Why Lean? Why Now?

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:

  1. Respect for the individual
  2. Waste reduction
  3. Value creation
  4. Flow
  5. Optimizing the whole
  6. 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.


Document controls and QA/QC methods proliferate throughout the A+E world. Most proposals include a boilerplate dissertation on the inspection of deliverables, before issued to the owner and contractors. Yet, despite best efforts, mistakes reoccur; delays happen. The reason, though difficult to accept, is straightforward: error is ‘baked into’ the Robust approach.

In the Lean approach, 5 levels of thinking and action are linked into a culture and system where quality is embedded in every step. This is illustrated the figure below, The Lean Progression©. Lean culture is comprised of both Theory and Habit. In Theory, we talk about Waste, Value, and Flow. In Habit, we use methods such as the Plus | Delta for continuous improvement, every day. The Lean system encompasses Tools and Vision. Tools such as A3 Thinking and the Big Room Environment drive efficiency. The Lean Vision of a project as a Coordinated, Enterprise System focuses on the effective delivery of client value.

At the center of Lean culture and systems are the 5 core methods of Lean project delivery:

  • Conditions of Satisfaction - Specifying expectations for both the project and its process
  • Pull Planning - Coordinating information and services flow
  • Target Value Design - Budgeting valid design solutions
  • Set Based Design - Defining the design space of all possible solutions
  • Choosing By Advantages - Decision-Making that sticks

By embedding quality within these core processes, Lean project delivery more reliably delivers design solutions meeting owner expectations at lower cost due to less waste and more efficient workflows. Lean therefore creates a competitive value advantage.

Figure 1: The Lean Progression©


Lean practitioners generally come to understand that a project is, in the words of Salford University Professor Peter Barrett, “a means to a means to an end.” While design and construction professionals live for the thrill of executing projects, their clients do not. What clients want most is to create Value.

Once an organization commits to the change process required to move from a Robust toward a Lean culture, it has concurrently committed itself to a new vision. Because Lean is an holistic integration of system and culture (illustrated in The Lean Progression©) it provides the ideal change framework across an A+E enterprise, linking:

  • Lean Operations - Increased productivity via workflow efficiency
  • Lean Project Delivery - Reliably delivering projects on time, on budget, and meeting the conditions of satisfaction
  • Lean Design - Using a creative process that prevents error and invents value

Change is difficult. Systems are relatively easy. The cultural change from Robust to Lean is the greater challenge. Culture is people; how they act and how they speak. Adopting Lean behaviors and nomenclature can align an enterprise, invigorate a consistent strategy and build a culture of competitive success.

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