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Paper Doll materials. Image: Tsoi/Kobus & Associates  


Lean. Six Sigma. Spaghetti Diagrams. Kaizen. Paper dolls. All lean concepts. You may have heard these phrases within your organization. Have you wondered whether the same philosophy that drives your internal organization to strive for effective, efficient operations can be applied to the design process? If you are embarking on a new lab building, or renovating an existing lab, you can harness the power of lean tools to your advantage. You can… Lean On Your Users! 

While there are many creative lean tools, we recommend a few that we have found particularly effective (and efficient) at really engaging lab users and harnessing their excitement and involvement in the lab design process. These lean exercises will provide users with a dynamic and fruitful process for participating in lab programming and design. You will also have greater confidence that the program you develop will be efficient, forward-thinking and meet lab users’ needs.   

Value stream mapping
Oftentimes, a project starts with a program, listing what departments you will be assessing, the space requirements and perhaps an equipment list. Some projects start with very little and sometimes if there is a program, it’s based on existing square footage plus a growth factor.

In order to validate an existing program, or generate a new one, we recommend starting with a value stream map. A value stream map is a snapshot of an existing process, in a pictogram format. We ask users to describe how they walk through a process and draw the process in a simple to read format.  Symbols are used for stops, tasks, travel distance and, sometimes, time is even recorded. We ask users to be specific and to expound on any issues or problems they face. We jot the issues down on the value stream map and surround the issues with “thunderclouds”. If there are enough thunderclouds on a value stream map, “hurricanes” or even “tornados” are drawn in. This really helps to graphically illustrate frustrations and issues the users face every day.

This existing value stream map can then be used to inform the new space program from a process point of view, rather than duplicating existing space organization principles. For example, if there are eight tasks associated with a process and six of these tasks are performed by one person, what does the value stream map indicate across those six tasks? Are they all performed in a row? Is there unnecessary travel between each task? Is there wait time between each task? Is it equipment-intensive or labor/expertise-intensive? Are there crowded working conditions? Does the flow of the process get interrupted by adjacent tasks?

Value stream maps are excellent tools that are useful for planning purposes; however our experience shows that when users value stream map their existing processes, they will start to implement positive changes in their lab well before the construction project begins. Simple shifts of equipment make a huge difference and we encourage tweaking existing spaces to test out ideas for future planning. Another useful exercise is to return to the existing value stream maps as the design of the new lab progresses—are there still thunderclouds and tornados? Can they be crossed out? Typically the new design addresses these issues either directly or indirectly, providing users with the confidence that the new space will meet their expectations. 

Paper dolls: The play of planning  
No, we are not talking about stick figures with paper clothes and those awful little tabs. Paper dolls are simply tiles of paper, cardboard or, in some cases, 3-D objects (like Lego’s) that represent the parts and pieces of the program. They are furnished to the end users so that they can experiment with multiple arrangements of the individual spaces.


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Spaghetti diagram: A bottleneck. Image: Tsoi/Kobus & Associates  


An important element of any paper doll exercise is to provide the base plan with immovable elements (for example, shafts, stairs, elevators, etc.) so that the paper dolls can be arranged with those in mind. Natural light, columns and other constraints can be illustrated on the plan, or you can just free-form brainstorm with the users to help generate out-of-the-box ideas. Indicating lab bench modules or other constraining factors can also help them understand the scale of the spaces, and dropping in a few people (or chairs) helps define scale as well.

The paper dolls can be generated at any level:  departmental areas, separate rooms, even down to each individual piece of equipment. Multiple paper doll sessions can be scheduled throughout the design process, so that at each phase users weigh in on the arrangement of spaces—from building-wide planning to individual room placement to equipment layout. We have found that working in small groups is helpful, it gets everyone involved and many hands make quick work.

Spaghetti and meatballs, anyone?
You’ve done all this work, so take a step back and enjoy a well-earned meal. Sorry, your work isn’t done yet. You can still lean on your users for one more, crucial step in the lean design process. The spaghetti diagram. Spaghetti and meatball diagrams are useful in both the existing, value stream mapping of your existing spaces, as well as in the final phases of planning. 

Different colored markers are used to trace out each person’s route for a specific task or set of tasks. Users can even draw these out themselves—we encourage people to be thoughtful and honest about issues they see in their daily paths, and write them in at the place of occurrence and draw “meatballs” (circles) around these. The end result may well be a colorful diagram of lines with numerous pathways. If all paths go through or around a tight corner, you can instantly see you have a bottle neck. If your diagram has a dense area on one side of the lab and a few stray strands of spaghetti stretched to a far corner of the lab, you may have underutilized space. Finally, if you have everyone going everywhere, you may want to reconsider how the lab is organized.

Spaghetti diagrams are a great way to engage users at the plan level and will help get them thinking like planners. In the course of a project, we may “spaghetti and meatball” numerous times. As you reach consensus on the final layout, compare and calculate the number of steps saved during a defined process. 

Tell the lean story
Word will get out about how effective and enjoyable the Lean Design Sessions are. Capitalize on your success by posting the Value Stream Maps, Paper Dolls and Spaghetti Diagrams for all to see. Lean Processes tend to yield great visuals, and progress from one iteration to the next iteration are easily calculated and turned into metrics. These types of metrics are great to publish company-wide—they tell the story of your success and generate positive buzz around the future of the lab. Roll the diagrams out during a company-wide lunch—Spaghetti and Meatballs, of course. 

Extra: Can sustainable design be cost effective?