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Care and Feeding: LEAN in Design and the Estimator


We have all talked about LEAN at one time or another. It is a business management system, developed by auto manufacturers, that strives to reduce excess costs and increase product quality at the same time. It originated in post-WW2 Japan, where manufacturers took lessons in bulk manufacturing from US advisors, and turned them, particularly at Toyota, into a manufacturing juggernaut that crushed the competition.






LEAN has since been incorporated into most businesses, in one way or another with widely varying degrees of success. In my experiences, LEAN has typically been offered as a group of management tools, many of which are highly useful. But LEAN as an all-encompassing method is generally not fully implemented.


Utilizing LEAN in the design process requires some thought. The system that was designed around mass manufacturing has some features and tools that do not find purchase in the way our design teams work. The most famous LEAN component has to be “Just in time manufacturing” – which, at its essence, is a way to reduce cost of owning materials, partially complete work or completed inventory to it’s lowest possible level – and much of LEAN discussion is focused on that task. Much of this topic has limited applicability in design teams.


The core concept or attitude of LEAN is highly applicable to design teams. Niklas Modig & Par Ahlstrom in their book “This is Lean” talk about a Japanese executive teaching a class about LEAN in a plant, with a few European observers. The executive draws a pyramidal triangle on a whiteboard at the front of the class and states “This is the core of our process – without understanding this part, the rest of our systems are empty and disconnected”. Next to the apex of the triangle he notes “Values”, and next to the bottom of the triangle he notes “Principles”


“Values” – are the common goal of the organization or organizations. All actions should be measured against these measuring sticks and rejected if they do not measure up. These are big picture, expansive and typically focused on respect, valuing the work of the team, and achieving team unity.

“Principles” – are the guiding themes that a design team can employ to make certain that all team members are working towards the common values. Per Modig and Ahlstrom, “Principles define how people in an organization should think in order to increase … efficiency.” For the auto plant, one principle is the famous “Just in time Manufacturing”. For our design teams another common principle fits like a glove. “Jidoka”, or “aware organization” which our Japanese executive describes as similar to being in a soccer game – all the players can see all the actions happening, and are able to react to changing situations, aberrations, and errors. Team member reactions are predictable because they fall within their coaching strategy (Principles) and are in full view of the rest of the team. This transparency is the key to presenting a unified design, an successful project, and a happy client.


Below the core triangle levels can be several more levels – “Methods” – which are predefined actions that team members can take to achieve the goals and principals. Finally, come the “Tools”, which are the individual, highly focused solutions for specific issues in the organization or process.


In my experience, most “LEAN” implementations start exactly backwards, with implementation of some Tools, and never connecting those Tools with the Values, Principles and Methods that need to drive them. There are useful LEAN tools documented in nearly every book on the subject. However, like the Electrician swinging a hammer, simply using a LEAN tool doesn't make it a LEAN process. The Electrician is still an electrician, not a carpenter. The core attitude of LEAN is to encourage the creativity of your team find efficient solutions to your special problems. If that comes from a book, that is great. If you need to create your own solution, that is equally great.


I have participated in many hundreds of design teams. In my experience, there is one glaring element that drives more inefficiency than any other. Lack of communication and coordination within the design team. Due to the linear nature of design, and the frequently compressed design schedules, work that needs to be completed consecutively is often completed concurrently, resulting in missing details, conflicts, and other items that require costly rework. Estimates also fall into this morass, as the due date for complete drawings and the final estimate are often the same day.


The LEAN principle of “Jidoka” would seem to be a good solution – engaging all team members, giving them visibility into the status and changes of the project design, and moving together as a team. This is difficult in our industry with remote physical locations, compressed schedules and rigid company hierarchies. Technology, provides some relief, but only partial.


I find that using the LEAN core attitude helps. My “Values” are simple: Be respectful of my design team partners needs and requirements. Provide work product that closely matches the intent of the design team. Understand the goals of the design team. Provide quality and service that supports my design team partners decision to include me in the team.


My “Principles” support those goals. Meet all commitments. Tell the truth at all times. Do not promise the impossible. Provide clear feedback regarding documentation, assumptions, and inconsistency as appropriate. Provide as much information as possible. (sounds a little like “Jidoka” to me)


My “Methods” are more specific. Understand the project as fully as possible. Provide clear descriptions of work. Break work down into meaningful and useful groupings. Gather as much existing conditions information as possible. Request missing information, unspecified items, or potential gaps. Minimize use of contingencies and manage potential cost items with allowances or identified assumptions. Identify cost risk items, conflicts, and gaps. Solicit feedback from design team partners, and open conversations regarding process improvements when applicable.


LEAN was developed in the manufacturing industry and finds its most complete implementation there. Our world of design teams needs different solutions, and our teams need to be empowered to define, create, and utilize new solutions for our unique issues.

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