Do Agile, Toyota Production Method and Lean Construction Go Together?

What do agile, Toyota Production Management and construction have in common? Everything. The story is told by Mary Poppendieck in her talk, The Tyranny of the Plan. A big, big thank you to Chris Gagne for transcribing the talk.

From Hardware to Software and Back Again

Why does a coder have anything useful to say about construction? Years ago Japanese companies started selling videotape in the U.S. below the cost of American vendors. One of those vendors was 3M. It set up a team to learn how the Japanese did it. 3M made Poppendieck, one of its process control programmers, part of the team. This was long before Lean. All 3M’s team could find was a terrible translation of Taiichi Ohno’s book. Without options or time, 3M had no choice but to give Ohno’s ideas a try.

3M’s US plant began to beat Japanese videotape vendors on price and quality.

Poppendieck continued to explore the convergence of Toyota Production Method and code development. She coined the term lean software development in a book by the same name, published in 2003.

The Problem: On-time-and-budget Delivery

Mary coaches software developers on Lean and Agile and she noticed a disturbing trend. Project management tools were more sophisticated than ever. But on-time-and-budget delivery seemed to be less and less predictable.

The cadence of pacemaker tasks dictates the project's pace.

The cadence of pacemaker tasks dictates the project’s pace.

So Poppendieck looked at old-school project management. That is, the era before computers. She discovered that builders used to be the masters of delivery.

In the 1920s New York general contractors put up 60- and 70-floor buildings in 12-18 months as a matter of routine. Starrett Brothers and Ekene designed and built the Empire State Building in 18 months. Between September 1929 and April 1931, 102 floors were erected. Tenants began moving in during May 1931.

Because of the Crash of 1929 and World War 2 the Empire State Building was the last skyscraper built in New York for nearly 20 years. The knowledge died out due to old age and war.

Today many believe that government red tape prevents us from matching the pace of the 1920s. Poppendieck found that today’s labor laws are modeled on the best practices of the 1920s-era skyscraper projects. Those buildings are still sound today. So builders didn’t skimp on materials or workmanship to speed up work.

Lost Secrets Found Again

The secret  was rediscovered when the lost project notebooks of the general contractor on the Empire State Building were found a few years ago.

Based on decades of doing and learning the builders discovered that “pacemaker tasks” controlled entire projects. For the Empire State Building the tasks were:

  1. Structural steel
  2. Concrete floors
  3. Windows and trim
  4. Cladding

How these tasks are managed is critical. One key is for work crews on these pacesetter tasks to maintain a steady cadence. Another key is to decouple the pacesetter tasks from each other. These two insights helped the builders to eliminate cascading delays.

This is what Ohno means when he writes about Flow. It is the secret of the Toyota Production Method and it’s been hiding in plain sight.

Many still think Lean is about waste. But waste is only a symptom of disrupted Flow. You can eliminate waste and it will pop up again and again until you fix whatever obstructs Flow.

The Magic of Goal, Deadline and Budget

Poppendieck noticed another important difference between then and now.

Today we follow a design-budget-build sequence. Delivery date is a byproduct.

Back then, New York builders used deadline, budget and total number of floors as the driving factors. Design was the byproduct of these constraints.



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