down the hallway you just saw studs and so you could see that the team was actually getting this flow happening down this corridor and nobody was walking back against the grain. Everything was moving in one direction, and it is very powerful to see that actually happening on a project.





Is it important that everyone remain focused on the takt schedule?


  • Another word for take is cadence or drumbeat of the job.
  • It is important to define the areas, the time each trade will take, and the signals to ensure they are done.
  • Great effort goes into defining areas in a way where a trade can complete work unobstructed.
  • When this is done right you can see evidence of this kind of flow being achieved by the teams.

Some of the obstacles that come up with flow is often a miscommunication or a miscue amongst the people that are working on the job. One example that I can think of is the delivery of materials. Someone may not have gotten a clear understanding of our expectations for delivery. They may deliver something that’s unscheduled, and oftentimes we accept the delivery which is one of the first things that we’re trying to resolve. So when there’s a unplanned delivery we reject it and make a new plan with the delivery of that material. Oftentimes you may have materials that are delivered and there’s no place to put it except in everyone else’s way. We take for granted the impact that putting that unplanned material in people’s way, how that has a huge effect on the flow of the work.




What obstacles surface when trying to create flow on the job?


  • An obstacle in they way of creating flow comes in the form of miscommunication.
  • One example is delivery of unscheduled materials on the jobsite.
  • These unscheduled deliveries – when accepted – usually end up being in everyone’s way.

One of the projects that I would say was a huge success is the Temecula hospital project. It had about one hundred and fifty patient rooms. It was close to 400000 square feet. And it had a construction value of about one hundred and ten million dollars. It was extremely successful and used am integrated form of agreement or the integrated project delivery style of contract. The amount of collaboration with the trades and all the designers, owner and users was such a high level. We’re applying lean principles from the time we started thinking about the concept of the hospital all the way to move in and then we deeply use the Last Planner® system as our mechanism to coordinate all our work. We just were able to get so much accomplished.


That particular project in that part of California would have been built for about six hundred dollars a square foot. We were able to deliver that project at about four hundred and fifty dollars a square foot. There was a significant improvement in the cost in that marketplace. The project was completed in 14 months instead of 18 months. I think it was a huge success.




Can you give us an idea of what a successful project looks like?


  • Temecula Valley Hospital used an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) type of construction.
  • The collaboration level was high right from the beginning.
  • Using the IFOA (Integrated Form of Agreement), Last Planner®, and all aspects of IPD/LEAN resulted in a 25% savings.
  • Having the hospital project completed 4 months ahead of schedule makes the project a huge success.

Things that could have gone better on the Temecula project would’ve included our measurement of production rates. We started measuring production rates after we had the steel erected and a lot of the framing and roughing was already completed. So, we certainly could have started applying the observation circles and the study of improving our activities and our tasks. We could have started that earlier in the project and on the next project with that client we were able to do that by starting with understanding the underground utility production rates and the steel erection production rate. So that was one thing that we felt could have been improved on Temecula and we were able to improve that on the Henderson Hospital.




What could have gone better on that job?


  • One improvement could have been to start measuring the production rates sooner.
  • This meant that the production rates for underground utility, steel needed to be understood and measured.
  • This improvement to the process was incorporated into the next hospital project.

What I’ve observed is some of these improvements is less wear and tear on the craft’s body and their alertness. They get more work done in the same amount of time. They may not be on their hands and knees in the course of the day. There’s so many observations that I’ve made where I see someone hunched over tool cart, reading drawings in a darkroom or I see people on their hands and knees where the task should be done on a bench or on raised chop saw. By leaving at a normal time during the day, people are not spending the entire evening in a hot tub because of the wear and tear that happens in the course of the day.





What other benefits do you see from implementing Lean that may not be so obvious?


  • Some Lean improvements end up being less wear-and-tear on the body of the crafts people.
  • Not only do they get more work done – their bodies are not compromised as much during the day.
  • This is in addition to people leaving at a normal time during the day.

I go back to the customers that we’re trying to provide our buildings for. And there’s a lot of needs in the community. So, I would say it just goes back to the realization of how important it is for projects to finish on time so that they can do their business whether it be educating kids or taking care of patients. It’s just very rewarding to know that we improved something in our community in a way that allowed them to provide their life-changing services. I would go back to one of the first jobs I applied the Last Planner® System on and we were building a medical office building in this part of the community that had not had women’s and children’s services in that near vicinity. Everyone was driving over a half an hour to get to their clinic and to see their doctors. And when we were able to finish this project two months earlier than anticipated that brought such satisfaction to our project team and to our customer and the nurses and doctors that were able to open up their services and provide their services and a whole much better way and much easier for the patients because they were so close to the clinic. That’s really what motivates me is to see these improvements happen so that somebody can do their service or provide their business in a community in a much better way and much sooner than anticipated.

What is behind your passion for Lean?


  • It’s about the customer being able to do what they do – educating children or taking care of patients as an example.
  • When projects deliver this kind of value and you can finish 2 months earlier, the entire team feels great satisfaction.