Lean Space - Some Thoughts and 10 Questions

Lean is applied within time and space. That's where we "live" and add value, or not. Organizations often don't rigorously consider critical lean implications when designing new spaces - whether brand new buildings, additions or modifications to existing structures.

The fact is that spaces need to support and facilitate a leaner value stream. Too often we design new spaces to accommodate old, waste-laden, value-inhibiting ways...because the architectural and construction process often has its own inertia. Lean thinking can end up taking the back seat. This is a big fail!

So, whether we: 1) believe (careful of that) that we have squeezed out much of the improvement opportunity within a given value stream and now anticipate that an improved space will bring us to the next level, or  2) have just begun our lean journey and think a new or redesigned space will give us some serious performance lift, or 3) are somewhere in between, there are some fundamental considerations before the architects design, the demo guys demolish, the contractors...you get the point.

Few things go together as well as value stream analysis and new layout development. It's an opportunity to define a leaner future state, at both a conceptual and physical level. Of course, these activities are what we would call paper kaizen. While we can challenge one another on how to get to continuous flow, apply supermarket pull, incorporate new/improved standard work, etc., it's still just captured on paper. It's not real yet.

This is where 3P (production preparation process, or perhaps, more appropriately 2P - preparation process) is powerful stuff. Within the context of certain weighted design criteria (see below for some questions that might help identify key criteria), 3P facilitates: 1) the formulation of many different design alternatives, 2) down-selection to a critical few design concepts, 3) trystorming/PDCA of the critical few using open space, chalk lines, cardboard, PVC, etc., sometimes aided by 3D design, and ultimately, 4) the selection of a final design.

Now, that may sound too easy, and often it is. If the new space is supposed to accommodate a bunch of "improved" flows, standard work, visual controls, etc...heck, a brand new system, the likelihood that it will all work without a bunch of real PDCA, applied over many weeks, is about ZERO.

So, you need to evaluate the risk of going too fast and perhaps spending lots of money and then determining that the new space is far from what is needed. Most times, depending upon the depth of change, it may make sense to live the new system, as best you can, in your old space and do PDCA. While you do this, PDCA the design of the space.

To spur some thought around lean space design, here are a handful of questions to consider. In no specific order:

  1. Will the new space facilitate the least waste physical flow of the material, information, person, supplies, scrap, equipment, tooling, etc.?
  2. Will the new space facilitate and even enhance visual management by means of clear line of sight - no obstructions (high features, corners, stairs, etc.)?
  3. Will the new space have desirable acoustics to facilitate audible communication (musical andons, team discussions, etc.) and provide sufficient quiet/privacy to do the job (like in a call center)?
  4. Will the space facilitate 5S and work place organization? For example, how can we better accomplish the 4th S, standardized clean-up, by keeping things from getting messy in the first place?
  5. PDCA is forever and business dynamics evolve - is the space flexible enough to accommodate improved layouts, forecasted growth, normal demand variation? Avoid "roots or vines" so that equipment, furniture, workstations and even walls can be easily moved.
  6. Will the space facilitate tiered team meetings and accommodate the related performance metrics boards, suggestion boards, task accountability boards, etc.?
  7. Will the space be something that you would be proud to show you customers, something that your employees will feel makes their job easier and more satisfying?
  8. Will the space facilitate standard work and, with that, avoid isolated islands while promoting appropriate multi-process operations?
  9. Will the space generate a sufficient ROI?
  10. Will the stakeholders "own" the new space, because they were appropriately engaged in developing it?

What are your space design considerations?

Related posts: Telling “How” Removes Responsibility, Without Defined Criteria, (Almost) Everything Looks Good

There are 6 Comments

markrhamel's picture

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for sharing your experience! It's a perfect lean learning and speaks for itself (certainly no need for me to expound).

And, I think sledgehammers are one of the most effective lean tools ever devised.

Best regards,

markrhamel's picture

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the comment!

Your experience sounds familiar. 3P can be a bit intimidating to some engineers. They're used to being the unchallenged experts when it comes to equipment/machine design. Often, the have a silo kind of headset - I build, you use.

The results are typically unsatisfying for the stakeholders. 3P dynamically engages the stakeholders and employs a bunch of trystorming to PDCA design and application. So, while 3P is a proven strategy for designing and building, I think that some engineers are just plain threatened because they see it as a loss of power. That's why good lean engineers are worth their weight in gold (even at today's prices).

In the end, it's a leadership thing. Silos need to be broken down through cross-functional teaming, co-location, value-stream based organization structures, modified performance management approaches that reward collaboration and such, and good coaching a leading by example.

Best regards,

Michael O'Connor's picture

This is an interesting post. This past week I attended a lecture by local builders on Green Building design and construction. One of the first questions they ask the homeowner is: What do you want in your house? They stay away from the question of: How many square feet do you want? and instead start with: What do you want in the house? Once they know the homeowners needs (e.g. number of bedrooms, etc.), they then design the house using Green design principles.

What I find most interesting is that in Lean and in Green, the designs start with the questions: What are you going to do in the space?

markrhamel's picture

Hi Dr. Mike,

Thanks for the comment! Great example for starting with purpose and intent. The Green folks start with what matters, then go from there. Lean folks (definitely NOT mutually exclusive from Green...) must do the same.

Best regards,

Andrew Bishop's picture


Here's a timely tale, from Bogotá again...

Some months ago when Mark Graban posted on designing facilities for lean operations, I told how we were designing our new production laboratory here on a forced time frame due to losing a lease. Since we hadn't begun lean transformation in the lab yet, the managers and operators weren't equipped to make design decisions from a lean frame of reference. I didn't know the operation intimately yet, either, so we agreed on simply going for maximum flexibility: no bearing walls or fixed infrastructure except around the perimeter.

Operations moved in 6 months ago, we mapped the valuestream for the largest product family last month, and this week took our first major steps toward future state ("kaizen events", if you will - for change and, equally or more important, training).

What did we find? In the packing area (starting improvement as close to the customer as we could) someone had designed in a small, low wall projecting into the space a few feet - built of bricks! Wouldn't you know it, our first changes literally ran into a brick wall as the team set out to reconfigure the work space.

Fortuntately, it was nothing that couldn't be overcome with a sledgehammer and cold chisel! The unsolved mystery is who put the wall in the plans (or why). Anyway, it's gone now.



Matt Wrye's picture

Mark -
This is a great post. I like the list of questions to use. We have tried the 3P process in designing new equipment at our company. The engineers do not like it. The process worked well but they get offended when their design isn't chosen. So it wasn't the 3P but how people felt about themselves and not what was best for the company. Have you ever ran into this?