Lean in Design: Value Creation

Lean in Design: Value Creation

A Lean Perspective

While the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) has been making a successful run at understanding and translating the principles, methodologies and tools of lean manufacturing (see The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker) into the construction industry, bi-annual LCI Design Forums have been exploring the implications of lean thinking within the design stages of the building industry. In the same way that lean construction is necessarily different than lean manufacturing (due to the nature of a place-based industry), lean thinking in design is different than lean thinking in construction. Simply put, the nature of design is different than that of construction, and so an incorporation of lean within a design process must be carefully considered.

While lean thinking is a rich topic to cover, for the sake of this conversation consider that lean is, at its core, an attempt to maximize value and eliminate waste. Perhaps because a universal definition of “lean” is more about trimming excess, the shorthand use of it (both inside and outside the lean construction community) suggests an emphasis on eliminating waste:“lean your meetings”, “lean your construction processes”, “buy leaner meat”. All of these more readily connote “eliminate waste” or “reduce fat”, not “add value.” And yet that is precisely the role of design within the lean conversation.

What is Design?

Many forms of design … deal with both precise and vague ideas, call for systematic and chaotic thinking, need both imaginative thought and mechanical calculation.”  - Bryan Lawson

In his book How Designers Think, Bryan Lawson attempts to demystify design and the design process. It is a well-researched and easy to read account of what really goes on within the mind(s) of a designer or design team. It does not suggest an absolute method by any means, nor suggest consistency throughout the industry, yet Lawson is able to come up with some basic principles/observations that may be helpful to those that find themselves working with designers, and in need of a translator or cultural liaison.

It is clear that the design phase – that time after a team has had a robust dialogue with a client about their thoughts and values behind their initiative to create a new building or renovate an existing one – is the time to focus on maximizing value for the client. This is precisely when potential value is created, which is also why it is so important to have a clear understanding of what the client values. Clearly one aspect of maximizing value in design is to plan for the elimination or minimization of waste in subsequent phases (be it with regard to energy, productivity, materials, etc.), but this is only part of it. In the construction phase, the builder is tasked to maintain this value by following through on design intent, often accomplished by seeking to minimize waste in their processes, efforts, and materials. Then and only then, once the building is occupied and operational, the value that is first conceived in the design process is realized by the client.

Communication:  Building Trust

“The first move is to talk through the brief, understand what led to it, understand fundamentally what it is about and that conversation is primarily about building up a level of confidence, of trust.”  - Ian Ritchie as quoted in How Designers Think, Bryan Lawson

Any and all design effort relies heavily on a rich dialogue and inquiry with the client. Because the language of design varies even from designer to designer, imagine the chasm between a non-designer client and an architect. This early communication can be successfully navigated with a thoughtful and thorough approach to this stage of the project. Many tools are at our disposal: precedents, images, words, sketches, numbers. Arguably, the one most frequently given short shrift is direct dialogue. Descriptive words are spoken, often alongside metrics of area, costs, adjacencies.  But if the values of a client are not investigated deeply enough or if an understanding behind specific goals that have been drawn up are not thoroughly examined and absorbed by the team, the opportunities for a transformational building may be lost.

In this sense, the lean concept of value, and the intent to maximize it, relies heavily on a robust early design strategy.

Marination in Design

“We got better and we got more confidence.  We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. … In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.” – John Lennon as quoted in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

Though it may be multi-pronged, complicated, and overlapping, construction sequencing is still essentially directional in nature. There is generally a clear start and clear finish, with logical steps in between. At its simplest, a builder generally works from foundation to superstructure to substructure to envelope, interior systems and finishes. The designer or design team does not work through design problems in the same manner. While it may be true that a design is refined throughout the course of the design phases, it is not uncommon to shift between conceptual design and detailed design in an on-going feedback loop process. Details and material choices are kept in mind even when the overall form of the building is still evolving. Within the design phase, the team is also balancing the art and science of architecture, as Lawson suggests above. This balancing act requires time – time for steeping, so to speak, for the team to refine the client-stated values with all other opportunities and constraints presented into a physical manifestation of a cohesive idea.  In the same way that it took the Beatles thousands of hours to marinate their music-making, so to good design requires time for  marinate.    

Lean in Design

In Jeffrey Liker’s list of fourteen principles of the Toyota manufacturing process in The Toyota Way, he refers to the maxim of “Right Processes Produce the Right Results.” To consider lean thinking within the design process, there are a few other considerations. Understanding and alignment of values between the design team and the client is of primary concern. Also key is the building of a proper team, along with choreographing the right skills at the right time. Throughout the design process, the best solution requires team member skills that span the spectrum of “imaginative thought” and “mechanical calculation.” Within integrated project delivery teams, and within any delivery method really, the ideal scenario is for the building team to support the design team during the early stages, and for the design team to support the building team during construction. To this end, the posture of all during design is best described as one of exploration and value creation, while in construction as one of execution towards value realization.

Another maxim referenced by Liker is “Add Value to the Organization by Developing Your People and Partners.” A few activities will support this in design. First, build empathy amongst all team members. Spend time in each other’s “shop” if that is helpful, or simply make a concerted effort to understand the requirements of each other’s disciplines. Also, be diligent in building design intuition for individuals and teams by developing robust feedback loops that measure and test intuitive solutions, during and after design. Finally, always consider design as a skill, one that can be practiced and developed by all team members. The more that all are included in the design process, the more likely the value of design will be ultimately realized.

Image Via Flickr user Thomas Hawk