The Business of Design – Lean for Design Service Providers

Why do Clients expectations fall short of design services providers fees and prescribed timeframes? That is, they feel they are not getting the value for services that they contracted for. Clients ask when will I be able to benefit from the work I asked for? How much will it cost me to get there? How and why might a Lean approach assist to add more value to all stakeholders in the design phase? The perceived lack of value by Clients is usually a result of incomplete and uncoordinated construction documents during construction and unrealistic estimation of design schedules and budgets. Where are the disconnects?

Why are there schedule breakdowns in the Design Phase? Is it the lack of ability of Design Principals to manage resources (hours) for solving design problems? Or is it the lack of an owner’s incomplete design program, slow approvals, or complexity of today’s capital construction projects. While these are potentially root cause of breakdowns, I believe that the traditional design phase process is broken and in need of improvement. So, what can we do to offer better control and meet the schedule to provide more reliability of the documents? Two things – One, use a Target Value Design (TVD) and Last Planner methodology to research and define a complete picture of the client’s program and to align with the project delivery strategy before setting the design services schedule and budget. Two, Adopt Agile/Kanban methodology to better manage manpower during the design and production phase of Design.

The Last Planner System® (see Lean Construction Institute) has been successfully used by Builders to plan and manage highly successful projects for-on time and on-budget performance. Design professionals on the other hand, have not embraced the Last Planner® System complaining that it doesn’t adequately address the often-random nature of the early design process. To overcome the perceived shortcomings of the LPS in early design, firms have adapted a Lean/Agile methodology developed by the software development industry. This approach combines an Agile/Kanban methodology with the Last Planner System®. These lean principles can be a valuable tool to help firms in adjusting staff as well as, projecting budgets (manpower) for future work and meeting schedules as promised.

Design, unlike construction is a "learning activity" with many alternatives considered and the details of the solution are not usually known in advance, thus it is often a challenge to predict with certainty when a design problem will be solved. Admittedly, the randomness of a design problems has always been a natural part of creating a design solution and is not a new challenge for Designers. What is new, is that the early design phase schedule is being compressed and the complexity of projects has been rising steadily requiring many more inputs into the design efforts in the earliest stages of Design.

To account for this randomness and complexity, design managers have traditionally created buffers to improve the accuracy of when a design solution will be found. In the past there were also “rules of thumb” used to estimate design schedules and budgets. However, due to compressed schedules of today’s projects that are required by design/build and the complexity of building systems and other exogenous factors, it has become more difficult to accurately estimate the initial design phase of complex projects. This often results in the design firm exceeding their initial budget and owner’s perception that they are receiving less value – and if carried through to the construction phase it often results in the design firm delivering incomplete and uncoordinated construction documents.

Another reason why professional design service schedules are a challenge to predict in today’s fast paced design delivery are traditional sign off gates (SD’s, DD’s and CD’s) points that are specified by the typical AIA contracts. They are not reflective of both today's BIM technology and the need for Builder’s to engage the supply chain earlier in the design process. In the past these division of information were created to offer a sign off by the owner but in today's integrated design/build many more gateways are necessary to meet the challenges of today’s project delivery methods. Here again, by utilizing the Lean Last Planner approach early on, design decisions and deliverables with the purchasing, entitlement can be aligned with the “fast track” construction management approaches of today.

Granted, in some cases, when a design firm's project managers have access to historic data to base their estimates, they may be able to improve accuracy of predicting schedules for certain project types – retail buildings, data centers, etc. But even the best historic data rarely accounts for all of the unique site, materials technology, equipment or other unknown conditions that can interrupt a project’s design flow. Hence, reliable historic data is only part of the solution. The other part of the solution must be a process change that addresses the design issues in “real time” and allows for adjusting the schedule in the initial discovery and validation phase of design.

Thus, by employing Lean principles of the Last Planner® System - "asking what information do I need from others before I can complete this one” vs "what other tasks must be completed before I begin this one." And then following up with Agile/Kanban management techniques to manage the milestones established with the Last Planner, the flow of design decisions can be improved and many of the random impediments to flow decreased. Also, Designers working in short bursts or Agile methods to define and solve problems can more easily Pivot from a design solution that may have initially seemed promising to another alternative that offers more value as more information about a design problem is known.

A Lean Agile methodology would not be task oriented as it is in a traditional waterfall scheduling exercise, it would be “results” oriented to improve flow. A results-oriented mindset assumes that there are unknown efforts in the design phase that making accurate predictions or estimates of time, e.g. schedule, difficult if not impossible. But the true measure of production in Design is not the completion of an individual task or how well the individual tasks are done, but if they are done at the appropriate time and to the level of clarity that helps the owner achieve their business objectives.

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