Transforming a Toy Into a Tool and Going Lean With Legos

One company uses children's toys to teach the process of Lean Construction.

“It is inherent in our company’s culture that the nature of our work is collaborative and we’re always looking for a better way to build,” explains Dave Rahe, LEED AP BD+C and Project Executive based out of The Weitz Company’s Minnesota office. Consistently ranked in the top tier of Engineering News-Record (ENR) magazine’s list of Top 400 Contractors, the Weitz Company was founded in Des Moines, IA in 1855—making it one of the oldest commercial general contractors in the United States, celebrating 161 years this year. Weitz’s track record gives credence to the success of the company’s lean initiatives within the realm of general contractor, design-builder and construction manager services.

While the specifics of lean construction methods can vary from job to job and process to process, Rahe sees the core value of the philosophy as a very simple concept: “It’s about striving to make small continuous improvements in everyday activities. For any process that has a degree of repetition, we try to think and act on how we can continuously improve it and make it more efficient for ourselves, and also for our team members, clients, architects and subcontractors.”

Going Lean Is Not a Game. Or Is It?

Before Weitz could develop and implement their lean processes, they had to take the plunge first themselves, which they did on a large-scale project in 2007. “We hired a lean consulting firm to help us start the journey,” says Greg Martin, Senior Manager of Operational Excellence. As part of the firm’s consultation to Weitz on the project, they led a lean simulation using, of all things, LEGO® bricks. Since that initial simulation, the firm has been a strong believer for the past decade in using two different simulations involving the iconic children’s toy to educate and promote lean principles for all project team members.

Lego Lean Boot Camp

“In order to support our project teams’ use of lean tools, we conduct Lean Boot Camps where, among other lean topics, we focus on teaching the concept of ‘flow’ and the effect that flow can have on the collective output and overall production of a project team,” offers Martin. Weitz runs these boot camps on site for large project teams, providing the opportunity to educate and involve trade partners on that specific project.

Weitz will also run boot camps in their local offices for new hires. “In January of this year, I led a two-day training in our Denver office and we had 28 participants, 25 of which had been with the company less than 5 months, which is attributed to the constant growth we are experiencing,” says Martin. “New employees receive the standard onboarding training that gives them a good foundation of the Weitz Way. Then we hold these boot camps as a way to provide a deeper dive into lean and give team members a real hands-on training with the tools and systems that they will leverage to execute work at the Weitz Company.”

Two Sides of Lego Lean Boot Camp—Side 1: The Airplane Game

The Weitz Company uses two simulations that are intended to teach the lean concept of flow and provide an understanding of how flow can affect collective output. Martin explains, “The first simulation we utilize is the airplane game. Participants are seated around a table and are tasked with building an airplane. They are given the individual steps required to build the plane and initially are tasked with following the designated manufacturing method for the first round. One of the goals of this simulation is to teach the concept of flow efficiency versus resource efficiency.”

Once the first round is done, participants discuss how it went, review their output and are challenged to think of ways to make modifications to the process to create a better flow and increase the quality and production. Concepts like batch sizing and pre-fabrication are introduced, and by the end of three or four rounds, the participants are experiencing how small changes in what they do can greatly impact the flow and output of the team. “They learn the lean concept of ‘Push-vs-Pull’ and working to the pull of their customer, or the next station in the production line,” Martin says.

During one of the rounds, participants are instructed that they are piece workers and they are challenged to produce as many of the “pieces” of the airplane at their station that they can, with the understanding that they will be paid based on the quantity of pieces they produce. At the end of the round, some participants are happy with the quantity of pieces they made, but they also realize that the production at their station didn’t equate to any more planes being produced as a whole—even though they were very efficient in what they did, it didn’t contribute to the overall efficiency of the group. They realize that overproduction, one of the seven lean wastes common in the AEC community, is something they deal with on a daily basis on construction projects. The concept of leveling flow also has an application during the design phase of a project.

“It’s the concept of a marching band,” Martin explains. “We all want to march at the same step and produce at the same rate. Marching faster as an individual doesn’t mean the finish line is reached any faster as a team.”

Two Sides of Lean Boot Camp—Side 2: The Villego Last Planner Simulation

“There’s another Lego exercise we do that is a branded simulation by another company, Villego, the Last Planner Simulation, in which you build a Lego house by utilizing the process and steps of their Last Planner System,” Martin says. “As teams build a Lego house, the simulation walks you through all the Last Planner scheduling steps.” The Last Planner® System (LPS) is built around the concept of PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust). “We create a plan, execute it, check it to see if we did what we said we were going to do—and if we didn’t, why not? And then we adjust so that next week, the reasons we didn’t complete this work are not repeated.”

The LPS steps are used during the Lego house simulation as a hands-on way for project teams to experience the process. Teams go through the steps including creating a pull plan, translating the plan into a six-week lookahead plan, using that to create detailed weekly work plans, and eventually doing a daily check to verify performance and make any changes to the plan based on the performance.

During the simulation participants typically default to the current way of planning work, which is focused on their own work. By the end of the game, they end up looking at the bigger picture and understanding how what they do impacts the rest of the team.

Participants are broken up into teams of two and given colored hats with a different trade responsibility attached. Teams are then given time to plan their work and, in many cases, go off and plan their work on their own, without talking to or coordinating with other teams. “Typically, during the simulation, the teams never finish on time and they realize, ‘Hey, what if we talk together?’” says Martin.

“It’s a simulation we do more in-house with superintendents, project managers and project engineers, and we’ve gotten to where we bring in subcontractors as well. A lot of the major trade subcontractors that we utilized in our larger markets understand our lean processes, but in locations where we don’t have a home office, we end up working with subcontractor communities that haven’t been exposed to lean or the Last Planner System. We utilize the Lego simulations as a way to introduce them to what we’re trying to do. Their input and participation is key.”

Lean as a Bridge between Businesses

Rather than stick to the “everybody plays in their own sandbox” business mentality, Weitz is willing to share these lean strategies with project partners and competitors in order to grow the marketplace. This mentality of collaboration and continuous improvement is perhaps best summarized by the company’s tagline of “Build A Better Way.” Rahe confirms, “We see the benefits of leveraging lean tools and methods during our projects, and we’ve invited a number of firms out to show them what we are doing.”

As a founding member of the Upper Midwest Chapter of the Lean Construction Institute, Rahe strives to “walk the walk” when it comes to lean construction. The positive feedback from the company’s efforts has provided the opportunity for Weitz to conduct trainings with other firms so they can explore the efficiencies of lean construction. “I think the construction firms have really gravitated to it because they’ve seen the benefits in efficiency. Being able to partner with owners and architects to show them some of the benefits has been enjoyable for all of us.”