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.



A new approach for selling green buildings and green retrofits

This doesn't look like green building. But his story will help sell them.

This doesn’t look like green building. But his story will help sell them.

Green buildings make their occupants happier and more profitable and are worth more. How come every new building isn’t green? How come every existing building isn’t getting a green retrofit?

The message isn’t getting through because of the way our brains process information. To summarize:

  • Thinking requires a lot of oxygen and calories.
  • To prevent exhaustion the brain filters out most incoming data.
  • Most is routed to the subconscious and processed there.
  • Conscious thinking is only engaged on exceptional things.

So how do we overcome our own defenses? Here’s a 3-step solution.

  1. Reframe the story.
  2. Find a respected community leader to re-tell the story
  3. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Let me give a simple example based on my own experience. I’m a skier and follow downhill ski racing. For a long time I only cared about who finished 1st, 2nd or 3rd. Then I changed my mind. Here is how it happened.

Reframe the story. I read a book by a retired racer. He explained that the difference between 1st and 15th is less than a tenth of second. That’s time it takes to blink 2 or 3 times. That’s incredibly close after racing 3.5 kilometers (2.5 miles) at 150 km/h (92 mph). Reframing showed that my focus on 1st, 2nd and 3rd made no sense.

Messages need messengers. The person who explained this was himself a world champion. At the time he was the first non-European ever to win the downhill championship. Plus he’s Canadian, as am I. All this credibility and personal identification has been proven to help new facts slip past the old guard.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. We are bombarded with more information than any creature that has ever existed in the 4 billion years that earth has circled the sun. This racer likely said these  things before and I follow racing news. But I only came across the story after he retired and wrote an autobiography.

Paris apartment block retrofit has it all: bigger, brighter, cheaper, unhappier. Huh?

Great story in today’s New York Times about a Paris public housing apartment block that gets a fabulous makeover – and some tenants are unhappy.

Yes, you can have it all.

  • Units are transformed into larger, light-filled spaces
  • The tenants lived in their apartments throughout
  • No increase in the building footprint
  • Energy use is now 60% less
  • The retrofit cost 42% less than demolishing and rebuilding – even though the makeover included extra elevators, upgraded services, and a lobby makeover

Lacation and Vassal architects delivered a brilliant solution. The NYT article describes how the architects added floor space and floor-to-ceiling windows  “using pre-fab modules erected like scaffolding on the outside” of the building. Have a look at the before-concept-after images. Stunning is not too strong a word to describe the transformation.

The pre-fab approach kept renovation costs well below those of demolition and rebuilding. Pre-fab was also the key to the tenants remaining in residence throughout renovation. The NYT notes that “punching through the old facade to connect these modules to the apartments (took) only one day per apartment.”

Despite all this good news some tenants are less than delighted. Complaints range from more noise in the halls to loss of gardening space. Is this simply ungratefulness? No. It’s a great example of how people make decisions based on emotions, then use their reason to justify the decision.

Here’s what I mean. Kids playing in the halls are making the noise. Kids didn’t play in the halls before the renovation. Then, the halls were too dark to be safe. After the renovation the halls are bright, pleasant spaces. And parents are letting their kids play in the halls. Can’t they control their children? As a parent myself, at times I have things to do where I need the kids out from underfoot. At the same time I want the kids close enough that I can keep an eye and an ear on them. I don’t want to be a bad neighbor but the safety of my kids comes first. From this perspective it is inevitable that the halls would get noisier.

With this in mind, could the budget have covered sound proofing for hall walls, floors, ceilings and doors?

The gardener is not grumpy; she is mourning the loss of her old gardening place and the vegetables it grew. Can you mourn for a garden? In this case, yes. The Times reporter notes that the gardener is a nun. Given the poor lighting and the poor pay of nuns it’s possible that she exercised considerable ingenuity and thrift to grow veggies in the old apartment. The self sufficiency might have seemed minor to others but likely meant a very great deal to her. If none of her old tricks and tools worked in the bright, spacious new apartment she would have to throw away all she had and start again. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot of money. But for her, heart breaking.

With this in mind, could a tiny fraction of the energy savings be set aside to help tenants replace their gardening tools?

This is no way meant to criticize the design work. It’s fantastic. It’s meant to shine some light on how important it is in the design phase to tease out how people feel .