Student-Industry Partnerships: Learning through Lean-Based Action Research

Bob Muir, Ph.D., and Connor Rogers
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, VA

Greg Otey
Branch Builds, Inc
Daleville, VA

Internships provide excellent experiential learning opportunities for construction engineering and management students.  Undergraduate and graduate research are excellent pathways to discovery through investigation and experimentation.  Applied research is defined as a systematic, practical application of science.  Action research takes the applied approach to the workface in pursuit of transformational change.  It requires a proactive, close-to-the-problem orientation.  These research methodologies have been demonstrated to be highly useful in facilitating improvements to construction practices and can also be a catalyst to greater collaboration between construction academics and industry professionals.  Action research is an approach that the Lean Construction community has been employing for some time in an effort to expand and refine the body of knowledge while concurrently seeking continuous practical improvements. The authors are conducting a case study of a proposed Lean-based action research project implemented by a construction management student employed as an intern for a commercial building contractor.  The company has embarked upon their Lean journey and is dedicated to changing their culture and growing high performance learning teams.  The intern, University faculty, and contractor have joined in a collaborative action research effort.  The proposed action research project includes investigating targeted operations for the purpose of performance improvement related to safety, reliability, and the elimination of waste.  While the project is intended to drive specific process improvements through testing of various countermeasures, the true value of the work is the learning among all parties.

The primary research objective of this case study is to assess the efficacy of the proposed action research learning model.  The learning model is a three-way collaboration among construction students, faculty, and their construction industry partners engaged in practical action research.  The case study is intended to reveal strengths, weaknesses, and risks associated with the model.  It is also a starting point for formulating best practices in the action research methodology and stakeholder interaction and participation. This case study will observe the application and outcomes of the proposed action research to construction operations.  The proposed action research project being studied heavily relies on a Lean approach utilizing various tools including A3 problem solving and plus/delta analysis.  The action research project requires fieldwork for observation, interviews, and implementation of countermeasures based on the findings.  Evaluation of results shall be ongoing throughout the project.  The evaluation process includes applying appropriate performance metrics to quantify the outcomes.  Evaluation also includes scanning for collateral risk and unintended consequences.  Qualitative measures will be used to gauge stakeholder satisfaction.

This study is essentially a pilot in its preliminary stages.  It is envisioned that this case study will be the first of many. This research is expected to inform construction educators and industry leaders of the mutual benefits of providing opportunities to students to engage in practical action research through internships.  It is intended to test and refine an effective practice-based learning model.  Additional benefits include introducing Lean principles, practices, and tools to construction students and industry professionals.  This case study is intended to add to the construction education body of knowledge, as well as contributing to the expansion of the Lean Construction body of knowledge through lessons learned.

Keywords: Action research, Lean construction, A3 problem solving, Internships, Construction education