Get lean, get stronger

January 2013 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Dennis DiPrete, P.E.

For most engineering firms, the economic downturn meant fewer opportunities in the marketplace to grow their business, while those projects that did exist became much more price sensitive. Because of that increased pressure on price, the leadership team at DiPrete Engineering knew we had to find a way to reduce the cost of delivering projects. But instead of just decreasing fees or laying off staff, which might have meant lower quality service for our clients, we decided to take a different route. We decided to get lean to get stronger.

DiPrete Engineering is one of New England's leading civil engineering firms. Established in 1988, we have offices in Rhode Island and Massachusetts with a team of more than 40 professional engineers, land surveyors, and LEED accredited professionals. We combine our client ideas with our expertise to deliver high-quality civil engineering, planning, and surveying services to private, commercial, and government clients. And we pride ourselves in staying one step ahead – to the benefit of our clients. Whether it be through concept plans, surveying, or our ability to navigate difficult regulatory challenges, DiPrete Engineering has an innovative and cost-efficient approach that gets the best possible results for our clients.

So what exactly does it mean to go lean? Lean is a business methodology for eliminating waste in the workplace. This maximizes customer value and continuously improves the processes at a workplace. The philosophy is attributed to the Japanese manufacturing industry, most notably for how Toyota transformed car production in the late 1980s.

Most companies that have undergone a lean transformation are manufacturing or service companies. So it was a bit unorthodox for a mid-size engineering firm to make a lean transformation in one of the nation's worst recessions. We would also be one of the first engineering firms in the region to go lean. It would take an enormous amount of time, manpower, and resources to be completed by the firm. And once complete, there was no telling how exactly it would pay off for us.

After an 18-month transformation effort the results have been spectacular. Both literally and figuratively, the appearance of DiPrete Engineering has changed dramatically. Walk into our offices and you no longer see rows of filing cabinets holding designs and plans from years past. By converting to an electronic filing system and standardized file-naming conventions, we have eliminated more than 50 percent of our flat file cabinets, and 25 percent of the regular file cabinets. We also have the ability to locate any project file in 30 seconds or less.

We also have new tools to help us improve certain practices within the firm. For example, using a lean "mapping process" we were able to identify and eliminate non-essential activities when we were writing new proposals. That process and a more standardized operation for the task led to a 25-percent reduction in the time devoted to writing new plans.

Some of the other highlights include:

  • more organized work space in both personal and common areas, including all vans and trucks, which increases efficiencies and eliminates waste;
  • streamlined and standardized processes developed through our Standard Work Instruction Sheets for more than 100 regular practices within our firm;
  • addition of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which allow our employees to see how we are doing against our strategic goals; and
  • roles charts that clarify who is responsible and accountable for various tasks within our key processes.

Most importantly, the lean transformation has helped us create a workforce empowered with new problem-solving skills. Because of this transformation we can answer our client demands more efficiently and get them the best possible results, staying ahead of our competition.

Getting your firm on a lean track isn't easy. In fact, the first several months of trying to get your employees and staff to understand the value of it and to embrace the new practices may seem like an insurmountable climb. But if your firm's leadership is resolute in its belief that you have to become lean to become stronger, the dividends will be worth it. If we can find ways to help our clients be more efficient, then we too become less wasteful, and in turn, both more successful.

Dennis DiPrete, P.E., is the founder and principal of DiPrete Engineering (www.diprete-eng.com), a leading civil engineering, planning, and surveying firm in New England. He can be contacted at dennis@diprete-eng.com.

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