For many years, I worked as an architect, primarily on large public projects. I remember the deadlines: We have all been there – the schedule is tight and the clock is ticking. You don’t want to sit in meetings; you don’t want to discuss how you will do the work. You just want to sit at your desk and start cranking out the project.

It is amazing how little planning project teams actually do. I was asked to assist in the management of a difficult university project worth nearly $4B in construction; no one was willing to take even a day to gather the architecture team and figure out how best to perform the work going forward. Project management meetings were sparsely attended and regarded as a nuisance. Coordination with engineering and other consultants was lacking. The project was plagued with rework and missing information. And while no one had time to ensure the work was done right the first time, we apparently had plenty of time to do it over.

The Beck Group estimates that project managers in our industry spend between 50-70% of their time finding, fixing, and documenting corrections to errors in the work. It is no wonder that labor productivity in the Building Industry is estimated at 40%, and has been in decline since 1964 – all our new technology notwithstanding.

So what do we do when this lack of productivity and planning causes us to fall behind? There are four traditional methods for catching up:

  • Overtime. People stay in the office for long hours and on weekends (and holidays) – sometimes for months on end – to complete the work. But research studies since the 1900s have shown that if a person works consistently 60 hours per week they lose 25% of their productivity. Crunch the numbers, and it turns out that someone working 10 hours per day, 6 days per week gets no more done than someone working 8-9 hours per day, 5 days per week. So which schedule would you prefer? The body is a machine – eventually, if you don’t treat it with care, it wears out. No exceptions!
  • Throw bodies at it (with no accounting for the cost of coordination). On the university project, anyone in the office who had free time was automatically assigned to assist. One fellow complained that he had been waiting all afternoon for someone to assign him work, but everyone was too busy. Still, he billed his time to the project. On a community center project at another firm, as the 100% Construction Document deadline loomed, the whole office was assigned to get the project out the door. I was told to ensure that the central, oval stair (which up to that time had remained in schematic design), could be built to code. I went to ask the second in command a question – and it turned out he was working on the same thing! You can imagine what happened to the direct labor budget with 20 extra people working on the project for a week.
  • We cut corners. We like to pretend that we are always at the top of our game, but in a time crunch, something has to give. On the university project, the 100% Design Development set was plotted to pdf files and sent to the client (a large engineering concern) without anyone taking the time to print the set out first and redline any mistakes for correction. Unfortunately, we later learned that someone had inadvertently changed all the concrete shear walls into CMU (if you are working with Revit, you know how that can happen) and chairs and tables placed by the interior designer were pierced by concrete columns and walls. With too many obvious mistakes, the client rejected the work and demanded that the set be brought up to 100% DD standards. Rework, the bane of our existence – and another drop in productivity.
  • Finally, too often, we simply replace members of the team without changing the conditions they are working under. Only to find that with the same inefficient processes in place, the new team (or project manager, project architect, intern, etc.) performs no better. (And often wastes time getting up to speed.)

Of all the unproductive ways we try to make up for lost time, I believe that overtime is the worst. It is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the modern workplace. Instead of seeing overtime as a symptom of a substandard work process gone awry, too many businesses see it as a sign of dedication. On the university project, one senior manager complained that a certain young woman was often going home on time while her colleagues logged long overtime hours.

I asked: “Is she getting her work done?”


“Is her work done correctly?”


“Has she been assigned a fair share?”

“Well…yes, I thought so…”

“So why should she give up her private life because she is efficient?”

He was stumped. Clearly, this thought hadn’t occurred. Now, she could have stayed late, presented herself as “super-dedicated,” and taken on even more work…. until that 25% loss in productivity kicked in and she found herself working all those additional hours while adding no value. Push the false metric of “overtime as dedication” too far, and you could lose your most talented employees.

So if overtime, throwing more bodies at a project, cutting corners, and replacing team members won’t bring us back on schedule (and breaks the budget), what do we do?

According to W. Edwards Deming, one of the grandfathers of Lean: “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” We spend a lot of time designing buildings, but do not stop to design the process of designing buildings. Almost all other industries have already adopted lean principles, and these principles – based on respect for the people who do the work and continuous improvement – have brought both innovation and rising profits.

Consider our typical workflow now – the architect creates a plan and pushes the Owner to give his approval as soon as possible so that the architect can get his engineers working. The mechanical engineer designs a system to fit the plan and sends the model to the architect, who inserts the model and ensures that the steel truss structure doesn’t interfere with the ducts. The lighting designer designs the lights and his model is similarly incorporated, whereupon the architect coordinates with the mechanical diffusers. Finally, the interior designer chooses the room colors. These professionals usually work separately. Lighting and mechanical engineers use rules-of-thumb for load calculations because they design their systems separately, without much input from other disciplines. Then we are surprised that most mechanical systems are overdesigned by 200%. But if, for example, the interior designer agrees to raise the Light Reflectance Value of the interior paint 10-12%, the lighting designer could decrease the number of light fixtures by 25% or more, which reduces the heat load and would significantly decrease mechanical system requirements. Expensive, triple-glazed windows might eliminate the need for a perimeter heating system and its ductwork. But in our present system, these professionals merely coordinate their efforts and let the computer software detect physical clashes. Energy models, employed at the end of Design Development, tell us if we are within design parameters but do not often inform massing, orientation, or daylighting techniques.

Coordination is the rule, not collaboration. We are trained to believe that working in these silos is efficient; I have been told by other architects that they don’t have time to pause while they are designing the floor plate and massing diagram to ask the mechanical engineer which mechanical system might be best and how the design should accommodate it. That will come later. But a building is an organism: all the systems must work together, and if designed separately, a lot of additional work is required to align these systems. Virtually no architecture firms actually calculate the extra work required by this lack of collaboration, but over 90% claim they have to perform significant rework on nearly all of their projects. Overtime becomes expected, as the work never seems to be quite finished. Decisions are revisited, missing information chased down, and errors corrected right up until construction documents are submitted (and beyond). Designers will shrug and exclaim that the design process is iterative by nature, but don’t grasp that negative iterations don’t benefit the project at all.

Lean truly is a new paradigm in design and construction. We have traditionally been taught that Scope, Budget, and Schedule are three legs of a stool, and that any change in one (shortening of the schedule, for example) must cause unwelcome adjustments in the others (a rising budget or a decrease in scope). We are taught that a quality project will require lots of overtime and rework. That architectural fees will always be low given the amount of work involved. And that we must continuously delete value and scope from projects to meet the budget.

But Lean principles show us that focusing on the Quality of our work and team collaboration can decrease the budget, decrease the schedule, improve profits, and keep (or even expand) scope all at the same time. Overtime and mistakes can be reduced, and new possibilities and opportunities to add value to the project uncovered. More work can be accomplished with fewer people and less stress. Properly integrated teams will always come up with better, cheaper solutions that give the owner the most “bang for the buck.” All while your employees go home at 5! Finally, crude measures that provide only a vague proxy for productivity and performance (“overtime as dedication”) will be replaced by the knowledge of actual performance. Stay tuned for additional posts on the “magic” Lean methods!