A highly revered ex-Toyota consultant stated that most manufacturers seem focused on achieving a 35 to 40 percent productivity gain over three to five years as a measure of success in their current Lean efforts. He went on to say that manufacturers should actually be focused on a 400 percent improvement in productivity over 10 years to achieve the path to becoming Lean. But why is there such a large disparity in measuring success?1

Nowadays, even 28 years after the Lean production concept was coined, lots of companies still think that Lean is a system only to be implemented in the production areas. However, there are big opportunities to increase productivity by means of using Lean in both production and non-production areas. Every time I perform a Value Stream Mapping (VSM) on a production process, I realize that most of the bottlenecks and opportunities to reduce the lead time comes from decisions taken from administrative and managerial areas such as purchasing, sales, marketing, design, accounting, and human resources.

This post is organized around 6 big concepts designed to help you implement or inspire others to implement Lean Office in the AEC Industry.

1. Lead continuous improvement based on real customer needs
Unlike what many people think, sales (and other) departments have a big impact on the production system of a company. From my experience, most of the time those departments are absolutely disconnected from the production system and the needs of the customer.

Remember that the Lean principle of “Pull” is not a concept to be implemented in production areas only, but must also be implemented in sales, purchasing, manpower, training etc. When trying to optimize your processes, always look at the system holistically. Focus your investment on real customer needs.

Within an organization there are internal and external customers. Internal customers are people who work in the various departments that we produce work for. External customers are the end users outside of our organization. An improvement is only useful if it improves upon something that customers value. Before doing any work, we must be aware of who the customer is and what is their conditions of satisfaction to be able to deliver the desired value.

2. Reduce unnecessary steps
Draw a Value Stream Map and connect the production areas with non-production areas. Teach your people to distinguish between value added activities, necessary non-value added activities, and waste. Standardize your processes. Even creative processes can be standardized. Some experts say that around 80-90% of a supposedly creative process is composed of repetitive processes or methodological steps.

3. Implement 5S & Housekeeping
Without having a well-organized office environment, it will be quite difficult to implement any Lean continuous improvement program. The solutions in the picture below show simple and traditional lean tools that do not need much investment. You can see an example of 5S in the first picture and a Kanban system managed by a colour code for purchasing of office supplies in the second picture.

Example of 5S at Iturralde & Sagüés, ingenieros, Pamplona, Spain

4. Use Visual Management to control the workflow
Use visual management principles to provide visibility of work-in-progress (i.e., status of orders, projects, reports, etc.). A visual communication system ensure that standards are in place so that work is completed on schedule. Visual Management should be implemented in the office areas as well as in production areas.

5. Take advantage of digital tools
First, I recommend the use of traditional handmade Lean solutions and tools such as colour cards, post-its notes, and boards to standardize the process. When you have standardized the process, you should take advantage of digital tools including apps, touch screens, and cloud computing tools. My recommendation is to start with less sophisticated or free versions of applications and software. Once you have mastered the rules and routines, search for more powerful, expensive or sophisticated tools if needed. Remember the 8th principle of the Toyota Way: “Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and process”, a principle not yet well understood by many companies.

Example of Implementing digital tools for Lean Project Management

6. Co-location
Finally, take advantage of co-location, a Lean IPD strategy of working. Use co-location to improve your team’s productivity and make decision making more agile.

While in this post, my objective was to highlight the importance of implementing Lean office in the AEC industry, my the next post will provide more examples of Lean office and new technologies that will help you to implement Lean in the managerial areas.

Additional Resources

1. Keyte, Beau & Locher, Drew (2004). The complete lean enterprise. Value Stream Mapping for Administrative and Office Processes. Productivity Press, New York, USA.
2. Locher, Drew (2011). Lean Office and Service Simplified: The Definitive How-To Guide. Productivity Press, New York, USA.
3. Bicheno, John, (2008). The Lean Toolbox for Service Systems. PICSIE Books, Buckingham, UK.
4. Implementing IT to Lean Project Management & benefits of LEAN in an Architecture Office.

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Juan Felipe Pons has worked as a building engineer since 1998. He has a MSc in Construction Management and PgCert in Lean Manufacturing (Polytechnic University of Valencia). Currently, JFP is working as a Lean construction trainer and consultant for several companies and organizations. He has written two books and has been invited as a speaker in several MSc of Project Management, MBA programs, and international conferences.