Dyer Brown employees fill in the Lean tool “Improvement Newspaper.”
Courtesy Dyer Brown Architects Dyer Brown employees fill in the Lean tool “Improvement Newspaper.”

A cultural shift was underway at Dyer Brown Architects, but not everybody was on board. It was 2015, and the 45-year-old Boston-based firm was in the midst of rebranding after several years of growth. A new generation of leadership was being installed and a number of younger staff had been hired, doubling the firm to 40 employees. Concerns about how to manage an influx of new business while valuing existing clients were brewing alongside the inevitable growing pains that accompany new leadership and hires. Firm leadership could sense percolating discontent, but staff members were wary of voicing doubts on the record. “There were many off-the-radar conversations,” says senior architect Karen Bala, AIA.

The firm brought in a consultant to convene a town hall to address unease and build trust across generations. It didn’t work.

In theory, “town hall meetings get 60 staff members into one room and have them talk about how they feel,” Bala says. “But what happens is that only one or two people talk, and then you have 58 people who [don’t].”

Karen Bala
Kim Neal Karen Bala

Dyer Brown tried again, this time hiring Haley & Aldrich, a Burlington, Mass.–based consultancy that offers workshops in the manufacturing and management philosophy Lean. Credited with turning Toyota into a leading car manufacturer after World War II, Lean aims to eliminate waste from workflows, and to foster continual improvement in productivity over time while respecting the role that employees play in the process. “Lasting gains in productivity and quality are possible whenever and wherever management and employees are united in a commitment to positive change,” an internal 1988 Toyota brochure explains.

Over the decades, a variety of industries, including tech and higher education, have embraced Lean principles. And in the last 10 years, the architecture, engineering, construction, and owner-operated (AECO) community has joined in, enticed by Lean’s ability to evaluate complex challenges, create standardization, and foster creativity and efficiency concurrently. (Integrated project delivery, or IPD, principles are similar to those of Lean, and are often used in tandem with Lean.)

Zofia Rybkowski
Zofia Rybkowski

By bringing cross-disciplinary teams together at the outset of a project, Lean prevents the silo-ization that can occur in the building industry, reducing the need to expend resources on redesign, construction delays, and change orders. “Lean helps all of the different professionals—the owners, architects, engineers, contractors, suppliers, and lawyers—to have a much larger shared body of knowledge sooner in the process,” says Zofia Rybkowski, an associate professor of construction science at Texas A&M University’s College of Architecture who runs Lean exercises with AECO teams. “From a morale perspective, it’s exciting. You have more people involved in the creative process.”

Getting Lean
At Dyer Brown, Haley & Aldrich’s Lean consultants conducted multiday workshops with the entire staff, breaking them into small teams to run a series of fast-paced, 15- to 20-minute exercises common in Lean. “High/Low Impact” asked participants to share problems in the firm, consider the root of each problem, and to develop countermeasures. Each countermeasure was mapped on a matrix of high versus low impact.

Ideation exercise at Dyer Brown
Courtesy Dyer Brown Architects Ideation exercise at Dyer Brown

“The goal of this exercise is to see which countermeasures could be ‘low-lying fruit’ but have a high impact on the office,” Bala says. For example, the staff determined that creating more meeting spaces in their office would have a high impact, but require a lot of effort (high difficulty). Improving team communication and initiating a mentorship program would also have a high impact but take less work (low difficulty).

In “Force Field Analysis,” the group identified a shared goal—to work remotely—and then listed the forces preventing its realization. Telecommuting wasn’t successful, the team concluded, because the firm lacked the tools to support it. The outcome: Dyer Brown made significant upgrades to its technology.

Overall, the firm coalesced around shared values, such as a belief that strong communication leads to mutual respect and trust, and that investment in employee growth and development was critical. Then they developed ways to translate those values into initiatives such as a formalized mentorship program and a firm-wide design charrette to rework their space for more collaboration. Most importantly, they created a way to engage in office-wide issues in the future. “What was most striking about the process is that it wasn’t anonymous—and you’re not singling people out,” Bala says. “The exercises remove personal investment in a way that allows everyone to be heard.”

"“What was most striking about [Lean] is that it wasn’t anonymous—and you’re not singling people out.”

Dyer Brown now uses Lean principles with clients. “We’ve found it to be very effective with clients when there are a lot of voices that need to be heard, and you need one common goal,” Bala says. For higher education projects, for example, the firm runs through the Lean exercises with all the stakeholders early on, and lets the clients determine a thesis. “We, as designers, hit [the thesis] through spatial layout, materiality, et cetera,” she says. “People feel like they are a part of the process and the client owns that space.”

For the design-development phase, Rybkowski also suggests “Target Value by Design” (TVD), an exercise in which key stakeholders work collectively to understand what the building owner considers valuable and how to offer the best value for the given budget. “With building design,” she says, “we tend to throw in all these bells and whistles, but the fact is the client can’t always afford it.”

This often leads to two words architects hate most: value engineering. Rybkowski asserts that value engineering “is often applied too late in the design process so some of the best parts of the design are amputated.” In TVD, because savings from avoiding wasteful practices is redirected toward value generation, “the owner does get more value for money.”

Courtesy Dyer Brown Architects

Meanwhile, a Lean method known as “The Last Planner System of Production Control” aims to increase the accuracy of project scheduling. Instead of an individual scheduler, such as a construction manager, assigning deadlines and a workflow for people, they work with every discipline to map out a plan that reduces the risk of a single delay snowballing into a major delay. “You start at an end date and work backwards to figure out where you need to be,” Rybkowski says.

Simplifying Complex Projects
Global firm NBBJ has been doing Lean for several years, says principal Janet Susi. A registered nurse who works on the firm’s healthcare projects, Susi is a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt—meaning, in short, that she is proficient in Lean management and in particular, the Lean Six Sigma Methodology, a data-driven management approach that aims to remove redundancy in a company’s process. Lean works particularly well in complex typologies, like healthcare, she says, because it debunks preconceived notions of how spaces are used.

Janet Susi
Courtesy NBBJ Janet Susi

For example, a West Coast healthcare provider with a large medical campus asked NBBJ to help it use its facilities more efficiently and eliminate duplicating services. NBBJ began by shadowing a multidisciplinary group that included everyone from physicians to technicians to facilities management. “We map flow and existing processes—every step of a journey they take—so the group understands where bottlenecks happen or waste occurs,” Susi says. “The idea is to make the challenges for the client as visible as possible, and then think creatively about how you can get past these challenges.”

NBBJ may digitally model and test different design, layout, and building solutions to assess the impact the changes would have on the overall project, and build 2D tabletop models and 3D cardboard mock-ups with their clients to simulate real patient and clinical scenarios. The firm may also gather in-house and client teams for three- to five-day charrettes to focus on production, preparation, and process in a Lean exercise called “3P Methodology.”

“It is the opportunity to empower teams to cut waste and simulate a process to achieve a higher level of safety, quality, productivity, and delivery,” Susi says. “This helps everyone prepare for new ways of working and creates environments that can be flexible to adjust to whatever work or patient care looks like in the future.”

Two-dimensional modeling and flow-testing exercise for an NBBJ healthcare client in California.
Courtesy NBBJ Two-dimensional modeling and flow-testing exercise for an NBBJ healthcare client in California.

Investment Requirements
One challenge of introducing clients to Lean is an expectation of immediate results. “They want to be Lean, but the journey to get there does take a lot of rigor,” Susi says. “To change an organization requires senior leadership to be consistent and to keep it on track.”

Lean also requires an upfront financial investment to pay for consultants, training, and group meetings. Yet those who persevere reap its rewards, Susi says. “We’ve saved organizations millions of dollars in supplies alone.”

Individuals interested in Lean can research continuous improvement techniques online and pursue certification. Firms can hire consultants to hold staff-training sessions, which can take anywhere from a two-day overview of basic Lean principles to months to develop a deeper understanding or obtain certification. Rybkowski and Bala both suggest starting with the Lean Construction Institute, which offers events, workshops, and activity ideas. Based on Rybkowski’s experience, however, the teams that execute Lean best use a full-time consultant or have trained staff.

Courtesy Dyer Brown Architects

Dyer Brown is taking that latter approach. The office leveraged a grant from the state of Massachusetts aimed at training for companies and is sending two staff members to Haley & Aldrich for additional workshops, Bala says. Still, she favors a team approach when working with clients on Lean: “I might suggest bringing in a consultant … and a [Lean] champion in the firm, plus a senior member.”

NBBJ has been training its staff for several years. “It is important that firms educate their employees about Lean principles, and how the tools and approach to architecture benefit the team and the client,” Susi says. But, she adds, not every staff member needs to be trained as long as the firm as a whole understands the Lean ethos—which encapsulates the philosophy that emphasizes efficiency and people perfectly. “There’s a lot of tools we can use, but using Lean helps us bring a better value to our clients,” she says. “It takes the burden off of them to do what they do best.”