First Green-Washing, Now Lean-Washing

Posted on June 6, 2011


Not every conference session is going to be a winner.

I attended a real loser a few weeks ago on what was touted as a ‘lean’ solution for rural healthcare clinics.  The presenters’ main target was one design prototype that could be adaptable to various rural site requirements in a very severe climate. I was intrigued. Instead, it was my first experience with lean-washing.

The term green-washing may be familiar. Green-washing is the misappropriation or misinformation regarding green benefits when, in fact there are none; the intent is to distract or outright deceive a consumer of facts related to a product or service’s sustainability.

I listened to a session that did the same thing with lean principles. Outside of one basic concept for hospitals—‘if you can’t afford to build it, and you can’t afford to operate it, you can’t afford it’—the entire presentation was a sham.

Here are some cautionary lessons as you come across professionals touting lean, or green for that matter:

1) Consistency. This is the most common misstep. Humans crave consistency in an argument, and facts are needed to back that up. When the facts do not support the argument, doubt is cast over everything that follows.

Case in point:  the size of the rural clinic being developed was around 1000 s.f., roughly half the size of a common American house. The design team developed 36 schemes for the solution—36 schemes! This particular design problem was far less complex than the design problem on my Architectural Registration Exam (ARE), which I was given four hours to complete. Lean is about an efficient use of resources. The team in this presentation most likely took at least 4 hours times ten, and was practicing anything but lean principles.

2) Intent. Sometimes people really are not educated on the fundamentals—and especially ignorant of the big picture—but think they are.  They have the concepts all screwed up or simply cannot see the forest from the trees.

Case in point:  the stated intent of the presentation team was to develop a design solution with a cost-per-square-foot comparable to less isolated areas and more in-line nationally; existing skilled labor and building materials were not easy to acquire, and costs were about three times more expensive ($800/s.f.) than they should be for healthcare construction. Instead of exploring prefabrication or other creative lean methods, the team insisted on an un-lean solution—construction by locals (the village population was around 100) with traditional building materials; this ended up with the exact opposite of a lean product:  a design (~$900/s.f.) that cost more than what a similar building would go for in a less rural area.

3) White lies. Sometimes people stretch the truth on things, or tell only half of the story. Excusable? Forgivable? At a conference, forgivable maybe. From a consultant or designer you are paying big bucks to, you should demand integrity.

Case in point:  the design team stated it wanted a ‘sustainable’ solution for its clinic’s power source. They discussed photovoltaics and other ideas, but wanted a system ‘people felt comfortable with and would know how to fix’; they wanted a decidedly ‘green’ method, so they chose ‘biomass’. Their solution, though technically biomass, meant cutting down trees for firewood to feed their wood-burning stove.  This is not the renewable energy source people discuss first, second or third when biomass comes up.  Burning wood is decidedly un-green, and incredibly difficult with which to achieve any lean goals.

With every new concept, people want to be on the vanguard, want to be experts, yet very few are. Every new concept will have poseurs—people who try to take advantage of trends and the less educated. Likewise, there are buyers who do not want to do their homework on the topic to discriminate the legit from the impostor, which feeds the problem with their own laziness. Green has it, lean has it, and the next new idea will have it, too. Be wary, be prepared, or be taken.

Posted in: Lean Design