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Lean Architecture:
The Pursuit of Excellence in Project Delivery

By Michael F. Czap

Lean Architecture is the ongoing process of rethinking and improving architectural process and methodology. It is the pursuit of better work by applying “Lean” principles to every aspect of practice. It is about smarter information flow and understanding how we perceive and process information in order to become better communicators amongst ourselves and with the ultimate users of our services.

Lean Architecture is not about skipping necessary steps or omitting information. To the contrary, it is identifying what adds value and reducing or eliminating that which doesn't.

Why Lean? “Lean” has become the terminology best associated with understanding and advancing productivity and quality in manufacturing, software development, management, construction, and healthcare.

“Lean” as a term signifying system improvement was popularized by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones in their seminal book “Lean Thinking”. It has been applied to the now famous Toyota Production System with its relentless effort to eliminate waste and the development of innovative practices such as “Just In Time” manufacturing.

Other management approaches worth noting are Six Sigma, developed by Motorola for reducing variation among individual processes; and the Theory of Constraints by Elihu Goldratt which seeks to optimize an entire system by the elimination of constraints. There is much for architectural firms to learn from each of these. Their tenets can be applied to every firm and team practice to bring about improvement in project delivery.

Borrowing from these three approaches we can establish some basic goals:

1. Structure our work effort so projects better “flow” by identifying processes and tasks that contribute value and eliminating those that don’t.

2. Reduce variation in the ways we work and in the deliverables we produce.

3. Identify and eliminate or mitigate, constraints in the office and on projects. Find out what hinders us from doing good work. These can be policies, practices, people, levels of expertise or equipment.

Let’s briefly look at their application to project management, documentation and technology.


Approach project development from a critical path standpoint by identifying what needs to happen at the appropriate phase and building in coordination efforts between disciplines. Prevent problems by looking ahead to eliminate potential roadblocks rather than expending effort later to "detect and correct".

Concurrently design, engineer and make your buildings constructible. Where possible, major design and decision making coupled with simultaneous costing and value engineering should be complete by the end of Design Development.

Plan your projects and avoid the tendency to work as hard as you can without first knowing what you intend to accomplish. Work to reduce or eliminate barriers that prevent staff and consultants from doing work right the first time.


Mies Van der Rohe famously observed that “Less is More”. We think of his comments with regards to design, but should also consider their application to architectural process and methodology.

    • Develop well thought out methods for getting work done rapidly and consistently.

    • Develop drawing processes for dealing with repetitious information such as doors, partitions and cabinetry.

    • Develop tools that facilitate client interaction and information gathering – and document it back to them in an attractive, easy to understand format.

    • Draw what you know, not what you don't. An incomplete area in a drawing or BIM model is a powerful visual reminder that information is lacking or needed decisions are not made.

    • Organize drawings to tell a story. The grouping and presentation of information is just about as important as the information itself and too much information dilutes a set of drawings.

    • Know your audience. Who are your drawings intended for? Are they easily understood and navigable?

Processes serve a purpose to bring consistency to our efforts and leverage knowledge. Review them from time to time with an eye to changing technologies to see if there isn’t yet a better way. They should be adaptable to clients and projects. The very act of process adaption can yield new insight into how to better do something and change the process itself – if we’re paying attention.


The architectural profession is still in the midst of profound technological change. The tools in use today bear little resemblance to those of a generation ago and allow us to bring increased speed with greater accuracy and rapid visualization.

Interestingly, the use of new technologies has not significantly altered the architect’s deliverables. We have merely automated old processes and construction drawings and specifications are essentially the same as what we have always produced.

Due largely to the advent of Building Information Modeling (BIM) software, Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is re-examining and challenging the fundamentals of project delivery and stands to radically change long held relationships and methodologies.

It is important to understand that while practices and tools change, principles do not. Technology must be an enabler and serve architectural process - and not become an end unto itself.

    • Consider your task to be that of information management. Devise methods to record project decisions, client comments and preferences with a goal of “handling” as little as possible. The fewer times we transcribe information, the less likely mistakes will be made.

    • Establish office standards that are succinct and easily digestible, so interns and new hires quickly get up to speed. Look for simple solutions and use technology to automate mundane and repetitive tasks.

    • Develop consistent methods to record, file and retrieve information. Architects have been diligent to set up CAD standards but haven’t established good information management strategies for other types of documents.


Firms don’t hesitate to invest time and money in the pursuit of new work. However, marketing and business development can only obtain an opportunity to get what we’re really interested in - profit and successful projects. Lean Architecture is about getting better at making a profit and doing so while delivering better quality projects with increased productivity.

Lean Architecture is thinking and then working to ensure that Less is More. It is a disciplined approach to examining everything we do and better using our resources of people, relationships, equipment and opportunity to deliver tangible benefits when times are good – and not so good.

Michael F. Czap, AIA is the Director of Quality Management at the Dallas office of RTKL Associates, Inc., an international architecture and engineering firm

Michael has lead efforts at RTKL to identify and implement new technologies and progressive project delivery processes. He has developed standards & training materials and administered the Quality Management Program in Dallas. He also developed the RTKL “Dallas Net” and RTKL Guide:Net intranets, comprising Firm Production Methodologies and a Project Documents Database.


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