In Lean Construction, we recognize that there are inherent wastes in every production system. Our objective is often to identify and reduce the wastes. Just as construction and design have been conceptualized as production systems, it can be argued that research is also a production system. Instead of producing a design or creating a product, the output of research is new knowledge.
If research is truly a production system, then could we apply the same Lean methods and tools to drive out waste and improve its efficiency?
To explore this question, I examined literature from the field of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship and research share many common characteristics. Both endeavors require an exploration into the unknown and the best results are black swans1. Borrowing from the successful application of the Business Model Canvas2 in the field of entrepreneurship, I propose using an A3 as a tool to help guide the research activities. The proposed A33 for Lean Construction research is broken into: (1) contribution to knowledge, (2) contribution to practice, (3) publications/presentations, (4) concepts, (5) methodology, (6) evidence, (7) funding, (8) university partners, (9) industry/government partners, (10) problem statement, (11) literature, (12) scope, and (13) time.
Figure 1: A3 Template for Lean Research
The goal of the A3 is to list the components required to conduct PhD or Master level research that both contributes to knowledge and to practice. The inspiration for the A3 template came from the Business Model Canvas2. Similar to the Business Model Canvas, the A3 template is an iterative process. As the researcher proceeds into his project, the information for each of the components become more clear and the A3 template allows him to see the research project in a holistic single-page format. The template is broken into 3 sections: (1) ends, (2) means, and (3) constraints4.
When a PhD or Masters student starts his research project, he will need to consider the end goals of the research. The end consists of three components: (1) contribution to knowledge, (2) contribution to practice, and (3) publications / presentations. The first two components address the relevance of the research to academia and to industry. The third touches on how the researcher will communicate the findings to a wider audience. Typically a combination of publications and presentations is required to spread the knowledge to the target audience. Even if new knowledge is created, it is useless unless it is properly communicated.
Once the ends the research have been established, the researcher needs to consider the “means” and “constraints” of the project. The “means” covers how he plans on achieving the end goals. The means include: (1) the concepts, (2) methodology, (3) evidence, (4) funding, (5) university partners, and (6) industry partners. The concepts are the philosophical stance of the research. Kuhn’s The Structures of Scientific Revolution introduced the idea of research paradigms5. All research is conducted within a paradigm. The goal is often to find evidence to support the paradigm or to develop tools that are consistent with the paradigm. Once in a while, a researcher may find evidence that contradicts an existing paradigm, which leads to a scientific revolution5. Such a finding is very valuable but also very unlikely1. Most research is conducting within an existing paradigm and builds knowledge within it. In the field of Lean Construction, the dominant research paradigm is the Transformation/Flow/Value (TFV) theory of production6. Lean methodologies such as the Last Planner and Target Value Design4 have been developed within the paradigm set forth by the TFV theory.
The “constraints” consist of the boundaries within which the researcher must work under. The constraints are either set by the researcher or by external parties and include: (1) the problem statement, (2) the literature review, (3) the scope of the project, and (4) the available time. A narrow problem statement, literature review, and project scope will allow the researcher to conduct the investigation within his time and funding constraints. The constraints allow him to focus on reading just the relevant papers for the research project and set the boundary for exploration. In many instances having hard constraints can lead to more innovative thinking.
Means & Constraints
The funding and partners are both the means and the constraints of the research. They are the means for conducting the research in that they pay the researcher and provide the data for the investigation. They are considered constraints in that the university, industry, and government partners and the funding available may set the limitations on the research. Some of these limitations may include: (1) monetary, (2) access to data, and (3) direction or scope of the project.
How to Use the A3 Template
When a researcher starts his project, he should map out his research plan on the A3 described above. The goal is for the researcher, his adviser, and funding partners to look at the research from a holistic perspective. The ends, means, and the constraints need to be realistic and in alignment for the research project to be viable. This high level view can help the researcher avoid negative iterations that result from undertaking an infeasible project in the first place.
It is understandable that data within each component will change over time. As more data is available, the researcher should re-examine the components of the A3 and make the necessary adjustments. At the start of the project, the researcher should approach the data on each component as hypotheses until a sufficient amount of evidence is available to validate the assumptions.
For a Lean Construction researcher, the A3 provides some guidance in structuring and organizing the research plan. The A3 can help better communicate the research efforts with advisers and other stakeholders. Additionally, the organized structure can help the researcher track his progress, avoid unnecessary negative iterations, and stay focus in the research project. Every research project is unique. However, the process of developing a research plan should not be reinvented each time. The process of conducting research within the field of Lean Construction can and should be standardized. The proposed A3 is an early step towards standardizing the research effort so that we as a community can reduce the wastes in this vital endeavor. As more researchers use this template, I will update it to reflect the current best practices. If you would like to use this template for your own research, feel free to download it here.
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