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Lean expert insight: Technology, flow efficiency and a grass roots Lean journey

Lean expert insight: Technology, flow efficiency and a grass roots Lean journey

By Ryan Seckinger, Principal on the Structures team at Walter P Moore

About the expert: Ryan Seckinger is a Principal at Walter P Moore with over 16 years of structural engineering and team management experience. He leads the firm’s Lean and integrated project delivery Lean initiatives and is located in the firm’s Washington DC office. He is committed to leveraging collaborative working relationships, innovative technology, and intentional Lean practices to enable best-for-project solutions. Specializing in complex projects large and small, Ryan has a particular interest in improving the way integrated teams apply Lean principles and design thinking to rebuild the project delivery process.

How did you hear about Lean and when did you embark on your Lean journey?

Seckinger: As Walter P Moore started to explore and research Lean, the more interested we became and the more application we saw both within our company and on our project teams. We looked at applying Lean to develop a more focused understanding of what our clients value, and also what impact it had on our practice, specifically in the delivery of complex projects. So, a group of us started attending LCI national events and invited others from Walter P Moore to the LCI Congress, LCI’s Lean in Design Forum and the annual forums out at University of California, Berkeley. As a result, there is now a group in my company helping to spread Lean design and construction throughout our firm.

How do you, as an engineer, leverage technologies and how do you improve project team productivity with technology?

Seckinger: Just because something is cool does not mean it is useful technology that should be adopted in a Lean process. Within Lean thinking, I’m a big advocate of using the simplest technology possible for a given task. A pencil and paper, whiteboard or sketch in PDF are all valid, useful technologies. If we think about what Lean means to designers, communication and critical thinking are the two main things we do that technology can’t replace but can support and facilitate.

A big source of potential waste is how we communicate design ideas downstream to the hundreds and thousands of people who must then take these ideas and build them. Technology can play a key role in helping us communicate clear design ideas and the same goes for critical thinking and collaboration. I don’t look at technology as a way to take people out of the process; instead I see technology as a way to help people work together to identify and solve problems.

I see technology used at Walter P Moore in a few specific ways:

  • Traditionally, to get designs to the field, engineers and architects would either draw designs on paper or use computers to make digital drawings that resemble the paper drawings. Now we have the ability to use tools to communicate information at the fabrication level all the way downstream in the language that people are going to use. With steel, we can take a 3D model that has all the welds, nuts and bolts in it and hand it off to somebody who can plug it into their steel fabrication machines without the waste of having someone redraw it and reinterpret it into a model over and over again. Structural engineers must always be thinking about how design ideas will be built as we’re designing them. You don’t want to wait until you’ve come up with a brilliant idea only to have people scratch their heads on the jobsite and say, “How did they think we were going to build this thing?”
  • I also think of technology as my son does Legos®. A 6-year old can build a pretty amazing Star Wars Millennium Falcon out of Legos® because when he looks at the instructions, he doesn’t have to figure it out at the table. It shows him exactly how the pieces should fit. I see the potential for technology to bring us to that level of communication and Lean workflow because you have workers in the field who aren’t looking for materials or wondering how this can work.

Can you describe a specific experience where you used Lean thinking to solve a problem or make an important decision?

Seckinger: We solved a problem with a hospital expansion for University of Virginia (UVA) with Lean thinking. We were working with the architect, Perkins+Will, the University (owner), Skanksa and the different trade partners Skanska brought on. It wasn’t an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) project, but it was really collaborative with design-assist partners onboarded early on. In the past on other projects, we noticed a lot of waste in the process of how structural steel was designed and delivered with disjointed steps resulting in people either getting confused with the interpretation of the drawings or errors in the detailing model. Even though it wasn’t an IPD contract, the team was able to work out a redistribution of work so that we could design all the connections as part of the documents, and in addition to the regular drawing, we would hand off a model for the fabricator to start detailing with. That kind of process really streamlined the steel delivery for the hospital expansion.

Do you use A3s for sound decision-making and problem solving?

Seckinger: We’ve been using A3s on many projects, and the benefit I see is focusing decision-making around a specific thing that needs to be decided, and then having a record of that decision so we don’t have to rethink this scenario on our next project or later in the same project. All the different decisions I make have a domino effect because they touch so many other things. I can’t go pick what I think is the best structural system with steel or concrete, masonry or wood without consideration of the project as a whole because that impacts coordination, constructability and construction sequencing. Each little decision that seems like it’s not a huge deal on these complex projects cannot be made in a vacuum.

An A3 is a good tool that solves a specific problem. The value of an A3 to the team is that it enables us to go faster because we have confidence in this decision made as a team and we’re ready to go.

Looking back at your Lean journey so far, what do you wish you had known then that you know now?

Seckinger: It’s really hard to say because every year, my perspective broadens a little bit both by experience in applying Lean on projects and going to LCI Community of Practice (CoP) events or the Lean in Design Forum and LCI Congress. Every year more learning takes place – that’s a good thing.

One thing in particular is that I don’t think Lean in any industry is a destination to arrive at. The whole idea of continuous improvement is striving to make things better. What I would tell myself 10 years ago would be to reinforce the importance of a new way of thinking embodied by Lean like respect for people, seeking out open-minded dialogue and being open to new processes. That’s as important of a takeaway from the Lean conversation as any specific tools like Last Planner® System or A3, etc.

Did you attend many LCI events at the beginning of your Lean journey and have you brought others with you along the way?

Seckinger: Early on I read books, papers and resources on the LCI website. Next, I started going to LCI Congress and Lean in Design Forum as well. I’ve presented at a few and continue to be involved, but I’ve balanced that with engaging others from Walter P Moore. I also attended almost all of the local LCI Communities of Practice (CoP) events and was involved in the CoP core group for D.C. Metro CoP. The relationships you get out of the CoP events and the time spent with like-minded people in your local market or hometown is really valuable.

I don’t think that Lean is something you can push on people, even on a project where there’s a general understanding that we’re going to apply Lean principles. When teams naturally form and run into problems, often times Lean thinking and tools are there to solve those problems. In an organization, you don’t send out an email to the whole company and say, “everybody, we’re doing Lean and this is how you should do things.”

It’s more of a grassroots effort within a company that grows out of like-mindedness by seeking relationships with people who are headed in the same direction and encouraging each other along the way. I’ve been lucky to find people within Walter P Moore who are on a similar journey.

What can you tell us about the 2017 LCI Congress presentation, Flow Efficiency in Structural Delivery – From Concept Design to the Field?

Seckinger: It’s just a snippet of what can happen more broadly within the design and construction world when designers reset our view of design efficiency. A few years ago at LCI Congress, there was a really good presentation by Niklas Modig on his book, “This is Lean.” It was focused on resource efficiency versus flow efficiency. From an engineer or designer perspective, you could look at a really efficient design office as one that keeps everyone busy because all engineers are working just enough over time. But that’s a resource efficiency mindset and not what Lean is all about.

Flow efficiency is a mindset that looks at what the owner wants from the team. They want a building, so how do we order our work and focus our target hour effort on delivering what the owner wants as quickly and with as little waste as possible? When we look at creating flow, it puts the focus on not just our little silo, but on how we can broaden our perspective as design engineers and partners to better understand what the owner wants, what needs to be done and how we arrange our efforts to deliver that. Let’s not think about what we always do, but let’s think about what technology is available and what we can do with it to make the process support what the owner wants.

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