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Pam Best is a senior mechanical construction manager with Robins & Morton, a privately held construction firm based in Birmingham, Alabama. Pam joined Robins & Morton after 14 years as director of preconstruction services and senior project manager with MMC Contractors, where she led the mechanical and plumbing scopes of Robins & Morton hospital projects from inception to completion for more than 11 years.

Prior to her work with MMC Contractors, Pam was the chief MEPF system specialist with Linbeck Group. The foundational years of her career were spent in the design development group with The Emde Company and the engineering department at CRSS.

Pam has focused much of her career on the mechanical and plumbing systems for major hospitals because she cares deeply about making a difference for patients and their communities. Her progressively challenging roles provided a learning arc that perfectly equipped her to fulfill that passion.

With a portfolio that includes significant and prestigious projects in more than 20 states over 35 years, Pam is an expert in her field. She was a pioneer in advancing preconstruction services and is a strong proponent of Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) and Integrated Lean Project Delivery (ILPD). Her knowledge and experience in all project phases and her steadfast integrity combine to contribute to successful collaborations with all project stakeholders.

How far along the lean journey is the construction industry?

It is a journey and you never get there it is exactly true. You know I have been lucky in the sense that I work right now only on major hospital projects and so I think that puts us in a position that we have the opportunity to perhaps use it more than others. However, if I had to guess, it feels infancy, so maybe more like 20 percent.

Who is Pamela Best?
  • Pamela Best gets to experience projects from the beginning to the very end.
  • She was there are the inception of the Lean Construction Institute and participated in the founding programs.

Well, to me our end client is actually, in the case of a hospital, the patient in that client. The patient in that hospital. So, it is very important to the hospitals how they actually deliver care to their patients and they want to do a better job. Insurance companies don’t pay them what they used to. So, we were very fortunate on the Akron Children’s Hospital that we were part of a lot of the early studies to where they determined the travel of a patient inside of the hospital, and what it was like for the parents. And so, we had incredible opportunities, and I hope to have similar opportunities again at some point in my career. But we had a deeper understanding and a deep connection, and we cared so much about what we were going to contribute to the lives of these children when they were in the hospital. So for me personally it pulls to the heartstrings and it’s what I care about is the end client.

Why is it important that we embrace Lean principles?
  • The end client is the patient; and therefore, it is very important to the hospital on how care is delivered.
  • Lean principles instill that deep connection and caring for the customer – the patient.

For me it is. It’s a passion for me, because I really do care about the difference we can make in a community. I think one of the key things that can be done is to actually select very carefully and particularly the people from an organization. It’s not just about picking a company that’s done it before or maybe hasn’t done it before. It’s about the individuals that you select from that company because they need to want to learn. They need to want to expand their knowledge. It is scary to change and to learn when you already have a routine you’ve settled into. And this time we’re gonna change it we’re going to really turn your world upside down and we’re going to do it completely different. And that’s frightening for people. I mean I believe very strongly that people go to work wanting to do a very good job for their clients. And when you’re learning something new it’s hard to feel very comfortable and very sure about what you’re doing and so it takes time and it takes practice. And I think it is very key to pick individuals that have the courage to forage through that because it is a lot of work.

Focus on the customer gives us a better focus, do you agree?
  • Being passionate about delivering value to the customer is the first characteristic of Lean.
  • A careful selection of individuals from each trade partner organization is a great first step.
  • These individuals must share the need for learning and expanding their knowledge.
  • Learning is scary, and it takes time and practice.

That’s a very good question, and that’s very challenging and near impossible to answer. We struggle with that ourselves. How do you get people in an industry to want to change? I think in truth, there has to be that desire for it to go forward from the very top of the company. But you’ve got to have people at all levels of the company that truly want it to succeed. And it’s something that it’s probably going to start small and it may only grow one or two people at a time.

What advice do you have for trade partners?
  • The question is more about how you get people in an industry to want to change.
  • The leader at the top must want this kind of change, and then it should expand slowly at all levels.

Lean construction is a chance to be a leader. It is a chance to walk into a room and start something brand new for yourself. It’s a chance to stand out. Quite frankly it’s a lot of work but it’s extremely rewarding because you have the opportunity to work with peers that are like minded and care deeply about all the companies being successful. Everyone being successful for the client and you also get to meet, in my case since it’s hospitals that I am fortunate enough to work, with the surgeons, doctors, nurses and patients and it just develops a whole different level of connection and you look at the world completely differently. So for me, it’s the only way.

What is Lean construction?
  • Lean construction is an opportunity to be a leader, to start something new and stand out.
  • It is extremely rewarding, and you get to work with peers that want everyone to be successful.
  • You also get to meet all the stakeholders of the project and you end up seeing the world differently

I’ve heard the term, yes, and we have used it. You know it is challenging for me. That is one of the things that’s hard, It is hard to stick with because there is such a mountain of stuff you have to do every day. And I’ll be honest, that one is a challenge. We do care a lot about keeping everything organized for the people on the field, to where they’ve got everything they need. And that part is a little easier because you can regulate that a little bit better I think. But it’s very difficult. Something like that in preconstruction is very hard. It’s something I find challenging as a senior project manager.

Are you using the 5S system?
  • Sustaining the 5S system is a challenge.
  • In the field, having things organized for the craftspeople is a little easier.

When they first arrived, it was a very small number. But the flip side of that is, because of the projects that I’ve been on, it’s probably higher than the average, which is a result of having worked with the same partners more than once. But we haven’t been fortunate enough in several cases because that would obviously speed the whole thing ahead. When you form a bond with people you’re working with, you feel like you could start way ahead of the starting line if you’re with a group of folks that are like minded and I’ve done it before. However, it’s not a high number.

What percentage of trade partners understand the Last Planner® system?
  • It’s a small number of trade partners that understand the Last Planner® system.
  • Working with the same contractors makes it easier because the bond is already formed.

It’s like everything with lean, it’s about continuous improvement. So, you have got to be brave enough, and go up to the board and you just start. And that is one of the great things about it though, because for everybody in the room, it’s going to be new for a lot them. And everyone wants to help you. You know everyone wants everyone else in the room to succeed, because then we all succeed as a group. Basically you just have to be brave and start.

Before you’re comfortable, I’m going to tell you you’ve got to go through three to five sessions. Then you’re going to lose that comfort because maybe you’re talking about it in a subject that’s very near and dear to your heart and very easy. But then when you come back and maybe you do a session on preconstruction or on design or the documents, etc, and you’re going to be uncomfortable and it’s like you’re gonna have to relearn again. So it takes a long time. It’s the duration of a project. Because it’s developed, and you get better with the teammates that you’re working with and more comfortable because each team is going to be different. So I think in truth you really do start over every time.

How long does it take to learn the Last Planner® system?
  • Remember that it is about doing it and then it is about continually improving at it.
  • Everyone wants you to succeed, only then do we all succeed. So be brave and Just Do It!
  • It may take the entire duration of the project before you learn the Last Planner® system.

I’ve been through several projects that have onboardings and because of the fact that I’m on at the beginning of the project, those onboarding sometimes are the length of two days. Sometimes on a project it’s multiple sessions spread out over a period of months. But by the time you get to where we’ve got the field coming in that’s pretty well boiled down to an hour of onboarding or something and the group sizes change based on the number of people you’ve got. The onboarding is done throughout the entire project and on all the projects that I’ve been on the onboarding has largely been led by the general contractor. But then of course we have our own things that we do with the men and women that come to work for us.

Describe how the onboarding training happens.
  • Training is done in different ways. Sometimes it is done in two full days, and other times it is spread over a few months.
  • Onboarding is done throughout the contract and is led by the general contractor.

Unfortunately, I tend to put way too many items on the list, so I haven’t gotten better at that. It changes based on the project that I’m on.

If the team is all working together, and you’ve got the steady education, and everyone is working together and others can help and share duties, then I find that that’s really where it’s worked out the best.

When you’re operating with a larger group, it’s hard to be as successful I think.

Is maintaining a takt schedule critical to being productive?

When we started on the Akron Children’s Hospital, one of the things that the folks from Boldt told us is, you know we’re going to do something really great on this project. We’re going to do takt scheduling and you’re gonna love it, and it’s going to be the best thing you’ve ever did, and you will never want to do another job without it. With that selling story that they gave us we were all very apprehensive and we’re scared to death and didn’t believe a word they said. But we worked together on that and developed the takt schedule. And you’re right it’s a cadence that you go through the areas and in the end of the project I will tell you that it’s the only way I want to do work. It spoiled me beyond belief and everything else feels like we’re falling short if we’re not doing takt scheduling. So, I am very anxiously awaiting my next project that actually uses takt scheduling again.

Have your responsibilities changed since the introduction of the Last Planner® system?
  • Responsibilities changed based on the project that they are on.
  • Working in a larger group where the teams have shared duties and responsibilities is when it works best.
  • Initially we didn’t not believe it when Boldt said we are going to do take scheduling and you will love it!
  • By the end of the project, it truly was the only way that they wanted to do the work in the future.

On the Akron Children’s Hospital project, we setup a series of reviews. I believe the first takt we had was a two week duration. We would have the engineers and owner come in and review the work that we had put in place. Before we’d done too much work, we could make any changes that needed to be made to where we could correct and get the right quality, the right product, everything where it needed to be, to where everyone was happy. And then when you’ve got that team, that then go into the next area and they repeat that work you get better and better and better and you’re able to track your labor in that area. Such as the number of people you have, the number of hours they put into it, and you can watch through that progression as you get better and if something happens in an area that you fall off of that improvement, then you need to get in there right away and look and see what happened that caused that.

Everyday can feel like a critical path day and that’s a little frightening. It does require everyone to maintain that cadence and stay on that beat. It forces you to do your work in your time because the people after you depend on you. The people who were ahead of you, you depend greatly on them getting out of the area. Having it clean and ready for you. And so, there is a huge responsibility to your peers when you’re in that case, but it was one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever been part of.

How do you measure success as it relates to the takt schedule?
  • At Akron Children’s Hospital, a series of reviews were set up for first takt – or repeatable series of work.
  • That first zone of work was reviewed to ensure that it met everyone’s standard.
  • The work continued and if there were any gaps, they were quickly reviewed and addressed.
  • It was scary because everyone was on a critical path – work had to be done on time, every time – but it was also rewarding.

I mentioned before that people are used to doing the work in a certain way, that they’ve done all their lives and very proud of coming into work knowing exactly what to do, how they’re going to do it, because it’s relatively been the same through their entire career. And so again it’s scary to change. There is a natural resistance and fear to not know the answer to a question. You don’t want to not know what you’re supposed to do because it’s a different way of thinking. It’s a different way of building. So, there’s a challenge there, but what we found with our people is after they got into it, and we’re doing it, it became something that they also embraced very much because you had a consistency in your day. You knew what was going to happen. You knew the people that were ahead of you, the people that were behind you, and what they needed you to do, and they were teammates that wanted to help you. So, it was very rewarding for us. I spoke with several of our people that felt like they had peaked in their careers as being part of that project with us.

So, while that’s exciting to know that you were part of something that special for the people that were working with our company on the hospital. The flip side of that is it was kind of sad to think that they had peaked on this project and they’re afraid they’re not going to get to do it again. So, as I mentioned Akron’s Children stuff is very special for us.

Describe the type of change that occurred during this project.
  • Initially the craftspeople start the work already knowing what to do because they have done it for many years.
  • When it comes to doing things differently, the reaction is resistance because of the fear of not knowing.
  • Lean construction was different, but after they did it for a few weeks they preferred it over the old way.
  • They preferred it because there was a consistency to doing the work and you had people who wanted to help you.
  • Lean construction becomes something special to be a part of… unfortunately, there are not enough of these experiences.

I think the biggest obstacle that we had was that there were certain areas where the congestion of our work was a lot higher than in others. In hindsight we would have put more time into certain areas. We would have increased either the number of passes that we had through, or we would have lengthened the time because there’s only so many people you can get into an area. So, I think that was probably a challenge, because we weren’t meeting our numbers at that point. We were falling behind, and we were having to put in overtime or an extra day. And you don’t like that feeling. So that was probably the biggest hurdle that we had.

What are some of the obstacles in the way of creating flow?
  • The biggest problems were localized in areas where the congestion of the workload was much higher.
  • Focusing more attention in these congested areas would have improved the overall results.
  • Having not done this resulting in falling behind on the work and putting in excessive overtime to get it done.

The Akron Children’s Hospital project has been over for several years, and every time I run into anyone from that project team we have a kinship and a bond. We went through something very special together. Every A3 that we did, everything in front of us was always through the eyes of a child. To be a part of something that’s special you don’t forget that. And so that is something that was done very well. The hospital’s engagement with us was at such a level that it’s just unforgettable. Quite frankly I would love to work with all those people again. Obviously, there’s always things that could be gone better, and there were things we struggled with, but with some things that what we know today and the way we’ve developed further with our bim leaders, I believe if we were to do that phase again we’ve got a lot more we could contribute personally and that would make it easier for everybody.

What went well and what could have gone better on your last project?
  • When things go that well on a project, a kinship and bond is formed between the team.
  • The learning was similar to looking at the world through the eyes of a child, and the engagement was unforgettable.
  • What could have gone better could have happened with injecting more information into the design.

We started on that project really with a lot of education, and there were continual training sessions and you know we read books together, we watched movies together, and would analyze them. People there in Akron that were part of the project, including nurses, would invite us to their homes for dinner. There was such a huge level of involvement, that we felt part of the community and we cared so much about the children. The project actually did a full scale model of different areas of the hospital in a tire shop with full size sheets of cardboard and set up the rooms. And as we developed through the job there were times when we had prices on everything to where the staff could go in give feedback that could lead to savings and we could use that money to do something else. We could see how we were part of helping them determine how to use their money the way they needed to use it. And where the space was better for them for when they delivered care. There’s just so many success stories, but the Akron project was something very special.

What could a general contractor do to better assist you in a future project?
  • Success starts with a lot of education – training, reading books, analyzing videos, and understanding the stakeholders.
  • Also by engaging the customer to choose between the options, the entire project became flexible to their needs.

There was a lot of integrity. There was accountability, quality, and safety of course. I probably should’ve listed that one first, but it was just so important to make a difference in that community, and to be able to change people’s lives.

What is your continuous improvement process?

One of the things I think that makes a difference, is as we work together, all of us in the big room. You’re at the same table with the electrical contractor and with fire protection and as you hear what matters to everyone else then you learn to think in a broader sense. Then you’ll hear the nurses talk or the doctor talk about something, and so in the back of your mind you get a sense of what’s going to matter to them. I like to think that I’ve managed to collect some of those different memories and some of those things that are important, so that when I go into the next job, even if it is not operating to this extent, I still can try to help others because that’s what matters. That we’re all working together despite whatever we’re surrounded with and whatever conditions that project has. But if we’re all working together then it’s just a better experience for everybody.

What values help us guarantee success in construction?
  • The values a team should have are integrity, accountability, quality, and safety in order to make a difference.
  • Learning to think in a broader sense is done simply by listening to other trade partners in the Big Room.
  • This perspective – along with understanding of the customer’s needs – is shared on the next job so we can further be successful.

Speaking up was encouraged, and if we would hit a bump in the road we would bring everybody together and have a retrospective of why this happened. It led to difficult conversations and those are certainly hard, and they’re uncomfortable at times, but they’re critical. You’ve got to speak up. If there is a person in the room that doesn’t speak up, then that doesn’t help anyone at all. So, you have got to be the type of person that is very comfortable doing that and is comfortable being challenged. In the end it’s about what’s good for the whole. We’ve got to think globally like that to make the whole difference for the project.

What does an excellent communication process look like?
  • Speaking up is encouraged and hitting an obstacle triggers the team to get together and have a retrospective.
  • A retrospective tries to get to the Why – the conversations are difficult and challenging, but important.