The Kind of Problem a Building is

The application of Lean Thinking principles has significantly impacted the manner by which buildings are constructed.  Surprisingly, design side delivery methodologies remain largely unchanged except some institutional projects utilizing IPD approaches.  Why is that?  Part of the answer may be that contractors and design professionals deal with very different types of problems and issues.  Understanding the type or kind of problem one has is key to solving it well.

The application of Lean to construction works well because contractors deal with significant issues of logistics such as estimating, the procurement and staging of materials, managing and coordinating trades, and the scheduling of manpower.   However that isn’t the type of problem facing design professionals for many aspects of their work.

Jane Jacobs in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, copyright 1961, wrote of cities and the kind of “problem” they were.  She described in detail the conventional thinking of the day for urban planning, noting that the misunderstanding of the kind of problem was leading to inaccurate analysis and the development of solutions that were ineffective.  History has proved her right.

She describes Dr. Warren Weaver’s work where he identified the 3 capabilities that had developed in scientific thought: 

  • How to deal with a problem of “simplicity”, consisting of just a few variables

  • Problems of “disorganized complexity” with many variables interacting in a random fashion

  • Problems of “organized complexity” - “…problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole.”

She suggested cities were an “organized complexity” - an array of complex relationships and interdependencies that required an understanding of the underlying issues for one to better devise approaches for dealing with the problems of urban decay and crime.  This was an approach more like that taken with the life sciences and biology.


Buildings are an Organized Complexity


A building, along with the BIM model and resulting documents that describe it are an organized complexity – that is, they are composed of multiple, overlapping building components and systems, logically arranged and coordinated with each other.

The architect’s task can be boiled down to two basic undertakings – Solving the Puzzle of the Project and Documenting the Solution.  In addition to addressing the subjective elements of design and client preferences, solving the design “puzzle” entails dealing with a sizable number of parameters – building systems, code requirements (often overlapping and conflicting) – which must be weighted, weighed, and ultimately combined together into a workable solution. 

A central task of the design phases is to envision and develop a viable solution to an often changing set of parameters.  This entails managing many subjective elements and communicating often complex ideas to clients in order to gain consensus. 

  • Problems involving subjective matters such as opinion, taste, and preference or with layers of decision makers require a more nuanced approach coupled with clear communication.  It can’t be overestimated the importance of understanding how your client works and makes decisions.

  • Problems dealing with issues of logistics, such as documenting or coordinating building systems or consultants, for example, are better solved by following processes and methodologies.

First by understanding the nature of the work – is it primarily subjective or objective, and then tailoring an approach to each, the tenets of Lean Thinking and similar process management approaches can be applied to design work.