Lean & Building Information Modeling

So here we go again. A new all seeing solution for the woes of our industry performance, Building Information Modeling (BIM). I remember when I threw out my T Square and protractor and adjusted my craft to the future afforded by the Amstrad 386, CRT display and what now seems like a coal driven pen plotter. 25 years ago an all night plot was exciting! The future of Architecture and design if not at least building was secure.

The computer environment was the way forward. CAD was the only game in town and in future information exchange was a digital issue with drawing layers preventing once and for all clashes between design disciplines. Seamless and efficient production of design information was the vision with standardisation of specification formats and drawing controls. As a young Architect this was the future and old dead wood would be weeded out. Some were as they refused to ditch the 2H pencil for electronic production information.

My energy was however misguided as my experience as a project Architect grew. The complete adversarial and contractual nature of our industry diverted my youthful efforts at creating really good three-dimensional spaces as ‘Fallingwater’ had called me to do. I realised that 2h pencil or CAD would make absolutely no difference to delivering successful projects that the customer really wanted, and more and more of my time as a design professional was being spent researching the latest case law.

Disillusioned with the situation I moved on and to the automotive industry where my eyes were opened to the world of best practice, teamwork, customer focus and the need to continuously improve; concepts which my Architectural approved teaching and my construction work life experience had never mentioned. 100% improvements though lean thinking in my early days was not unusual; such is the waste that exists in our processes.  Now 15 years on and I’m back in construction as a Lean Practitioner, combining my best practice knowledge from my automotive experiences with my practical knowledge as a Chartered Architect. With renewed vigor I am now consistently delivering major improvements in quality cost and delivery in a variety of sectors of our industry. My youthful enthusiasm has returned as I flush out waste from construction processes and motivate teams to drive continuous lean improvements.

So now we have the prospect of BIM, indeed some are already well on with implementations. But what can BIM bring to the party, and crucially will it help improve the performance of our industry? The deadline for BIM compliance at level 2 for public sector projects in England is 2016. The Ministry of Justice, a significant construction procurer, is trail blazing ahead with 2013 as its deadline.

BIM will no doubt mean different things to different supply chain members. In my travels and conversations the usual silo and disjointed construction thinking still applies even though the Government views BIM as a collaborative tool. To the industry it seems that BIM, for design is about 3D modeling (which most do not do), for contractors about integrated planning (which is done by a planner in an office), and for sub contractors other than some major M&E companies is something that others do. Whilst many designers, contractors and specialist have yet to come to really understand what BIM is about, the protagonists driving BIM implementation who I have witnessed at a number of events this year really do seem to get it! If you haven’t heard David Philp talk about the Governments vision yet then get to hear him or check out the website (www.bimtaskgroup.org) as there is a real clear grasp of what BIM really needs to be about.

There are of course many barriers and obstacles to be overcome. Competitive tendering, short-term relationships and a feeling that construction is somehow different (its not) are all barriers for BIM. Latham and Egan and many before have all raised these. The Governments Construction Strategy document (May 2011) I am pleased to see essentially says that these old habits have to be ripped up and new ways of best practice adopted, (which largely already exist) to deliver the lean construction industry that our economy requires going forward.

Industry needs to see this opportunity and truly understand what the benefits can be. Procurement models and more importantly practices will need to change to allow the significant industry specialists to sit round the table at design stage and provide the expertise through collaborative working This will mean we will need to be able to appoint our supply chain partners on the behavior, capability and expertise they will bring and not on their price. Then we will deliver the real improvements in project delivery and whole life performance that we know can be achieved.

Perhaps most importantly we really need to train all our industry staff and especially our design professionals in how to work collaboratively. Its not easy and it must be structured with an emphasis on team working. Other industries invest huge amounts of time and effort in building high performing and effective teams. We need to do the same. We need to undertake a significant programme of Lean Training to raise awareness and the level of practice of how we can remove the vast amount of waste in our design and construction processes.  This would have huge benefits to our national economy and built environment.

For me BIM offers the potential for a significant step change in the quality, cost, delivery and health and safety performance of our industry. Not because of what it is but because of what (if done properly) it will demand us to do. Additionally from a Lean perspective, BIM is founded on the premise of collaborative working and will facilitate lean thinking by providing high degrees of visual management; standardised working, problem solving and most importantly waste elimination. Yes the end users should receive significantly improved information and data to run their facilities into the future but for me the real benefit can be BIM as a catalyst to support the implementation of Lean thinking into our industry like never before.  BIM for me is not about IT but about cultural change.

We need knowledgeable lean thinkers, organised in high performing teams, focused on driving out waste from our process whist delivering wonderfully designed projects and I believe BIM can play a significant part in that vision.

By Richard Donnelly BSc(Hons) Barch MBA RIBA