The power of Lean planning

Published on
March 12, 2020
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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TenneT is a transmission system operator responsible for the Dutch and part of the German high-voltage grid and connections to neighboring countries. We are responsible for very large and complex projects, but often struggle to ensure that there is sufficient awareness within the organization about how they are progressing.

The introduction of Lean planning

So we introduced Lean planning at TenneT, an approach inspired by Last Planner System (a staple of lean construction). Our management team was initially a bit reluctant to Lean planning, but changed their minds when they discovered that our subcontractors were doing it regularly. We even went to visit a subcontractor in Leiden and witnessed one of their daily stand-up meetings. Shortly thereafter, a session was organized to try to get Tendering and Engineering together and introduce both teams to Lean Thinking.

We also decided to conduct a pilot project, for which we chose to focus on a major infrastructure project: the construction of a 70-kilometer high-voltage line in the south of the Netherlands (part above ground, part underground) that will transport offshore energy to the mainland. Much of our work consists of writing documents, establishing legal and technical requirements, and obtaining construction permits before we can begin tendering. There is a lot of coordination involved, because even a simple construction like a transmission tower requires the use of several subcontractors (some to lay the foundations for the tower, some to build the tower, some to build the road to the site, some to lay the cables, and so on).

This is a long-term project, to be completed by 2029. The first three years will be spent on design, engineering, procurement and reaching agreements with local authorities and landowners along the corridor (to obtain the necessary permits). In many ways, obtaining the permits is the most difficult part of the work: disputes with local authorities over the towers have already resulted in the project having to be restarted. Having to build such a large corridor within an existing infrastructure is complicated, and not knowing how long each negotiation with local authorities or with private individuals will take makes the process even more difficult. For TenneT, it is therefore very important to minimize waste and waiting time internally and to create a buffer in case complications arise in obtaining a permit (something we often have no control over).

Lean planning parts

A successful Lean planning approach consists of three fully integrated steps:

  • The overall schedule of 1- to 2-year milestones and deliverables by phase
  • Six-month planning of products by month, based on a Master Document List (MDL) or Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
  • Weekly planning of defined activities by responsible role

In practical terms, this meant introducing a large visual Lean planning board that would be used by various departments to chart activities and progress, which were divided into six-month blocks. When a project takes 10 years to complete, people have trouble keeping their attention - so it makes sense to break it down into smaller deliverables. Our teams needed a way to get a better view of our activities each week, understand the details of the work, the deadlines and, in general, what everyone was responsible for and working on at any given time. Lean planning immediately better defined roles and responsibilities and created more support and accountability between our teams.

Meeting regularly for governance helped us see things in a different way. Learning to prioritize made our people's lives easier: they could now talk to each other about what they needed from their colleagues to get on with their work. For example, the bulky reports that the Engineering team must compile for each project (which are often hundreds of pages long) are something that many other functions depend on; however, not every function needs all chapters of the document at once. Discussions before the board revealed many cases where only three or four chapters (out of 50, sometimes) were needed, which meant the Engineering team could focus on those first. The Lean idea is not to overproduce, but to work on exactly what is needed for the next step in the process when needed.

Indeed, everyone is now more aware of the daily activities and there is a general feeling of more control over our process. In the beginning we brought all the departments together for the meetings, but communication proved to be quite a challenge and eventually we decided that each (sub)project should have its own board and meetings.

Resistance to Lean

And yet in the beginning there was (and still is) resistance to Lean planning. Most people didn't like it.

"Some even called the Lean planning boards the Wall of Shame"

Not only was there a reluctance to commit to deadlines (with an unpredictable process like Licensing, for example, people wanted to maintain their flexibility), but also a general lack of understanding of the benefits that might result from using Lean planning. For some, the benefits were obvious, but others just didn't see what they could gain.

One-on-one coaching was very important here. Listening to our people's fears and doubts, asking them lots of questions, engaging them in conversations and helping them see the benefits of Lean planning already helped them go a long way in warming up to the new approach.

Eventually, people realized that they needed to work more closely with each other and that Lean planning could help them do that by understanding each other's work and committing to each other's deadlines. Over time, visualizing dependencies and synergies between different departments made goals more achievable and lead times on deliverables began to get shorter. When it becomes clear during a standard meeting that someone has not been able to complete a piece of work, it is now common practice to try to understand together why. We have become more aware of the impact of our work on that of our colleagues.

Lean planning applied to Offshore projects

Lean planning has also been applied to Offshore projects at TenneT. Our Offshore department had three months to prepare the documents for two tender processes to identify and hire the contractors who would conduct two seabed surveys to determine the bottom conditions and safety of the areas where underwater cables were to be installed. Our seas are littered with many underwater objects such as debris, fishing nets, wrecks, boulders and unexploded ordnance (UXO) that we don't even know are there, and these objects can obviously pose a huge risk to vessels laying cables under the seabed. - Therefore, a prerequisite for the execution of any offshore project is that there is no risk.

Had the study not been completed, the entire project would have been delayed by at least several months, at enormous cost to TenneT. For such tenders, we have to prepare supporting documentation to determine who is the best contractor for the job. These are usually comprehensive tenders that, as you would expect, involve a lot of work.

Tenders are conducted during the initiation phase of a project, when the project team is recruited. A tender team consists of the new members and experts from multiple departments (e.g., cable experts from the Asset Management Department, Operations and Maintenance experts from the Grid Service Operation Department, Offshore experts from the Frontier Offshore Department, legal advisors from the Legal Department, and buyers from the Procurement Department). Meanwhile, these experts are also involved in other projects.

Lean planning proved very helpful in getting all the experts together and supporting them in their work to deliver all the necessary tender documents in such a short time frame. During the Lean sessions we held, it became clear to all experts involved that there are many interdependencies between the different areas. It helped the team members to understand the interdependencies to achieve our final goals. Lean planning helped determine which document to prioritize and what knowledge from which experts was needed and when. It also helped the experts to better coordinate the many activities and projects they were involved in, which resulted in all required tender documentation being ready in time for the publication of the tenders.

"Thanks to Lean planning, the tenders could not only be published within a few months, but the amount of documents could also be greatly reduced (from several hundred pages to a few dozen)   

The two projects discussed above could not have been more different. The power line project is long-term - this particular project will take two years, for licenses, ten if we consider the entire value stream - while the offshore project discussed needed a quick turnaround.

"The fact that Lean planning led to successful results in both projects proves how flexible the system is. 

I have used it in different environments in the past, from Schiphol Airport (where we used the engineering phase to renovate the F-gate in four and a half months instead of nine months) to Nyenrode University (here it helped us to set up a new program within the curriculum), at Miele (where we used it to set up a marketing event at Lowlands, a music festival) and MerckSharp&Dohme (where we set up 3 pilot projects to prepare the implementation of a new fire alarm system in multiple production facilities).

This approach facilitates planning and communication between different functions within a value stream. The nod to the Last Planner System is obvious: This method, developed by Professor Glenn Ballard and widely used in the lean construction world, was designed to help different trades on a construction site work together effectively, transfer work and adhere to each other's deadlines.

I implemented a learning log for both projects at TenneT. If someone was late with their appointments, we could write down the reason. This showed that in most cases delays occurred because people were waiting for their colleagues to finish their work. It was an eye opener for the teams, eventually convincing them of the need to find an alternative approach.

Thanks to the TenneT team: Michiel Bakhuizen, Planner Onshore; Ewald van Dorst, Project Manager Offshore; Emile Brentjens, Financial Project Manager Offshore; Inge Oortgiesen, Project Manager Onshore; Eugene Meuwszen, Tactical Buyer Offshore.

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