As many of us work from home using Zoom conferencing and the phone, there has been a lot of concern about how to keep our social contacts and our work teams intact.

If we are all working remotely in our own homes and using the internet to communicate, how can we continue to hold the conversations that matter, forge personal connections, and move work forward? After confronting my own frustrations with the challenges of remote communication, I started to consider how we already suffer from so much miscommunication in “normal,” real-life, face-to-face communication. I suspect most of the challenging communication issues we complain about today have nothing to do with online conversations.

What exactly is a conversation? Conversations are not about exchanging information. They are about forming relationships so that specialists can work together. Conversations are about understanding the concerns of your clients and their user groups and how you might best satisfy them. Conversations allow you to explore possibilities for future action and the creation of new worlds (particularly important in architecture). Nothing can happen in any human endeavor except through conversation – Conversations for Action allow teams to make reliable promises to each other that move the work forward in the right direction.

As Lean consultants, we spend most of our coaching helping clients have the right conversations, which sounds easy enough. But this is usually where most problems lie. Project specialists are having the wrong conversations about the wrong topics with the wrong people – or worse, don’t have the necessary conversations at all. We assume we have a commitment, then get disappointed when others don’t perform as expected. We assume everyone has a similar background and hears our message as it was intended, then are surprised when they are disappointed in what we deliver.

Architects are particularly notorious for this. We show our clients drawings that are clear to us, we may even show them physical mock-ups, but we often know – even at the moment clients are nodding their heads – that they don’t fully understand what they are looking at. One owner-client noted that there were actual tears when a new lab opened and workers saw the filing system for the lab samples – they were confronted with a filing system for legal papers, not lab samples. The designers insisted that the manufacturer recommended the system and the users approved it – and even signed off on it! Fine, but they clearly didn’t know what they were getting.

Another architect was frustrated with a hospital client – as they were building the project, users kept asking for changes, complaining that “This is not what we want.” This team had created mockups that were approved, but still – somehow alignment wasn’t achieved. Designers subsequently look for recorded documentation proving that the design has been approved – we are usually very good at collecting signatures. But that is missing the point. If you have to search for documentation to prove your clients wanted what they do not want, you have already lost. Let’s ask instead: What conversation was missing, that the architect didn’t design an option his clients could really use? Or, why couldn’t the clients confidently choose the option that would work best?

It is very difficult for the lay person to translate needs into physical space. One project in my past reminds me of both the hazards of missed communication and the wonder of giving a client what they didn’t know they needed because you understood and could address their concerns. Count the missing conversations (and the missed opportunities). How can we communicate better, face-to-face or not? Why did these conversations not take place? In your own projects, consider what conversations you have engaged in that didn’t bring clarity and which conversations were simply missing in action.

My firm had answered an RFP for a municipal recreation center in an eastern city. The owner had an old school building they were very fond of that was functioning as a recreation center. They clearly stated that they wanted to upgrade and add to the building with $30M in improvements paid for by a taxpayer-backed municipal bond. As experts in recreation center design, we toured the old school and realized that the dark, windowless spaces, confusing layout, and conventional, leaking – who knows where? – pool were a liability that would cost much to maintain and couldn’t significantly be improved. Alone among competitors, we suggested building a brand-new center behind the existing one as it continued serving the public, then shutting down and removing the “school” and replacing it with a new parking lot. They could build anything they could imagine with a new building, include any modern feature they wanted, and spend much less running it. The recreation department loved this unexpected suggestion, and we won the right to design the project.

We initially proposed an aesthetic coming from the suburb’s industrial past, but the owners were having none of it. They wanted a design that was modern and forward-looking. The powerful, respected mayor stated that he wanted to see “Pizzazz.” The word went out – the mayor wants Pizzazz! Everyone was giddy with anticipation. We illustrated with pictures all the options, convened public meetings, studied the income generated from various activities, and determined the program. Because the budget was low for the square footage they wanted, we simplified the structure. Three brick rectangles were arranged around each other in the park, brought together by the interconnecting tissue of a large atrium that could hold public events. The budget was verified by the contractor.

When the project design was unveiled, the recreation center committee was pleased. Then attention turned to the mayor. He paused, apparently non-plussed. Then he spoke tentatively: “Can’t you put some… circles in it?” Our local partners did not remind the mayor of the cost considerations, and no, putting curves into a basketball gym, gymnastics space, lap pools, storage spaces, etc. didn’t really make any sense. Instead of probing the request more deeply and arriving at a mutual understanding of the Conditions of Satisfaction, our local partners ran back to the office and created what could only be called New Baroque Recreation. We architects were now non-plussed. The mayor was beyond pleased. The contractor informed us that we were now $5M over budget. We commenced “value engineering.” From a distance, we urged our local partners to come clean to the mayor. They resisted, and continued proposing possible scope cuts.

Finally, with no real path back to the $30M without utterly changing the mayor’s favorite version, the local architect informed him that the project was $35M – one day before the city’s people were headed to New York with the $30M request. The mayor was crestfallen. He had mentioned that he was willing to find more money if necessary, but no one had informed him and now it was too late. The architect then informed him that the reason for the boxy design in the first place was to keep construction costs down. The mayor hit the roof! He felt he was now being blamed for the snafu, as well as having his building taken from him. He didn’t remember that detail! Why wasn’t he told? Chastened, the local team went back to the drawing board. The final design was actually spectacular, better than the first two. But trust was destroyed. Eventually, the project was opened to major praise, but it was a long, difficult road.

So where was our contractor-partner? They had actually been hired first, after telling the owner they were the best positioned to lead the design effort. Outside of periodic cost estimates – the only time I remembered interacting with them – they requested that we use gyp board walls at the basketball gyms supported with a steel beam and post structure. The CMU wall had a large opening into the atrium covered by a steel beam that would have made the construction sequence a little difficult. We rejected the change out of hand – a gyp board wall in a public center would be too easily destroyed. We always put prison-grade fixtures in the locker rooms, and sometimes even those were torn free! That was the end of our conversation.

The contractor had sold the owner on a “fast-track” program where multiple design packages are released for bidding early as the design continues. The owner, the City Recreation Department, had never really built a building before and didn’t understand that fast-track worked best for an owner that could make quick decisions (perhaps not a public entity requiring consensus?), a structure that was repetitive, and a budget that could afford mistakes that must be rebuilt because the timetable is paramount. There was no real financial need to speed up the construction; it was just “nice to have.” Trade-offs were not understood. Indeed, the design and construction didn’t go any faster than usual, but the local architects again lost their shirts with multiple sets of bidding documents that they dutifully created without really questioning the point.

The existing separation between designers and constructors is profound, and even with new contract structures (Design/Build, Integrated Project Delivery, CMAR), tends to regress to the same traditional relationship: Design, Price, Redesign, Price, Cut Scope Point Fingers. Distrust keeps the What and the How of building at odds. This does not serve our clients well. As an example, a young developer wanted to build a luxury condo building on land he owned. He wanted to live there with 4 additional tenants and hired an architect known for his funky, hi-tech designs. He needed to cover his costs and hoped for a decent return, but his primary focus was on an iconic design and cool, luxurious design features. Meanwhile, the contractor, stuck in typical developer-mode, continued to emphasize cost to the exclusion of almost any other conversation. The lead architect implored the team to never tell the contractor that cost was not the most important consideration to the owner – based on no actual evidence, he worried that the contractor would start to gouge the client. Hence, any expertise we may have gained in navigating the narrow path between luxury, iconic design, and ROI was lost. Crucial conversations simply didn’t happen. Relevant options were not presented.

I spent my career as an architect taking on projects that were already in trouble or leading new projects with tight budgets and difficult owners. I was already fascinated with uncovering project management best practices when I was introduced to Lean principles and methods while studying for an MBA in 2005. Most creative people see Lean as just an industrial engineering method to eliminate waste and standardize processes. In the building industry, that is partially our fault. Our current Lean language does not really speak to innovation or the exploration of alternatives through collaboration. Lean started in the construction phase and unfortunately seems to be largely stuck there. For Toyota, the original expression of what would become known in the West as “Lean” was heavily invested in a common purpose: creating a modern manufacturing base for a war-torn nation. Profit would come from a true understanding of what the customer would buy before you built it, and only building what was requested. But the common purpose came first – Toyota land was even farmed for the benefit of employees, and all were expected to contribute to the common purpose of rebuilding the nation.

Somewhere, the common understanding of Lean lost this sense of creation and innovation. When getting my MBA, I was informed that over half of design problems were due to unclear definitions of scope and goals. As an architect, this really struck me. But the standard project management check-the-box solutions and task breakdowns and project charters didn’t speak to the human side of determining the best possible solution for any design problem. This common purpose is the foundation we must understand before beginning any project. But how do we create this understanding of purpose consistently? How do we direct the conversations necessary for teams of specialists to align their efforts and create the best solutions for our clients? How do we conduct the conversations that matter?  Without an understanding of Value, there is no definition of Waste. How do we help clients understand what value is when they can’t articulate their physical needs? We need to understand the client’s history and how they work – but not just how they work now, but how might these processes be improved to better serve the client and their customers, community, or user groups?

There is a human tendency to jump to a solution quickly and run with that solution without exploring many options. Architects often believe they have no choice but to select an option early and iterate their way to a final solution, tossing the initial option over the wall to their engineers and contractor-partners in what is referred to as the “Waterfall” approach. But exploring a wider universe of alternatives collaboratively actually allows a team to move more quickly and decisively to the best solution – and lets you hold the most productive conversations with stakeholders, drawing out their needs, experience, and perspectives.

Lean design methods, including Target Value Delivery, Set-Based Design, 3P, Choosing By Advantages, Design Cycle Planning, etc. are sometimes described as tools – or a system of tools – but they are actually a series of coordinated conversations that allow all the specialists on a team to truly collaborate. Designers and the project teams that we have coached in this phase are at the vanguard of reintroducing Lean as a driving force for innovation that lets designers do more of what they do best – design! – and allows owners comfort when making timely decisions. Especially during that magical time where innovation and cost savings are easiest to capture: From the owner’s first realization of a building need to the basic concept the project team moves forward with.

For the first time outside of our typical coaching engagements, we are offering a Lean in the Design Phase series to address how designers, builders in pre-construction departments, trades engaged in design-assist, and leaders overseeing projects for owners can incorporate these exciting methods to support innovative, cost-effective design. We hope some of you can join us!