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Building The “A”Team: Creating a Personal Connection with Onboarding

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

“Great design doesn’t begin with a cool drawing or a nifty gadget, It begins with a deep and empathetic understanding of people.” Daniel H. Pink [5]

Optimize flow is a focus of Lean project delivery and thus improves production. However, production will not be improved if project leadership does nothing to evaluate and build the team’s emotional intelligence (EI).

As Figure 1 shows, two central tenets of Lean are “Respect for People” and “Removal of Waste“ [1]. By not investing in learning about how each individual works on a project, we give up the opportunity for the project to go from ordinary to extraordinary and are overlooking a major waste — the waste of human resources that can lead to schedule or material delays. Onboarding offers many opportunities to not only build a collaborative and empathetic learning culture, but also establish beneficial processes necessary to implement and support the adoption of Lean project planning and management activities

Figure 1. Lean Construction Institute©

Optimize flow is a focus of Lean project delivery and thus improves production. However, production will not be improved if project leadership does nothing to evaluate and build the team's emotional intelligence (EI). EI was first defined by Daniel Goleman in 1995. It includes an individual's self-awareness and impulse control, persistence, zeal, elf-motivation, empathy, and social deftness. Goleman reported that EI can be nurtured and strengthened in all of us [2]. Renee Cheng’s research on IPD projects [3] and recently reported research on the Business Case for Lean [4], both reported that projects with a strong focus on onboarding, coaching, and mentoring people have realized beneficial results meeting schedules and budgets and exceeding owner expectations. While it takes time and effort to understand each individual, the benefits of investing the time to align people on a project means that people go beyond just the basics, create a high performing team, add more value for your customers, and elevate the success of your projects. Understanding a team’s EI will help build a shared vision and purpose for the project. In a previous post, I proposed practical ways to personally engage individuals and build a team that can perform at a high level under stressful conditions. In this post, I propose how to assess both an individual and the team's EI and how the onboarding plan can be used to facilitate this. First, an onboarding plan should include defining and scheduling opportunities for teams to go beyond day to day meetings as well as, budget and schedule opportunities for shared activities, and co-workers get together for team building and informal fellowship. This can include daily “icebreakers” and informal team building events such as group sporting events, happy hours, or volunteering as a group. Also, make time to celebrate successes and reward those who are contributing to meet the project's established goals. [6]

Figure 2. “People Wall” Courtesy of Anderson Construction.

To build your teams’ EQ further, consider investing in a professional personality profile exercise like Strengthsfinders, Disc, or Myers Briggs (this costs between $100 - $300 per person). Understanding a person’s tendencies and motivations can go a long way to dispel “good-guy/bad-guy” attitudes. Knowing strengths and weaknesses of each individual is an important way to begin to build your “A” team. It may not always be practical on traditional DBB construction projects, but Figure 2 gives an example of a “People Wall” using StrengthsFinders (Figure 3) at the Phil Knight Cancer Hospital Project.

Figure 3. StrengthsFinders

Managers must also create opportunities for trade partners, regulators, and suppliers to participate in and be engaged in building a collaborative project culture. Even the trades with the smallest contribution need to be acknowledged and not treated as commodities. They are valuable members of the project team. After all, it is the details that make a project extraordinary. Full team on-boarding requires managers who look beyond individual personality profiles to find exercises and tools to engage everyone including regulators and suppliers. Lean workshops or alignment sessions (Kaizen Events) should be planned for and undertaken at every major milestone or hand off. Acknowledging everyone's contributions builds goodwill and results in better project quality. Often these must be bilingual and cross cultural. Reviewing onboarding documents with each new trade is the ideal time to begin to create a personal connection and engage the team to get to know each other. Understanding how they contribute to the project and what are leadership's expectations will go a long way in creating the “network of commitments” critical to success. Clear measurable guidelines should be defined and published in the project’s overall goals and objectives. A core team representing the designers, GC/CM, and key trades should confer to define both qualitative and quantitative metrics used to guide the project from the outset. Beyond the valuable benefits of establishing trust and building empathy in people, the onboarding documents and plans must address leadership's expectations for applying Lean principles and tools throughout the project. Table 1 presents a brief example of both qualitative and quantitative objectives that a project team can use to gauge how the team is performing.

Table 1: Examples of qualitative and quantitative measures

Finally, I acknowledge that often these exercises are thought of as too “touchy-feely” by many design and construction professionals. However, a good onboarding document can help overcome these negative biases by offering evidence that gaining an understanding of the way we think and interact. But even more important for building the “A” team is how team leaders model the behaviors that they want the project teams to practice day after day. Understanding each individual's tendencies begins to acknowledge the importance of each individual's contribution to the overall success of a project. In the end, onboarding is about building a community. We all want to go to work not just to earn a paycheck but to gain mastery, enjoy the company of our colleagues, and deliver a project we can be proud of. Please make a conscience effort to have fun with your team.


[1] Liker, J. K. (2004). The Toyota Way. McGraw-Hill, 184-198.

[2] Daniel Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books.

[5] Pink,D (2005,2006) A Whole New Mind, Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Riverhead Books.

[6] Duhigg,C.(2017),Smarter Faster Better, The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, Random House

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