Atte Leppänen: Design Can Become a Lean Process

Agile Management, Big Rooms, and Machine Learning Change the Way We Design

Atte Leppänen, Business Development Director at Sweco Structures, got a glimpse of lean thinking when he worked as a kid at his father’s sheet metal workshop. He became familiar with process flow and making sure every piece would be impeccable for the next production phase.

“I started to use the same production line thinking early in my career,” says Leppänen. “In the year 2000, at SuunnitteluKortes, we standardized pipe profiles and connection types that we used in design. A few years later, we automated the process and saved one third of the time required to design the connections.”

Positive Laziness as a Driver

Leppänen talks jokingly about positive laziness as a driver for lean design: “We’re looking for solutions that allow us do things easier and simpler, avoiding waste.” Sweco Structures has trained their employees to collaborate better and used Last Planner simulation to visualize process flow. They employ their own version of Scrum, an agile management framework, with weekly sprints and daily scrum events. They’re also studying how artificial intelligence and machine learning would help in design work.

Big Rooms

Big Rooms are becoming popular in Finnish construction. In a Big Room, designers communicate with the customer directly and visualize designs for them using virtual reality. That speeds up the work and reduces misunderstandings that often lead to rework later in the project.

Playing with alternative designs during the development phase is all right; it adds value to the customer. After all, the early decisions essentially determine the final cost of the construction. Trying to find cost savings through alterations later in the process only creates process waste and results in marginal cost savings, if any.

Leppänen reminds us that Big Room is not a panacea. It requires rigorous management so that it doesn’t become just a hang-around place.

Stop the Snowball of Unfinished Work

Lack of initial data in various design phases is a recurring problem and Leppänen’s pet peeve. He likens the work in a typical design process to a rolling snowball. Typically, when the designer is approaching the first milestone on the schedule, the task is incomplete. Since the project deadline is far in the future, the problem does not seem that critical. However, the work for the next milestone cannot start on time. The same happens with all consequent milestones, and finally the small snowball of belated work has grown huge and unstoppable. Eventually, the design team faces the reality and the final weeks before the deadline are hectic and exhausting.

“The snowball scenario would be unrealizable in a manufacturing or construction process. But since design deals with abstract entities instead of concrete, it’s easy to accept,” Leppänen regrets.

Leppänen emphasizes that people and their attitudes are key success factors in lean construction, not tools or techniques. Project managers must be two steps ahead of the process, make sure that prerequisites are in place, and intervene right away if anything threatens the process flow. Designers should also have the courage to require that clients do their part as well.

Leppänen sees great potential in lean construction and digitalization. He believes the construction industry can become leaner if the owners and leaders decide to do so. We have sufficient proof of success, now we need to scale up the efforts.