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Lean Design: Navigating Chaos and Complexity Today

"The Times They Are A-changin'" - so said Bob Dylan over 40 years ago. He was a keen observer of the times, who chronicled and gave voice for many on the turmoil and influences affecting the United States during the 1960s.

Similar can be said of the AEC industry today, as the accepted ways that buildings were funded, designed, and constructed have shifted significantly and continue to evolve. The last 30 years have seen a transformation in the tools designers use and an ever-increasing pace of work. Changing technologies along with the ability to communicate instantaneously is a prime driver, creating the need for us to examine and rethink how we work together.

Lean Thinking

Process management systems have been employed by many industries to improve both how they work and the quality of what they do or make. Lean Thinking is the most recognizable term used, which was derived from observing the Toyota Production System - an approach that has revolutionized manufacturing. Very simply, Lean looks for the reduction of waste in activities along with a focus on making a more streamlined workflow.

The application of Lean Thinking principles has significantly impacted how buildings are constructed. Surprisingly, design side delivery methodologies remain largely unchanged. Why is that? Part of the answer may be that contractors and design professionals face very different problems and challenges. Understanding the type or kind of problem one has is key to solving it well.

Lean techniques are readily applicable to construction as contractors primarily deal with issues of logistics such as estimating, the procurement and staging of materials, and managing and coordinating the work of trades. However, that isn’t the type of problem design professionals face throughout many aspects of their work.

A building, along with the BIM model and resulting documents that describe it, are an "organized complexity" – that is, they are composed of multiple, overlapping building components and systems, logically arranged and coordinated with each other.

The designer’s job can be understood to include two basic tasks – solving the puzzle of the project and documenting the solution. In addition to addressing the subjective elements of design with functional requirements and aesthetics, solving the design "puzzle" entails dealing with a sizable number of parameters. Building systems, code requirements (often overlapping and conflicting) – must all be weighted, weighed, and ultimately combined into a workable solution that is affordable. The earlier this is resolved in a project, the greater the benefit is to all.

Documenting the solution simply entails creating a digital description of the work via a BIM model that is coordinated and constructible. If the project "puzzle" is adequately solved, this is the easier task and readily lends itself to Lean process management approaches.

Observations

The exponential increases in computing power have allowed for the automation of many work processes and the ability to visualize and simulate what we are imagining. Coupled with worldwide interconnectedness, we can work from anywhere and at any time. It is important to remember, though, that these wonderful capabilities do not eliminate the need to sufficiently think through and resolve problems – nor do they necessarily reduce the time required. To better facilitate that, we must manage well the flow of knowledge and information across the entire project.

BRPH considers Lean Design a key component in our efforts to rethink and improve design practice methodologies. We see it sharpening our focus in order to streamline what we do, so we may do it better. It requires that we identify what contributes value to our clients, partners, and projects – and seek to eliminate or reduce what doesn’t. The Lean definition for value can be expressed as:

  • Everything that our client is paying for and cares about
  • Effort that progresses the project
  • Work performed correctly the first time

How Can This Be Applied?

  1. Approach project development using a critical path methodology that identifies what needs to happen at the appropriate time, while coordinating with all disciplines. It is always more productive to prevent problems from happening as opposed to expending effort later to uncover and correct them.
  2. Concurrently design, engineer and make the buildings constructible. Where possible, major design and decision making, coupled with simultaneous costing and value engineering, should be complete by the end of the design phase.
  3. Consider schedules as commitments, and intentionally choreograph the interdependencies between tasks to ensure all project stakeholders have the right information at the right time. This is part art, part science, and lots of work.

Time frames continue to shrink while project demands only increase.Lean Design is a firm-wide approach that looks critically at how we work together with the goal of leveraging technology and people’s talents to continuously improve.It is an ongoing endeavor that builds upon old ideas while inventing new ones – with the goal of better navigating the chaos and complexity of today’s work.

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Posted In: Lean Design, Solutions
Tagged In: Leadership, collaboration, lean design
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Michael is the Director of Lean Design at BRPH and is based out of the Melbourne office. He has over 30 years of experience spanning across a broad spectrum of design, project management, production, and construction administration.

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