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Improving Engineering Workflows with Lean Management

Team Building By May 24, 2024 No Comments

In my recent post “Lean Management in Design and Construction“, I provided an overview of how lean principles, originating from the Toyota Production System, can drive significant efficiency and performance improvements in the workplace. This week, I want to look into a specific application – optimising workflows between a local engineering team and their offshore design support office.

The team was experiencing common challenges with their offshore model—inconsistent work quality, missed deadlines, and exceeded budgets. The existing workflow was analysed using a combination of techniques, including value stream mapping and root cause analysis. This revealed issues with disorganised information flows, inadequate resource planning, a lack of standardised processes and content, and varying skill levels in the offshore team.

Value stream mapping (VSM) played a key role in visualising and understanding the current state of the engineering and documentation processes. The team created a detailed map of the existing workflow, from the initial design phase through to the final deliverables. This allowed them to identify areas of waste, such as:

  • Unnecessary motion and transportation of information
  • Waiting times between process steps
  • Overproduction and excess inventory of work in progress
  • Over-processing and rework due to quality issues

As you can see from mapping out the process by hand and quantifying the time spent on value-added activities versus non-value-added activities, the flow of information was overly complex and incredibly wasteful, often leading to confusion and rework highlighting significant opportunities for improvement.

In addition to value stream mapping, the team used root cause analysis techniques, such as the “5 Whys” method, to drill down into the underlying reasons behind the observed problems. For example, when investigating the issue of late deliverables, the 5 Whys revealed:

  1. Why were deliverables late? Because the offshore team received design inputs late.
  2. Why did the offshore team receive inputs late? Because engineers were unsure of the offshore team’s progress and held back on providing further inputs.
  3. Why were engineers unsure of progress? Because there was no clear way to track work status between the offices.
  4. Why was there no clear tracking? Because the existing communication channels and processes were inadequate.
  5. Why were the communication channels inadequate? Because there was a lack of standardisation and direct lines of communication between teams.

By repeatedly asking “why” and digging deeper into the root causes, the team was able to identify the underlying issues that needed to be addressed, such as the lack of visual management methods and the need for streamlined communication.

As we examined the current state of the workflow and collaboration with the offshore team, a number of critical issues surfaced. To better understand how these problems aligned with lean principles and the Toyota Way, we mapped them out in the following table:

Looking at the table, it’s clear that the identified issues span a wide range of lean principles and Toyota Way concepts. From the disorganised flow of information to the lack of standardised BIM content indicating a lack of continuous improvement and employee empowerment, the findings paint a picture of a workflow in need of a lean transformation.

The table also highlights how interconnected these issues are. Poor resource planning and inadequate quality of design inputs, for example, are closely tied to the lack of visual control and the failure to develop exceptional people and teams. By seeing these connections, we can begin to understand how addressing one issue can have a positive ripple effect on others.

What’s more, the table serves as a roadmap for the engineering firm’s lean journey. By aligning each issue with specific lean principles, we can identify the key areas to focus on to drive meaningful change. Whether it’s implementing pull systems to avoid overproduction or investing in the growth and development of team members, the table provides a clear direction for improvement efforts.

Of course, knowing where to start is just the beginning. The real challenge lies in translating these principles into practical, actionable solutions that can be implemented within the unique context of the engineering firm’s workflow. But armed with this understanding of how the current state aligns with lean thinking, we can begin to craft targeted interventions that address the root causes of the problems and unlock the full potential of the offshore collaboration.

In the next post, we’ll explore the specific lean solutions implemented to transform the engineering firm’s workflow and drive better outcomes. Stay tuned!

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