5 Big Ideas behind Lean Design and Construction

Back in Spring 2004, Sutter Health held a conference for the design and construction companies that they had worked with to build their facilities. Lean Project Consulting facilitated the event and presented a manifesto to guide Sutter’s future capital program1. It was called: “Five Big Ideas That Are Reshaping the Design and Delivery of Capital Projects”. These ideas inspired the first multi-party agreement used for design and construction: The Integrated Form of Agreement (IFOA). The five big ideas include: 1) collaborate; really collaborate, 2) optimize the whole, 3) tightly couple learning with action, 4) projects as networks of commitments, and 5) increase relatedness.

Figure 1. 5 Big Ideas

1. Collaborate; Really Collaborate

The idea of collaboration can be found in several Lean Construction methods such as collaborative pull planning as part of the Last Planner System3. The goal is to bridge the gap between experts separated or rather divided by contractual or company interests. Collaboration is the basis for sharing knowledge and reaching consensus for common goals through iterative conversations. This helps to minimize risk and negative iterations. Real collaboration comes easier when commercial and organizational interests are aligned with the project goals.

2. Optimize the Whole

If each part of the project is optimized, the whole project should be optimized as well, right? This is not always the case. For complex systems, optimizing individual parts may be counterproductive to achieving the overall goal. By optimizing only the individual parts, the connections between them can be missed. On projects, local optimization can lead to a reduction in the reliability of work released to the next trade, increase coordination efforts, and longer project durations.

The idea of optimizing the whole can help develop processes that allows the team to see the whole picture. This reveals the connections and interdependencies between processes so that everyone can do what is best for the project.

3. Tightly Couple Learning with Action

On every project we might build our Project Production System (PPS) from scratch because there is limited learning from past projects. In Lean, learning is critical if we want to improve the system. When we carefully examine our projects we may see deviations between what should be done versus to what was actually completed. This very straightforward analysis can quickly reveal opportunities for improvement.

The KPIs that we collect on our projects should also support the mission to learn and improve. In construction, metrics such as Percent Planned Complete (PPC), Tasks Anticipate, Tasks Made Ready, Productivity Rates, and Financial Position make it easy for the trades to track breakdowns and take corrective action. In design, we can use similar metrics and short iterative cycles such as PDCA to achieve the same goal.

A good start for establishing a continuous improvement mindset in your project is to use plus-delta at the end of each planning meeting. It can be as simple as asking all attendees: “What produced value for you in this meeting?” and “What needs improvement to produce more value for you?” To generate improvement ideas you also could ask your team “What would be best for the project to do next week?”

4. Projects as Networks of Commitments

To ensure predictability of work released from one trade to another, the commitments between each trade must be actively managed and one way of doing so is through Fernando Flores’ method of making and keeping reliable promises4. For a commitment to be “reliable”, the promiser can respond to a request with either: 1) Yes, I can do it, 2) No, I cannot do it, 3) Yes, I can do it if.... Being able to say “no” is a crucial component of a reliable promise. If a worker can’t say “no” to a request (through social pressure) then it is not possible to keep track of which promise are “reliable” and which promises are “unreliable”. When a worker responds with “yes if”, this may reveal an interdependency that the team had not known before leading to a dialogue that can preemptively solve a problem before it occurs.

The release of reliable work into the production schedule requires work to be ready. That means the promised work need to be sound, sequenced, sized to the crews capacity, and well defined in terms of conditions of satisfaction.

The ability to make reliable promises can be violated by an atmosphere of finger pointing when it comes to checking adherence to commitments in weekly review sessions. Leaders should be sensitive to any form of sarcasm, blaming, or excuses.

By building the network of commitments, the project leader increases the confidence in the team and the reliability of promises. Some of things that can be done to facilitate this include:

  • The project leader can publicly address the concerns and needs of the team.
  • The project leader can start making reliable promises and encourage others to do the same.
  • The team can show appreciation for the completion of promises.
  • “Reliable Promises” that were not fulfilled need to be properly investigated and their root causes identified.

5. Increase Relatedness

There can be no collaboration, improvement, promises, or learning without a certain level of trust. One of the main hindrance for improving productivity on projects is an insufficient amount of relatedness and trust between the project participants. Too many participants start with “not knowing each other” and go on to “not understanding how each other work” followed by “no respect for each other” which leads to “mistrust” and uncomfortable “confrontation”.

The faster a group of strangers becomes a team, the better the outcome of the project. This process; however, does not come naturally. Here are some ways to actively build relations on your project:

  • Help the team get to know each other and learn each other’s working style.
  • Find ways to bring the personal ambitions and needs of your participants in alignment with the project’s goals. The practice of Pull-Planning may assist you in your efforts.
  • Take time to look back to acknowledge and appreciate what your team has already achieved. Plus-Delta or review sessions might be a good place for this.
  • Cultivate an atmosphere where alternative views are welcome for a broader understanding of an issue. Be sensitive to any form of sarcasm or blaming. By making and checking on promises publicly within the group you can provide a factual basis for evaluation of the reliability of commitments. The weekly and daily production planning meetings is a good place for this practice.

Future posts will go more in depth of with these 5 big ideas and explain how they have transformed the way that Lean teams are approaching design and construction projects.


1. Macomber, H. (2010). Putting the Five Big Ideas to Work. Lean Project Consulting.

2. Thomsen et al. (2009) Managing Integrated Project Delivery. Construction Management Association of America.

3. Ballard, G. (2000). The Last Planner System of Production Control. PhD Disseration The University of Birmingham.

4. Sull, D. and Spinosa, C. (2007) "Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution". Harvard Business Review.

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