Lean project delivery has entered the mainstream of construction, yet Lean adoption lags among design professionals. Architects and engineers who transformed the industry by first pioneering sustainable design and later the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) remain spectators while trade partners, construction managers, and some owners embrace Lean. As more owners expect and demand Lean, the hearts and minds of design professionals will soon follow. Change is difficult. Going “Lean” means abandoning the prevalent, “Robust” culture underlying design, operations and project delivery. According to the Lean Construction Institute, there are 6 cultural attributes of Lean:
- Respect for the individual
- Waste reduction
- Value creation
- Optimizing the whole
- Continuous Improvement
In contrast, the Robust system begins with the drive to Inspect (aka, QA/QC), rather than Respect. It is an entrepreneurial culture that mitigates Risk, tolerating Waste in the process. Robust culture emphasizes Price over Value, Push over Flow, and Doing Whatever it Takes over Optimizing the Whole. Finally, design professionals in a Robust environment will Deliver in Accordance to the Contract, moving onto the next project with only a token consideration of “lessons learned”, rather than a commitment to true, Continuous Improvement.
Robust culture and systems have been used to deliver projects for centuries. This apparent success becomes suspect whenever the costs of rework, client dissatisfaction, and razor thin profit margins are considered. Most architects and engineers are aware that wastefulness is built into the Robust approach, but lack an incentive to tackle the change until facing a crisis, or when standing upon the (metaphorical) “burning platform”.
The Burning Platform
When business circumstances dictate organizational change, the collective mind of a design practice can be effectively focused. Of course, by then it could be too late. While the great recession has ended; competition hasn’t. Four decades of reduced influence in project delivery – the result of many factors – leaving architects and engineers with reduced opportunities for growth beyond mergers and acquisitions. Ultimately, every design practice must address two critical workflows:
- People – Providing clients with excellent service, profitably
- Information – Preventing design error and inventing client value, profitably
A practice which stands upon the metaphorical burning platform is more likely to leap into Lean. With guidance, architects and engineers can improve productivity through continuous improvement of key workflows, increasing operational efficiency, and reducing waste while delighting clients. Design professionals can discover what trade partners have already learned; Lean culture and systems create a competitive cost advantage. Implementing Lean inevitably leads to the realization that investing in quality creates a significant Return on Investment.