Are You Having the Right Conversations on Your Projects?

This is the first in a series of blog posts based on Language Action and how it applies to the project environment and is based on the teachings of Fernando Flo
res and Chauncey Bell.  I have been a student of Fernando Flores in his Dwelling Program for the past year, and I have been working and learning with Chauncey Bell for several years.

At the heart of any lean transformation, or successful implementation of the Last Planner System, is the ability of teams to make reliable promises and activate the network of commitments on projects and within organizations.

For many of us we think about language as merely a means to report something that has happened to us, or a way to exchange information about a concern that we have.  When we think about language in these terms our concerns are focused on the transaction – we care more about the RFI as a document and where it is at in the system or when the next revision to the contract will be ready for review.

But language is not merely a way to describe a past transaction.  It is the way that we human beings create new possibilities, shape our futures, build trust, and coordinate future actions.  When we begin to see language for what it is – for creating action – then we begin to focus our concerns on the relationships and the other human beings around us.

Let’s think about the typical project schedule.  Before I started using the Last Planner System as a superintendent I was attempting to manage my projects using a traditional CPM schedule.  The conversations on the project were always focused on the schedule, the knowledge of the scheduler who built it, and what the dates and activities were on the piece of paper.  We were focused on the information and the perceived logic that a CPM schedule represents.  When the schedule didn’t work, we said the “schedule is broken” and we need to “fix the schedule”.  Our concerns were always on the schedule and the information represented in it.

Let’s compare that to pull planning – a popular part of the Last Planner System.  In a pull plan session, we are focused on the human beings in the room and the history and skills that they bring to the pull planning conversation.  Human beings standing shoulder to shoulder comparing the new work they have been presented with against past project experiences.  They are using the skills that they have been honing on jobsites for years – negotiating, making requests and offers to other trade leaders, recognizing new contingencies, and most importantly making commitments to each other on what they will and will not do.  Pull planning is effective not because of the sticky notes or the way they are organized on the wall.  Pull planning is effective because it involves human beings engaged in a serious conversation of possibilities and action around inventing a new future together as a team to accomplish the common goals of the project. 

Over a series of blogs in future Lean Construction Pulse newsletters I will explore the power of conversations with you and present new possibilities for future action that you can take.

Jason Klous is Principal at LeanProject and is a student of Fernando Flores.  Jason is currently working on a PhD in Language Action at Nottingham-Trent University in the U.K. with a focus on Language Action and the project environment.


Wow! I really like that last paragraph! We start every new project with a full day of lean learning and some pull planning. The first thing we do is go around the room and have introductions and while doing so capture the years in the business for each individual, which we then total up for the entire room. Recently on a small 4 million dollar project we had about 600 years experience in the room! That is when we give the message that “none of us is smarter than all of us” and just how important it is for everyone to share that hard earned expertise during the pull plan. I would like to site that last paragraph and of course give full credit to its author if allowed at this point in our presentation as well.

Thanks Austin. It is the shared history in the room (our experience) that makes the pull planning conversation so powerful.

Feel free to use the last paragraph in your presentation – thanks for the request.

Just a quick note: I absolutely support and encourage a focus on the quality, clarity, intention and skill applied to team conversations, including one on one conversations, at every level of the project. Facilitation skills, problem-solving, and stakeholder engagement strategies are all essential. However, we should keep in mind that while a conversation that engages the “600 years” of experience available in the team is vastly better than not effectively engaging those folks (the unfortunate current norm), what they are bringing is 600 years of experience about how things were done in the past. W. Edwards Deming was very clear that systems have limited ability to change from within and that new ideas must come from outside the current system and experience base. If the team is going to improve their communication skills, will that come form 600 years of traditional top-down edicts and repression of challenging input, or from new insights from folks like Flores who are outside that past experience base?
Jason, you make your living as an outsider introducing new, value-added skills and knowledge. We need that and we need new technical skills. It is incorrect to say that the way the sticky notes are arranged on the wall is not important. Yes, clear and informed commitment to a bad plan is better than no commitments, but commitments to a plan informed by Lean Operations Management principles is better. Those new ways of thinking about work also need to be taught so that the communication is about a better quality operational plan
Lean transformation of the AEC industry is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces are actually evolving and changing shape every day. Each piece is another bit of knowledge, skill, structure, procedure and system that needs to be put in place. Language action is one of those key pieces. Lets make sure we don’t focus only on the individual pieces, but on the strategic transformational vision that informs AEC industry change as a whole.

Hi Victor – thanks for you comments. Just one clarification on my comment about how the sticky notes are arranged. I was not trying to say that the plan itself is not important. I do see teams getting hung up on things like swim lanes and what information should and should not be on a sticky note in a pull plan – I would argue that those interpretations have less value than the overall conversation in the room. I believe that the sticky notes on the wall should represent the conversation that happens between the last planners in the room.

My assessment is that Language Action represents much more than communication skills and is more than a “piece” of a transformation effort. I will explore those ideas in future blogs.

Thanks again for the comments Victor – looking forward to seeing you at Congress!


This is a great start to what I’m sure will be a very insightful journey. I’ve always appreciated the way you present the different intricacies of the LPS process. I wish we still had you around to bounce ideas off of from time to time! How/where do I sign up to receive your future blog posts?

Good luck at Nottingham!


Hey Josh – thanks for taking the time to comment! I am only a phone call away and would be happy to have a conversation with you anytime you would like to talk about new ideas. I’d be happy to meet up for lunch or a beer after work as well.

You can receive all our future newsletters at looking forward to more comments from you!


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