The application of Lean in the design and engineering of capital projects lags behind Lean applications maturing in both construction fabrication and site assembly processes. There is still much that we can learn from the world consumer product development that has yet to be applied to Lean capital project delivery.

In Lean Construction Circles, the exploration of “Lean Design” often focuses on how to get early stakeholder input and whether Pull Planning can be applied to an “iterative design process”. While these foci are useful, they are far too narrow to deliver all the value that the processes of Project Definition, Concept Development and Validation, and Design/Engineering have to offer. Some key distinctions are needed.

Collaborative Pull Planning (e.g., The Last Planner System®) is a production management strategy. During pre-construction processes, we indeed do all sorts of “production” – of tangible products such as drawings, models, estimates and analyses; and intangible products such as insights and agreements. That makes Design a “production system”. So yes, Lean Production Management tools and strategies absolutely apply. That’s the process side. What about the product itself?

A decade before the Lean Construction Institute came into being, I met and began working with Bart Huthwaite, who was already a design innovation guru of sorts. Bart learned the basics of Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DFM/DFA) as a supplier to the Auto Industry, and the lights went on! Bart has been one of my mentors and colleagues for 35 years. He taught me, and thousands of others, that the vast majority of waste and product life-cycle costs, including procurement, manufacturing, quality busts, serviceability and maintainability, and disposal costs are all driven by waste that is designed from initial concepts onward.

DFM/A identified a set of principles that can be applied to any product, but have been largely lost on Architects and Design Engineers in the capital projects world. Luckily, Bart captured these principles in a small booklet called, “The twelve Fundamentals for Innovative Mechanical Design”, which are summarized below. I contend that these principles should not only be applied to all capital projects, but act as important metaphors for the design of each of our organizations as well. The 12 Fundamentals (principles) are:

1. Reduce Parts – As Bart liked to note, there are no quality problems with parts that don’t exist! A simple example is fasteners. Before Lean Design, many products had multiple sizes of screws, bolts, clips, welds, etc. Product designs that eliminate or standardize fasteners or allow snap fits should be models for capital projects as well.

2. Simplify Processes – Can a product or a project be designed from the beginning to reduce the number of steps required to make and finish it? As the idea of “Design for Construction” has taken form, we realize that architects and owners rarely have any understanding of the construction process complexity driven by early design decisions. It’s often “someone else’s problem.”

3. Simplify Product Architecture – In products, this can mean reducing internal framing or other elements that hold things in place by designing parts that fit together and bear loads without additional support. We need to rethink and simplify everything from walls and façades to hangers and fittings and fixtures. Anything can be improved.

4. Think Life Cycle – Bart liked to say that designers need both “depth and breadth perception”. We need to understand the immediate material and processing costs that are sunk into production (depth) and all the life-cycle maintenance, repair, usability and sustainability costs over the life of the capital asset (breadth). This is the Lean first principle that “Value is defined by the customer”, put into practical and measurable terms.

5. Use Multifunctional Materials – Don’t specify materials or finishes that provide more than is needed, will require special skill or materials to maintain, etc. Ask, “Can this design element be used for more than one purpose?”

6. Minimize Precision – The tighter the tolerances required the more any quality problem or installation error will cascade, adding cost and delay. (See “Hidden Costs” below.)

7. Modularize – This is an increasingly popular construction strategy, especially any time multiple units, such as bathrooms, hospital rooms, wall frames, lab spaces, etc. can be prefabricated. Look for opportunities to reduce site work.

8. Don’t Fight Gravity – Look for every opportunity to design so that elements can be set rather than lifted into place. Can parts be chamfered so they can only be oriented correctly? Can parts be designed to nest together? This principle is also one of my favorite metaphors for design of our internal organizational processes. Where does it feel like we are pushing something uphill? How do we make things flow? How can we use pull rather than push/lift? Where is our organization coming apart, or “held together with bailing wire”?

9. Simplify Assembly – This is a general principle that captures principles 6, 7, and 8 above. Again, site assembly is constrained by the complexity, precision and complications inherent in the design.

10. Imbed Robustness – This principle expands on #6 to include avoidance of steps that require highly specialized skill, new/immature materials and technologies, delicate or vulnerable components, or anything that is hard to procure, handle, maintain, etc.

11. Eliminate Hidden Costs – Development of “depth and breadth perception” of life-cycle costs often surfaces other issues. Use of constraints analysis and risk assessments is key. Budget and process transparency “lowers the pond and surfaces the hard rocks”.

12. Leverage Teamwork – This was my area of modest contribution to Bart’s brilliance. In the AEC realm, we often define “stakeholders” too narrowly. Customers, users, constructors, maintenance people, and many more can add value if properly engaged.

If you struggle to see the relevance of any of these to construction, I encourage you to think like a good product innovator and stretch your imagination by asking, “How can I improve our project by applying this principle?”

The results will surprise you.

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Victor R. Ortiz is an organization development professional with over 35 years of professional consulting experience. Vic has worked with LCI co-founders Ballard and Howell since 1985 and he co-facilitated many of the early development meetings of LCI. Vic currently works as an independent Lean/IPD Coach.