Paul Ebbs, Arlene Egan and Raymond Turner explore two distinct possibilities to stimulate innovation through lean and critical thinking. Both are intrinsically and philosophically linked together as routes to innovation and change management
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Authors: Paul Ebbs BSc; Arlene Egan PhD; Raymond Turner

We face challenges and dilemmas in our workplace daily, which serve to test our knowledge and expertise, as well as stretching our thinking and problem-solving skills. If you think about it, we spend a great deal of time asking ourselves questions about the situations we find ourselves in. What has happened? How has this issue arisen? How do we deal with this problem? How we know our approach will work?

We also spend a great deal of time acting on our responses to these questions. Engineers have traditionally been described as the classic outside-the-box thinkers, and stereotyping would have us believe that engineers possess highly developed competencies in problem-solving, logic, analysis and evaluation. You will need to be the judge of your own levels of competency!

However, we can be pretty certain that one of the dispositions that brought you to engineering in the first place was and is your curiosity, your ability to wonder and your ability to ask ‘what if’?

It is being suggested that the Irish economy is finally showing ‘green shoots’, following a tough recession leading to an appetite and demand for change within the Irish engineering industry and wider built environment. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding how to go about implementing or embedding the change required. There is even more uncertainty concerning whether this change be tackled as individual industry sectors or the economy as a whole.

Either way, this change is forcing us to think about our skills and competencies to ensure that we learn from the past and that graduates, employees and indeed the wider contractor base to ensure the engineering industry both survives and flourishes into the future. These points are easy to write about in an article but, in reality, there are many unanswered questions about skills competencies and gaps.

This article – the first in an occasional series of articles on lean, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and innovation through research – will explore two distinct possibilities to stimulate innovation through ‘lean and critical thinking’. Both ways of thinking are intrinsically and philosophically linked together as routes to innovation and change management.

WHAT IS INNOVATION IN ENGINEERING?

Drucker (2002) maintains that “innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance”, while Corrigan (2010) posits: Innovation is the process of developing or inventing unknown and unique discoveries that can help us to be better at what we do and makes life simpler for everyone. Simply put, innovation is just doing something CHEAPER, BETTER or FASTER.”

Engineers provide solutions by focusing on core issues that work towards improving peoples’ lives or society as a whole. Quite often, innovation is a direct result of problem solving and creativity. As alluded to earlier, engineers tend to hold a healthy disposition towards effective problem solving. Another and perhaps simpler explanation of innovation is ‘creative problem-solving’.

This is good news for engineers, as curiosity and problem-solving ability can get you a ‘fast pass’ onto the innovation ladder. We must also be mindful that we solve problems regularly outside the work environment, too. It is evident from research that the more we practise these types of skills, the more effective and confident we become (Liker, 2014).

The Irish civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineering industries have been hit hard by the recession. The fatiguing recession is nearing an end and lessons have got to be learnt. The authors’ current research indicates a very strong appetite for change at industry and company level in Ireland and the desire to improve reputations, deliver quality products and grow the export market through increased professionalism.

At present, the current value of the Irish construction industry is about €8 billion or 6.4% of GNP (Forfas, 2013). Economists and experts anecdotally maintain that current levels will double as the industry revives to sustainable levels, which will potentially result in an increase of 100,000 workers.

The need to drive efficiencies and add value for the customer (not necessarily the client and end user, but the next ‘customer’ in the value chain – i.e. the consultant, manufacturer, material supplier and subcontractor) is real. If a culture of innovation can be instilled while the industry is at this low base, it can only be a win-win situation.

There are many ways that innovation can be introduced. There can be innovation of processes, products and/or services. We can focus on environmental innovation or think about how to become more sustainable. Considering the lessons learnt from the recession, it is important that we develop a deep understanding of how we make decisions and judgments, as these are a core component in the act of problem-solving.

We need to also reflect on how we evaluate our decisions so that we might understand how to make better more discerning judgments about issues that affect how we go about our work. We need to look at the processes people use to come to conclusions and understand that critiquing an idea is not criticising the person.

The first step in innovation or creative problem-solving is to clearly identify and understand the problem to be solved (lean and critical thinking) and its impact on you, your customer or the process with which process you’re working. The task then is to discover creative ways to generate valuable solutions to the problem by asking new questions which may create or define the problem, and ultimately your innovative ideas or new way of questioning may indeed lead to new creations.

WHAT IS LEAN AND CRITICAL THINKING?

In basic terms, lean and critical thinking is a way of thinking differently. It is an approach that helps you to clarify the certainties of the situation, as well as the ‘unknown unknowns’. If innovation is to thrive in an engineering firm, a paradigm shift may be required in how we think, and how we think about and deliver engineering projects.

In essence, lean and critical thinking may be required – thinking inside and outside the box by exploring the consequences of stakeholders’ decisions and actions on the value chain.

Lean and critical thinking mean different things to different stakeholders and will therefore inherently have different contextual definitions. Lean is more than just about delivering projects cheaper and faster with more ‘value’ for the customer. Some refer to lean as eliminating waste and defects. Cooke and Williams (2009) define lean as “the elimination of waste from the production cycle”.

Lean is atransformation in the way you approach and think about the way you deliver your work and “is not just about eliminating waste or just about creating value, but it’s a mind shift, which will allow you to look, listen and learn and basically continuously improve through a set process” (David Umstot P.E. 2014).

This is why lean fits so well with critical thinking, which has been described by Halpern as “… purposeful, reasoned, and goal directed—the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions, when the thinker is using skills that are thoughtful and effective for the particular context and type of thinking task” (2003).

However, caution is required when reading the definitions of lean and critical thinking. In closely examining the definitions, cynicism and negativity can often be perceived and this can create a schism and alienate people from the philosophy of this approach.

Simply put, lean is a way of thinking about the management of work in projects from conception through construction and right through the facilities management of the asset (Mossman, 2014). Critical thinking is an approach to help ensure that you have thought effectively through the process.

  • Lean thinking

Howell P.E. (2014) defines lean as “a management philosophy supported by a coherent set of conceptual foundations, basic principles fundamental practices and a common language”. In other words, lean is a term that relates to a proven way of doing business, entirely focused on maximising customer value through relentless elimination of all forms of process waste and ensuring that value-adding activities in the value stream are completed in the most efficient and time-effective manner. Lean should be viewed as a tool for company growth and expansion.

The five principles of ‘lean’ are:

1)   Value – defined by the customer as anything that they are willing to pay for;

2)   Value stream – the flow of information, resources and raw materials to the completed project;

3)   Flow – how the information, workforce and resources stream through the project. The master programme illustrates this flow;

4)   Pull – just-in-time material and information delivery (integrated material management with bar-code scanning; ICT document control e.g. Asite);

5)   Perfection – the ‘ideal state’; however, this is never achieved. Striving for this state continuously through collaboratively identifying and removing waste and continuous improvement (also known as Kazien). A company never becomes ‘lean’ as they always look to continuously improve.

The objective of lean is to successfully manage projects from conception to end of asset life with no waste, no defects, on time, on budget with zero accidents. To achieve our objectives, we need to critically think and gain an appreciation of how our decisions and actions can impact the ‘next customer’ and project as a whole.

  • Critical thinking

Critical thinking is a process that begins with an argument and progresses toward evaluation. The process is activated by three interrelated activities (Browne and Keeley, 2000):

1)   Asking key questions designed to identify and assess what is being said;

2)   Answering those questions by focusing on their impact on stated inferences; and

3)   Displaying the desire to deploy critical questions.

While lean thinking is a mindshift from traditional project management, critical thinking is also an alternative shift in how we think. Complex problems, which are common to engineering projects, are well suited to critical thinking. The route to innovation is not always linear, but usually as a result of asking the right questions or through an insight (reflecting creative thinking).

Critical thinking strategies allow those in engineering and business to be better thinkers, creators and therefore innovators. Critical thinkers understand there are better and worse ways of reasoning and coming to conclusions. The processes people use to come to conclusions have real consequences for real people. People’s actions can invariably have huge impact the value chain and the flow of information and materials.

Better and more discerning judgements can be made using critical thinking strategies, which are an essential tool for 21st-century engineering and wider disciplines. Put simply, critical thinking is about better ways of reasoning and coming to conclusions regarding how we go about our work.

CONCLUSION

The field of information contained in engineering projects and their complex nature requires detailed planning and production schedules. The Last Planner System (developed by Greg Howell P.E. and Glenn Ballard PhD, founders of the Lean Construction Institute) is especially suited to complex engineering projects (Heathrow T5).

The philosophy behind the Last Planner and indeed lean itself is to get those closest to the work to plan the work and secure reliable promises from those carrying out the work which will in turn create reliable workflow. A reliable promise does not necessarily have to be ‘yes’. Saying ‘no’ leaves room for making alternative plans (Flores & Letelier, 2013).

Quite often, complex engineering projects are one-off designs and experience problems with cost, time, quality and safety. Ultimately, mistakes happen and are, by and large, stigmatised and quite often covered up. As a result, the error will most likely occur again and could be reoccurring over multiple company sites. The identification of these ‘mistakes’ will mark the beginning of a company’s lean and critical-thinking journey.

However, in order to learn from mistakes, an intrinsically motivated workforce must exist, which will require the right environment for innovation to thrive (no blame culture). Lean and critical thinking use mistakes as platform to learn from and a medium for continuous improvement (innovation). Once a mistake has been identified, rectified and learnt from it is not necessarily waste. Nonetheless, if the issue persists this is waste.

Anywhere work takes place, waste exists. However, workplace waste (process and tangible) must be identified first, along with the impact the waste has on the process with which individuals are working.

Employee engagement through lean and critical thinking is vital to continuous problem solving, which leads to continuous improvement or innovation (perfection – the fifth lean principle). Those within ten feet of a problem most likely know the solution, and not using the creative power of workers minds is a form of waste (skills misuse). Lean and critical thinking appear well suited to harness this power.

The next article in the series will focus on the ten forms of waste that are present in every workplace – transport, inventory, motion, waiting, over-production, over-processing, defects, making do, skills misuse and safety (lack of) – and how creative thinking can help eliminate these.

References

Browne, MN & Keeley, SM. (2000). Critical thinking: Asking the right questions. Pearson Custom Publishing.

Cooke, B & Williams, P. (2009). Construction planning, programming, and control (3rd ed.). Ames, IA: Blackwell Pub.

Corrigan, T. (2010), Kaizen Tools and Techniques to support a Lean Enterprise. Unpublished.

Drucker Foundation – Hesselbein, F. Goldsmith, M. Somerville, I. (2002). Leading for Innovation & Organizing for Results. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Flores, F., and Letelier, M. F. (2013). Conversations for action and collected essays: Instilling a culture of commitment in working relationships. [U.S.]: Createspace.

Forfas, (2013). – Ireland’s construction sector: outlook and strategic plan to 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.forfas.ie/media/19072013-Irelands_Construction_Sector-Publication.pdf [Accessed 7th October 2013]

Halpern, D. F. (2003, 4th edition). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Howell, G. (2014). Lean Construction Institute Co – Founder. Telephone interview 10th January 2014.

Mossman, A. (2014). Lean Construction Journal Editor. Telephone interview 9th January 2014.

Umstot, D. (2014). President at Umstot Project and Facilities Solutions, LLC. Telephone interview 10th January 2014

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  Authors: Paul Ebbs BSc; Arlene Egan PhD; Raymond Turner We face challenges and dilemmas in our workplace daily, which serve to test our knowledge and expertise, as well as stretching our thinking and problem-solving skills. If you think about it, we spend a great deal of time asking ourselves questions...