Raj Mohan Thiru, a lead mechanical engineer from Wood Group PSN Kazstroy JSC, comes to LMJ all the way from Kazakhstan and analyses the rule of lean in the industry of construction and design.

Simply stated, lean is centred on creating more value for customers with fewer resources. A lean organisation understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continually improve upon it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a value creation process that has zero waste.

A popular misconception is that lean is suited only for manufacturing. Not true. Lean applies to every business and process. It is not a tactic or a cost reduction program, but a way of thinking and acting of an entire organisation. The lean principles that originated from the Japanese manufacturing industry, of late has captured the imagination of many in different spheres of activities like services, software development, health care, governments and their learnings can be leveraged to implement in the engineering design industry.

Within the service industry segment software services have adopted lean principles and reaped benefits to a greater extent, but are yet to gain stream in the engineering design arena. With the cost of engineering resources – tools and manpower – continuously on the rise, there are associated challenges to the engineering companies to deliver on time using optimum resources. A designer is often likely to specify familiar, safe material and process than the (fit-for-purpose), efficient and/or new alternatives. This approach is perceived to reduce/eliminate project risk but the flip side of this approach is increased project cost and reduced profits for the organisations as optimised design solutions are overlooked.

The engineering design sector has not used the lean principles in a big way. The cost of engineering varies between three to 10% of the project cost depending on the project phase. To reduce costs, options like offshoring of engineering services were considered attractive as low hanging fruits rather than initiating organisation wide process changes that lean approach demands. Though huge success was achieved in this area, offshoring had associated challenges like increase in labour rates, inflation pressure and shortage of skilled resources that is pushing costs. Significant pressures are applied to plant design engineering service providers to complete the project under extremely short timescale, with high levels of scrutiny, compliance to standards on ever larger and more complex engineering problems to solve and also mitigate the associated risks, the tendency to stick to proven models is a strong attraction.

Despite the challenges, considering options like lean engineering design will give opportunities for controlling the overall project cost, improved quality and cycle time. The challenge in implementing lean in engineering design is lack of widely available reference of implementation and quantification of benefits achieved. Individual examples of success or failure exist in almost all spheres of business activities and therefore can be considered as a stepping stone for lean implementation in engineering design.

Before starting to talk about lean engineering design it is important to understand the key driver for an engineering activity, efficiency and effectiveness.

Lean principles present the opportunity for improving on both efficiency and effectiveness of delivery. The concepts outlined below can be of help in achieving lean goals in an engineering design environment.


Four key goals of lean engineering design are:

Four key goals.

  1. Eliminate waste
  2. Reduce cycle time
  3. Improve quality
  4. Reduce total costs

Waste elimination and cycle time reductions are the actions and quality improvement and cost reductions are the direct and indirect results of these actions.


Waste elimination

Waste elimination can be the first step towards achieving lean in engineering design. Several low hanging fruits are likely to be in any organisation that could be very simple to eliminate. As waste is eliminated it reduces the cycle time improved quality of delivery and thus overall cost reduction. A waste in this context can be defined as an activity that could be bypassed or the result could be achieved without it.


Typical wastes and their definitions pertaining to the engineering design industry are:

i. Duplication: Repeat, re-enter or copy information from one or several sources within the same organisation

ii. Waiting or delays: Idle time spent on waiting for inputs from different internal or external sources

iii. Unnecessary motion: Extra steps needed to perform the task due to less efficient workflows

iv. Rework: Not being right first time

v. Extra work: Deliver more than customer expectations

vi. Slow or inefficient communication: Adopting same communication approach for all activities and not vary the communication approach depending on the task on hand

vii. Bureaucracy: Organisation structure with several barriers. Not empowering the team to do their job

viii. Tools: Non usage or availability of right tools for each task

ix. Unclear requirements: Customer requirements are not fully defined or sorted out

x. Wrong assumptions: Progress with work using limited data and make assumptions.

In order to be able to eliminate waste, one should be able to recognise and see it. While elimination of waste may seem like a simple and clear subject, it should be noted that waste is often very conservatively identified. This then highly reduces the potential of such as aim. Map each work process to differentiate between value adding activity, waste and non-value adding activity. Work on alternatives to eliminate the non-value adding activity and create a new or robust workflow.

The results achieved in this process are improvements in effectiveness of delivery.


Cycle time reduction

Time is money in any business. Key business process workflows are usually carried out with resources that often result as bottlenecks. Unfortunately, the outputs derived from these workflows are usually the ones that matter most to customers; therefore, the output needs to be delivered as fast as possible. Cycle time does not take anything away from quality processes, it actually enhances it. There are several options suitable for reducing cycle times. Streamlining multiple efforts, however, can yield a much more efficient workflows resulting in cost and time savings and customer satisfaction.


Typical options pertaining to cycle time reduction in the engineering design industry are:

i. Perform activities in parallel: Most of the steps in a workflow are often performed in sequence. A serial approach results in the cycle time for the entire process being the sum of the individual steps, not to mention unnecessary motion and waiting time between steps. When using a parallel approach, the cycle time can be reduced by half in most cases

ii. Sequence change: Deliverables and documents are often moved back and forth between departments. If the sequence of some or all of these activities can be altered, it is possible to perform these tasks with reduced time.

iii. Time optimisation: Many processes are performed with relatively large time intervals between each activity. A work process may be time consuming on its first attempt but when it is repeated it should definitely be quicker than the first.

iv. Reduce interruptions: Any issue that causes long delays and increases the cycle time for a critical business process is an interruption. The delivery of an important project can, for example, be stopped by a project from a far less valuable customer request–one that must be rushed because it has been delayed. Similarly, anyone working amidst a critical business process can be interrupted by a phone call that could have been handled by someone else. The main principle is that everything should be done to allow uninterrupted operation of the critical business processes and let others handle interruptions.

Mapping of each of the business process workflows coupled with a time study will help in setting up internal benchmarks. These internal benchmarks should be reviewed at predetermined intervals to incorporate the lessons learnt and improve upon the original timing. The results achieved in this process are improvements in efficiency of delivery.

Following the right implementation sequence is the key to success. A typical implementation approach is outlined and can be fine-tuned to meet individual organisational requirements:

Typical implementation process

Some typical lean opportunities that exist in the plant engineering design environment are:

  • Leverage on the power of software tools: Developers willing to add extra features that focus on productivity improvements at no extra cost.
  • Combine multiple discipline deliverables with similar information: Work on common documents with inputs from multiple disciplines.
  • Create standard go-to templates across organisation and make them available at a central repository.
  • Automation of work process: Automatic generation of deliverables to eliminate manual data entry, leverage software tools for multi-disciplinary review of documents, etc.
  • Reduce supervision: Empower people and create accountability.
  • Discontinue non value added deliverables.
  • Overdependence on email: Avoid copying more than the target audience.
  • Round table reviews: Get multiple discipline inputs in one sitting rather than separate single discipline reviews.
  • Cross referencing of drawings rather than copying information from different drawings.
  • Standard time bench marking using historical data: Many organisations do not maintain past history and internal bench marking.
  • High end software tools are not the solution for all: Review existing software’s in use and switch over to suit.

Lean engineering design.

Most of the benefits achieved from the lean implementation process are measurable improvements from the internal bench marks. There are several intangible benefits that are subjective. However with usage of proper tools and techniques like lean six sigma, value stream mapping, standardised work. It will be easier to statistically demonstrate the improvements achieved and get the management buy in to the benefits achieved. Any one will agree that there is no single solution that fits for all, adopting a fit for purpose approach, simple implementation sequence, recognising and rewarding the achievements of the team and the involvement of all the team members and stakeholders are essential for a successful implementation of lean in engineering design.