The Perpetual Improvement of Lean Design

I was asked recently to speak at the Lean Construction Institute’s Project Production Systems Laboratory Design Forum in Berkeley CA next week.

LCI P2SL in leanspeak.

While much has been written about waste – resources, material, time, money – in construction, relatively little has been written about reducing waste in the design process.

Lean design, for short.

Waste is defined here as all the things owners should not – and increasingly, will not – pay for.

Waste is also all the things the earth should not – and increasingly, will not – pay for.

Sure, there’s the lean methodology based on The Toyota Production System (TPS) from which all lean methods evolve.

Unless you believe in intelligent lean design.

But we’ll save that for another post.

If the architect’s design process is inefficient, it is so for many reasons that are outside the architect’s control, including the regulatory process and climate, availability of financing and (in)decisiveness of the owner.

That said, knowing these could be potential obstructions to an otherwise lean design approach, there is much the design team can do in advance to prepare for – and address – these inefficiencies.

So much so that I will make the subject of preparedness the topic of its own future post.

Lean Applied to the Architectural Design Process

The architectural design process is a different creature for a number of reasons.

What makes design less efficient, effective and gets its BMI way up, has as much to do with human nature as it does with streamlining the design process in more methodological ways.

The focus remains the same – on creating client value and working closely with all teammates.

What is different here are all the potential conflicts and complexity brought about by teams attempting to work together in an integrated way.

Call it the human component, the people factor. Whatever you name it, it is a very contemporary issue and one that requires our attention.

Here are a couple questions that one might ask to start a discussion.      

If you have questions that you don’t see here that you would like to see asked – I encourage you to add them in the comments below.

  • ·         What role does ego of design participants play in slowing down the design process? Making it less efficient and effective? Is there a place for ego – and related behavior – such as grandstanding, fluffing of feathers and creating bottlenecks in the flow of progress? It’s complicated. Early in one’s career, it is easy to dismiss such behavior as so much unnecessary theater – that it just calls attention to the person and away from the project. Here’s my take: If it doesn’t take away from creating value for the owner and doesn’t otherwise do any harm? A little ego – with its attendant storytelling and jive talk – is OK, goes a long way, serves as a lubricant to the often lengthy and involved design process and keeps life and meetings interesting.
  • ·         If this were your last project with your client – guaranteed to never work with them again – would you be less concerned about marketing your services, additional or otherwise? Would you be less afraid to ask questions that potentially make you our to be less of an expert you’re expected – or you purported – to be?
  • ·         Is the end project a known entity? Or does it require reinventing the wheel? Some designers need to innovate with each project irrespective of the assignment. But not all projects call for unique solutions. Buildings types should be adjusted for their particular region and location – but do not require the seemingly endless spinning of wheels often associated with projects being re-imagined whole cloth.
  • ·         Important team members arrive at meetings late – sometimes requiring those who did show up on time to review progress made in the meeting up until that point. Other times, their arrival is disruptive, interrupting the progress that had been made. In the Morphosis case study in advanced practice ($14.95 at di.net or view for free here) Morphosis principal Thom Mayne was late and project manager Tim Christ ran the meeting that covered mechanical, electrical, and structural issues of a 68 story tower design. When Mayne did finally arrive, his behavior was telling: He listened briefly to the conversation; he was concerned about various issues related to the cooling and ventilation systems; and he reminded the assembled team about the design intentions for the building. In other words, he made the project (and client value) the focus of attention – not himself. Something rare for an architect of that stature.
  • ·         Not utilizing people’s skills – their interests, their talents, not keeping them motivated and engaged – is also wasteful. And the negative energy they let out can be devastating to the workflow and corrosive to an otherwise tight knit team.
  • ·         Because they often flip projects once completed, developers are often more concerned about first costs over the life cycle of the building: lowest price over value. This practice is wasteful in the long haul, and takes a great deal of the architect and other design team member’s time and resources to convince them to act otherwise.

This presentation on Set Based Design in the building industry from a 2009 LCI Design forum is truly exceptional. Simply put, in Set Based Design a broad range of alternatives are considered, then choices are narrowed until a superior solution is found. It is somewhat similar to Integrated Project Delivery in that the earliest phases are front loaded with information and design options. From a lean perspective, the question becomes:

  • ·         How many alternatives are too many – at which point their production becomes wasteful?
  • ·         Can the design team distinguish between true alternatives – and choices – vs. variations on a theme? The presentation of slight variations alongside alternative designs can be wasteful – especially if the design is not among the contenders.

Several years ago, in a project interview for a $100M assignment with the building owner, the owner asked the four of us on the design team a number of questions about our process.

At one point he asked: How many designs will I get? (Ostensibly, in exchange for his $100M.)

As the senior designer of the project, I responded by saying what any red-blooded, self-respecting and (at the time) fiscally irresponsible designer would say:

“As many as you want!”

The project manager reeled it in a bit by saying: one!

“You will get one design.”

The firm’s high-profile partner said:

“Three. We typically find that three is satisfactory.”

The marketing director taught me an incredible lesson: he said – in fact, he asked

“How many do you want?”

That one worked. We got the job.

And after the interview – after we as a team started communicating and listening better and making sure we were on the same page – we helped to assure that the design process was a lean one: in oversight and spirit, if not in methodology.

You learn that most mistakes in judgment in the early design phases are forgivable – as long as you learn from them.

A little every day. It adds up.

What improvements to the design process would you suggest?

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7 Comments

Filed under design professionals, Integrated Design, Integrated Project Delivery, IPD, people, process, workflow

7 responses to “The Perpetual Improvement of Lean Design

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  2. Paul Coates

    Reading your article a few points come to mind. Effective design is closely related to knowledge management. To avoid abortive work designers must have the necessary information at the right time. Rapid prototyping is important to generate better designs. BIM in some areas has a role to play here. A useful book in this area is Austin and Devin “Artful Making”. Toyota had both a very efficient design system as well as a very efficient production system. I think there are lesson to be learnt from both areas. But they may not be the same lessons. I also think there are lessons to be learnt from the work of Jonathan Edelman from Stanford on iterative design.

  3. Ronald Reed

    Much of the “waste” in the “design process” in my experience stems from a rush to produce a product before fully understanding what “issues” or what “problems” are fundamental to producing “value” (for the owner?) whose value is often quite different ( and often mutifaceted or unclear) than the rest of the assebled “design team”. Part of this may be attibuted to “ego” stroking as you allude to but I tend to agree with your assesement that some ego being applied to a process of design can be a good thing, especially if it is not “blind” or “uninformed” ego. Part may also be attributed to not wanting to appear uninformed or lacking experience, as you also suggest. But I believe, it is more often the result of our inherent need, reinforced by our education and training as designers, to “make or manipulate an object, a form, a thing” and by doing so we get “feedback” (iterative design process) but more importantly satisfy the need to point to something and declare “look what I made” (a basic human need but elevated to a higher plan by a design education), even absent ego, which enters when we begin to be rewarded for having made “that thing”. Our training requires that we make something to start that “iterative” process of design. The advent of BIM does nothing to curb this desire, in fact it may in some instances, absent discipline, even exagerate the process . The part of this that is “good news” is that we are coupling this advanced ability to objectify rapidly with the act of involving others , with other knowledge and abilities, simultaneously, “collaboration”, and hence, if the others are participating honestly, they can point out why the “thing” that we were so anxious to make may not be all that “valueable” in the big picture. Unfortunately this process becomes more efficent with familarity of the participants with each other and their abilities, levels of trust, and their desire to place the “good” of the group or project outcome ahead of the desire of an individual (often themselves – this is where ego begins to be a problem) . Making the “design process” lean therefore requires that we find ways to rapidly identify the primary project issues or problems, build trust, share knowledge, enable the team members to communicate selflessly in an efficent manner, while modeling and evaluating alternative outcomes.

  4. Ronald Reed

    Much of the “waste” in the “design process” in my experience stems from a rush to produce a product before fully understanding what “issues” or what “problems” are fundamental to producing “value” (for the owner?) whose value is often quite different ( and often multifaceted or unclear) than the rest of the assembled “design team”. Part of this may be attributed to “ego” stroking as you allude to but I tend to agree with your assessment that some ego being applied to a process of design can be a good thing, especially if it is not “blind” or “uninformed” ego. Part may also be attributed to not wanting to appear uninformed or lacking experience, as you also suggest. But I believe, it is more often the result of our inherent need, reinforced by our education and training as designers, to “make or manipulate an object, a form, a thing” and by doing so we get “feedback” (iterative design process) but more importantly satisfy the need to point to something and declare “look what I made” (a basic human need but elevated to a higher plan by a design education), even absent ego, which enters when we begin to be rewarded for having made “that thing”. Our training requires that we make something to start that “iterative” process of design. The advent of BIM does nothing to curb this desire, in fact it may in some instances, absent discipline, even exaggerate the process. The part of this that is “good news” is that we are coupling this advanced ability to objectify rapidly with the act of involving others, with other knowledge and abilities, simultaneously, “collaboration”, and hence, if the others are participating honestly, they can point out why the “thing” that we were so anxious to make may not be all that “valuable” in the big picture. Unfortunately this process becomes more efficient with familiarity of the participants with each other and their abilities, levels of trust, and their desire to place the “good” of the group or project outcome ahead of the desire of an individual (often themselves – this is where ego begins to be a problem) . Making the “design process” lean therefore requires that we find ways to rapidly identify the primary project issues or problems, build trust, share knowledge, enable the team members to communicate selflessly in an efficient manner, while modeling and evaluating alternative outcomes.

  5. In regard to the Toyota production system (TPS) Have you looked at their styling? Across the line it is the most drab and uninspired aesthetic in the auto industry. That is my opinion of course but it looks like the bean counters at Toyota are driving that process. There is a fine line between lean and starving.

  6. Pingback: BIM and Integrated Design Top 10 Posts for 2011 | BIM + Integrated Design

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