Applying Lean Principles in the Building Design Industry

| November 8, 2017

Lean PrincipalsMost people working within the building design industry can recognize the value in Lean principles but have a difficult time applying them to our own professional services.  After all Lean was the brain child of Toyota executives and has been widely applied across the manufacturing and product development industries.  More recently, the construction industry has adopted these philosophies to achieve increased efficiencies (both cost and schedule) and improved quality.  But construction firms are essentially building manufacturers which more easily translates the Lean principles into tools and practices.  There are few if any reference examples or publications available of successful Lean implementation for a building design professional.  So, how do we, as engineers and architects in the building design industry apply these principles that seem so specific to manufacturing and construction?

The answers lie in the benefits and value that these principles provide to our clients, our project teams, our firms and our employees. Once you are clear on why it is important to develop a Lean culture within our building design firms the translation from manufacturing becomes secondary and the application is simplified.

At Fitzemeyer & Tocci, our Lean objectives are as follows:

  1. A Client Focus – create innovative solutions while ensuring technical excellence
  2. A Project Team Focus – An emphasis on value added activities that are aimed towards improved quality and becoming problem finders (not just problem solvers)
  3. A Firm Focus – Eliminating waste and gaining efficiencies to position our firm as a building design industry leader that clients seek to engage with
  4. An Employee Focus – Increase the rate at which we improve as individuals allowing us to become a high velocity learning organization

Once you are clear on the question of “why be lean?” you can use these answers to select the right principles to apply to your firm. To be certain, the world of Lean is deep and learning all the lingo can be steep.  However, understanding your objectives of why you want to implement Lean will be the guiding light as you advance on your Lean journey.  I am sure you’ve heard it before that it is impossible to know if you are headed in the right direction if you don’t know where it is you are going.  It is no different with applying Lean principles.

To advance towards our Lean objectives we have adopted several key principals from the manufacturing world. These principles include daily stand up meetings (Scrum), A3 Thinking / Problem Solving (Plan-Do-Check-Act) and continuous improvement (Kaizen).

Standup Meetings (Daily Scrum)

The goals and outcomes of any successful standup meeting is to communicate status, establish planned activities, identify potential obstacles and set the tone for the team in the coming days or week.  These meetings are intentionally short and feel more like a huddle to keep the team engaged, efficient and on point towards the meetings goals.  There are times when longer meetings are necessary to brainstorm, problem solve etc.  However, that is not the intent of a stand-up meeting.  To be successful, a stand-up meeting requires discipline during the meeting and preparation ahead of the meeting.  Only active participants should attend these meetings.  As a result, everyone plays a part and needs be prepared to discuss their own commitments and needs for assistance.   In a future blog I will be discussing the implementation of daily standup meetings in a building design firm in much more detail.

A3 Thinking / Problem Solving (Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle)

A3 thinking / problem solving is based upon the plan-do-check-act made popular by Edward Deming as a quality control consultant for Toyota. A3 is a reference to the page size, 11×17, that documents the problem solving but is essentially irrelevant to the concept. The process is what we are after.  The process is intended to foster critical thinking and collaborative problem solving.  This problem solving should be objective, using hard data and fundamental information to the problem.

Plan-do-check-act

Consistent with our Lean objectives this process is used to generate innovative solutions to complex technical problems for our clients, identify root causes that allows us to be true problem finders within our project teams and be the catalyst for continuous improvement at our firm and for our employees.

Not all critical thinking is related to a singular problem or fix. If you subscribe to a culture of continuous improvement, see below, you will often be thinking about improvements to things that are already working rather than just fixes to things that are broke.  This is what drives the innovative solutions on projects.  It can be used to compare alternative methods to solving complex problems.  In the MEP world this could be how best to comply with energy codes for heating and cooling.  In this case it takes collaboration with building envelope designers and the architect to reach the most advantageous resolution.   A3 thinking is used for choosing by advantages against attributes and success factors that are collaboratively determined.   As with standup meetings, I will be going into more detail on how to implement A3 Thinking into a professional services firm in the building design industry in a future blog.

Continuous Improvement Process (Kaizen)Continous Improvement

Continuous improvement is one of the key principals of Lean.  It is a principle that drives innovative solutions through the never-ending quest to be better.  To be successful with continuous improvement I recommend engagement at all levels of the company or the project team with the goal of 100% participation.  Think incremental.  A small improvement today is still better than we were yesterday or waiting until the change is perfect.  No improvement is too small.  Small is realistic and achievable in a demanding industry like building design.  It requires a shift in mindset to a long-term view where investments now are evaluated on the future benefit.  Utilizing the Lean principle of PDCA you can measure (check) the benefits of the improvement or innovation for continued and never-ending enhancement.

At Fitzemeyer & Tocci everyone is empowered to make just-do-it improvements that are quick or easy and directly related to their job functions. These improvements don’t require any sort of documentation due to the nature and direct relevance to how their work is completed.  Allowing individuals to take charge of improving their own work will be critical to the engagement and participation making it successful.  Not all change or improvements are easy or quick though.  Process or innovative improvements likely need some level of planning and acceptance by a group with cross functional participation before implementation.  These improvements should be treated like projects and often use A3 Thinking / Problem Solving as the tool to plan-do-check-act.

Putting it all together

Lean can be very complex when trying to apply the manufacturing principles to a building design firm. However, if you first identify your goals and objectives you will be able to more easily identify the tools or principles that can help you achieve them.  This focus will help you navigate your journey and provide you with a roadmap for success.  Once again, if you don’t know where you are going how can you know if you are on the right path.

Stay tuned for future follow up blogs regarding the implementation of the specific Lean processes and principles noted above within a professional services firm in the Building Design Industry.

Jeff Romeo
About

Jeff supervises the academic team and is actively involved in the design and management of all academic projects. He leads project teams, ensures the incorporation of all client requirements, reviews all project deliverables, and coordinates and monitors all design and construction activities. His primary goal is to consistently meet all client expectations by delivering successful and innovative solutions. Jeff is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Society for College and University Planning. He has an A.S. in electrical engineering and an AS and BS in architectural engineering from Wentworth Institute of Technology.

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