No one really likes to change the way they work. Change in seasons or scenery is good, change in trends keeps us from getting bored, but changing how we work is difficult, especially for professionals.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory” 
– W. Edwards Deming

Designers typically are hired because of success or expertise in a market Would altering how designers work affect that success? 

Lean process improvement is not a new idea; it has been around since the 80’s in manufacturing. It is full of clever acronyms and Japanese words that can be confusing, and maybe a little annoying. Lean has been turned into a “toolkit,” the happy meal for the design and construction professional. 

If you master the concepts of Last Planner System©, 5S, Kaizen, Value Stream Mapping and A3 reports, you will get the prize of having a super-lean job. It’s just that easy, right? No, it’s not, and there is so much more to digest and master. Like most things in life, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. But like all change, it is hard work.

Lean is more than a collection of tools or a step-by-step instruction manual for producing better work; it is an overall mind shift change. The basic shift involves minimizing non-value-added tasks and continuing to improve the work. Some of our end customers are beginning this process themselves. The healthcare industry is a big proponent of incorporating lean principles to improve their work, and many healthcare systems are studying lean process improvement. They should, as there is so much non-value-added activity in healthcare, but what about design? Effective Integrated Project Delivery (notice, I said effective) teams use lean principles for developing collaboration among team members. In order for a collaborative team structure to work, the group has to use fundamental lean principles (whether they realize it or not) to develop their structure and activities on those teams.

The biggest challenge is to recognize change itself. There may be similarities between the partnering that was done 20 years ago and today’s relationships that sometimes form in negotiated agreements or design-build projects. Believe me, it is not the same thing. Lean principles are based on the concept that work should be structured to bring value to the end customer, and work not done with a direct effect on that value to the end customer is waste. These manufacturing principles also prescribe a method of continuous improvement. So how does the work in design possibly compare to principles set up for manufacturing? Let’s look with “designer eyes” at the five principles of lean.

Define value

Specify value from the standpoint of the end customer. What does our process look like through the eyes of our clients, or even the real end users of a design service? What is the value that designers bring to their customers? Designers bring to projects the ability to solve complicated problems. Architects can have the ability to take the most complicated site, or multitude of building codes, or variety of materials, and create a structure that solves those issues and is still aesthetically pleasing. The key point, though, is defining value from the customer’s perspective. What portion of that work is a customer really paying for?

Designers must first ask the question, what will bring value to the end customer? Spending up-front time defining that value is the first step. This is deeper than a visioning session because it is essential for the participants to not just figure out what the end customer wants, but why they want it. If the solution is rushed without defining the root cause of the issue, there is potential for the solution to be wrong. We have to hold off on concepts and solving the customer’s problems until we truly know what their root issue is. We have to spend some time analyzing and discovering the real problem and cause of the problem before we try to solve it with expertise. This can be frustrating for experienced designers who can take a glimpse at client needs and have the ability to translate words like “hope,” “gateway” and “community icon” into immediate results that can be convincing on the surface. If the time is not spent defining those terms from their perspective, these solutions could be in error initially, or it could be found out much later that they were going the wrong direction. 

One of the most powerful lean tools, the problem-solving A3, sets the stage for stating and analyzing root causes of the problems before solutions are even discussed. Using the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” method of analyzing problems, solutions have a protocol and method that can be measured, analyzed and developed. Using a “Good Five Why” or a “Causal Map” also will help uncover root cause and can be incorporated into the A3 as part of the process.

Identify the value stream

A   value stream is the steps in a process that are value-added. If we think about our work process again from the eye of the end customer, our definition of value shifts slightly. There are non-value-added tasks we must do. Billing our clients does not add value to our end customers, but neither does going out of business should we not get paid. What must you do for your end customer and your internal job customers, your team, to get the work done? What are the tasks the customer is willing to pay for? Most design firms have their project deliverables list, and many of those deliverables are needed to meet the goals of the project. The challenge is to not look at how you should do those things faster or more efficiently to meet your project demands, it is to determine whether those tasks are needed at all, or if someone else already is doing them down the stream. This issue always brings to mind one of my favorite Peter Drucker quotes, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”    

The value stream allows us to start to see and identify waste. If we map every step in the design process, can we see the eight deadly types of waste? They are: defects, over-processing, waiting, non-utilized resources, transporting, inventory, motion, and excess processing. Defects are errors, mistakes. They compound themselves by requiring rework, redesign, RFIs and change orders to fix the error. Over-processing describes work that is done over and over again for one task. 

How often are end users asked the same questions because a new group of people takes over the process? Do we develop or detail products that will be developed or detailed by others again later on in the value stream? Any waiting in the process is waste. Waiting for decisions to continue, or waiting for information from anyone on the team is a form of waste. We cannot always control these things. We sometimes are victims of monthly board meetings or a Revit file that takes 45 minutes to save back to the central file, but the planning of the value stream allows us to identify what we cannot control, and adjust to do other work during those times to eliminate the waste of resources.

If we planned for the waiting, could we take that time and make it value-added? Are there ideas from team members on improvement that are overlooked? Lean encourages the innovation of those doing the work. Ignoring their input is the waste of non-utilized resources. Transporting is the waste of the necessity to move a product in order for the work to be done. That is easier to see on a manufacturing line than in a design work flow, but it exists in design work, too. We see it when drawing files that have to be electronically transmitted from company to company or, in the traditional RFI process, where a single question goes through multiple hands in order to reach a solution.  

What is the inventory of a designer? Do drawing sets have standard details that do not apply to the project? Are multiple design solutions being produced before they are required or requested, or are team members or consultants ahead of the work of others? Inventory creates the potential for rework. Motion applies to workers’ work space. If you watch employees work, is 80 percent of what they need at their fingertips? Are they spending time looking for items, information or references because of inefficient organization?

Creating something from nothing is the challenge for designers. Excess processing refers to creating more than the end customer needs. If we provide more product than is requested, does it add value to the project? Communication is the key element here. We have to take the time to discover what the customer really needs. Does our end customer need 20 elevations, or would a single mock-up better explain a solution? Are we providing more information about a product or system than a contractor needs to procure that system?

Classifying types of waste is not the important issue, as they sometimes overlap. Seeing waste and minimizing it is what is essential. Creating the value stream for the work process is the first step in recognizing and eliminating waste. Map out your process and include all team members. Where do you see waste?

Make the value flow

I  have pulled my share of all-nighters. They are somewhat of a fundamental rite of passage in the design world. It could be argued that they are the result of unpredictable or unrealistic schedules, or have we come to accept that this is the way we must work? The principles of lean would suggest that it is a symptom of poorly planned tasks. Do you plan your work on an individual-worker level looking at the value stream? Including more team members in this process will give you better outcomes. 

Pull Planning is a method teams use to discover and recognize waste on projects. The design and construction value stream is usually translated into a Pull Schedule or incorporated into the Last Planner System©. You may have seen these elaborate collections of multi-colored sticky notes on projects that define work tasks in a scheduled order. The focus should not be on the schedule outcome, it should be on the process. There is the potential that, by focusing on the waste, you could eliminate time or put tasks where they are really needed before the time factor is added. You also can make allowances for the wait times over which we have no control, or make adjustments to the flow to eliminate that waste if it is identified.

Redistribute the skill sets. Remember the work of the master architect who had the ability to conceptualize the design, describe the solution to workers, and often directly participate in the construction of the work? How do you train your employees? Although everyone has specific talents that influence their role in the design process, it is still important for each to understand and be able to participate in all parts.

Can your employees actively participate outside of their titled job role? We need to avoid creating our own internal work silos. We should celebrate those individuals who step outside their role to help others in times of crisis, or carry an idea from conception to construction. We should encourage our young designers to understand how what they design or draw is constructed. We need to encourage opportunities for staff members to step outside their skill set, and work as a cross-functional team. In order to even out the work flow, we need to understand the work of others, especially on our own project teams.  

The introduction of Integrated Project Delivery or other types of collaborative work relationships encourages distribution of the work flow. I know that you have been doing that for years, too. You have invited your consultants to meetings, and even construction managers have attended to participate in design conversations. There may have been a golf game or a team outing in there somewhere, too. 

When I think of real collaboration, I think of that IDEO shopping cart video. It was filmed by ABC in the late 90’s, but it is still eye-opening today from the view of a collaborative work strategy. When you watch it, you cannot differentiate role or hierarchy in that work team. The person who is most capable of leading the work effort leads the work effort, everyone in the room dedicates all effort toward solving the problem, and each team member has a different skill set and background. They conduct “Gembas” to define value from the eye of the customer, and they discover root causes of problems. They have an organized work flow that has an end date in mind. This is a collaborative team, plus it looks like a fun place to work.

Let the customer pull

Lean process improvement often is about value to the end customer, but there are many customers in our work. There is also much of our work that could be non-value-added to the end customer, but essential to our other customers and to the process that leads to the end product. A customer, in this case, is any of our project partners, regardless of who owns which contract. The “pull of the customer” is the concept that we have to actually have an audience for the work that we do, and we only do that work when and if it is required.  

Pull Planning was mentioned in the previous lean principle, and through the value stream the “planning” part of that phrase is identified. In order to make work flow, we rely on “pull.” In order for a task to be value-added to the end customer or value-added to the process, someone actually needs to ask for it to be done. At the surface, this concept is simple. 

Think about how often the work you do is a result of the way you always do your work. This is pushing work, not pulling work. For example, architects know that somewhere during a design process a simple floor plan with doors and walls will be required. A structural grid will need to be developed for that floor plan. We know that certain structural grids are more efficient than others. The structural engineer also has a perception of what the most efficient structural grid is. We can all create these designs in our own silo, or even in collaborative silos, and we are heroes because we have that done before it is really needed. 

Murphy’s Law comes into play when we find out there is a shortage of concrete or the client’s cousin is in the steel business, or a myriad of other snags we didn’t anticipate that make all the work we have done turn into rework. There are innumerable large and small examples of this. Letting the customer pull, creating a value stream of our work collectively to make the right decisions at the right time, and letting the person most capable of making the decision and documenting that decision lead, will help eliminate those issues. Pull Planning is more about creating value-driven work based on our partner’s needs than it is sticky notes on a schedule.

Pursue perfection

Quality control is everyone’s job at every point in the process; having the ability to “stop the line” at any point to adjust flow of work, decisions, planning, implementation and construction is imperative. The phrase “pursue perfection” asks the question, do you actively think every day, “What could I do better today than I did yesterday?” We sometimes ask our end customers about product quality, but do we ask our project partners? What could you do better today that would help your project partner do a better job? If you wait until the end of a project to improve, only the next project benefits. 

Continuous improvement is a daily task; it is a mind shift from hoping to do better work to actually doing better work. Plus/Deltas are activities incorporated by lean project teams to make improvements. Pluses are the things we did well, and Deltas are areas in which we must improve. I have seen the team eye rolls when this is done, but in my experience as a design professional, it has been very effective in team and personal improvement. There are small things: I did not get the agenda soon enough, the room was too cold for me to pay attention, I could not see the drawings.

And there are the big ones: I don’t understand what decision I am supposed to make, I don’t think I was heard, you are solving the wrong problem. This also applies to everything we do. Pursuing perfection creates a culture of change; every meeting, every day, how we can be better than we were yesterday. It also allows us to get the input from every person in the production system, utilizing their resources. It is personal. How can I do my job better? How am I empowered to improve my work? It is more effective as small changes are easier to handle than big, uncontrolled errors.

There are principles in lean process improvement that will change the way you work. They’re just not packaged in a neat toolkit or instruction manual. There are essential tools that you can learn, but implementing them in a vacuum will not change how we work. It is the principles of lean that are important. They are not easy to put into practice, but it is worth the effort in terms of the value you can bring to your projects. This encourages us as professionals to use the strength of what we do well combined with the strengths of our partners and teammates to produce a better product for our clients.