Getting Home by Lynn McCartney and Zack Rosenburg is a wonderful book that tells the story of a very special lean journey. After Hurricane Katrina had left thousands homeless, the authors put their careers on hold to spend a year in New Orleans helping as many as they could. Five years later, they were still at it, and their new organization, SBP, had re-housed over 400 families. The authors, however, felt that things were moving too slowly, and wondered how they could speed up the process of getting people home. By serendipity, they were connected with the Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC), and over the ensuing months, they and their staff learned how to apply TPS principles to their work processes. Today, the organization is a global model for disaster recovery efficiency, and with the help of thousands of volunteers, has rebuilt homes for more than 1660 families in disaster-struck areas across the US.
I was specially interested in this book because it parallels some of the work that my father, Claude Stoller, did when I was growing up. Now a retired architect and emeritus professor of architecture, Claude started, in 1967, the Community Design Center in San Francisco, which enlisted graduate architecture students in providing free planning and advocacy services for low-income families. He has recently become a big fan of lean thinking, which he feels echoes many of the values he has held throughout his professional career. Here’s an edited version of our father-son chat about Getting Home.
Jacob Stoller: Getting Home applies lean, which I know you’re a fan of, to building affordable housing, which is something you’ve devoted a lot of effort to over the years. So I wanted to get your view as an architect on what the authors of Getting Home have accomplished, and how that compares with your experiences.
Claude Stoller: First of all, I think it’s wonderful, and I am very enthusiastic about what they are doing. They’re serving a real societal need, and they’re doing it the right way – by enlisting input from people on the job sites who understand the work from first hand experience.
JS: How does their approach to worker input stand out?
CS: I think in general there’s a lack of respect for what workers know, whether it is in a factory or on a building site. The typical approach is that the professionals – managers, engineers, architects – tell the workers what to do.
But with the lean approach, you enter the ranks of the building construction people – not the management, but the ordinary workers. They have the knowledge that should be tapped. They understand what happens on the job site, and they know what’s significant and what’s not significant. An architect or a superintendent might say, “you wouldn’t dare build a house in such and such a way,” and the worker might say, “why not?”
JS: What typically happens on job sites?
CS: On a job site, reality doesn’t always match what’s in the drawings. So when you don’t consult the workers, which is typical, you get situations where a builder runs into something that’s not workable – maybe there’s an obstruction or something – and says “what do I do?” A lot of the decision-makers don’t have very good answers because they don’t really understand what the options are. So you wind up wasting a lot of time, and parts of the job might have to be redone as well. This happens all the time.
What I like about what the authors are doing here is that they are constantly testing their ideas by consulting the people who are carrying out the work rather than relying on assumptions or conventional wisdom.
JS: They mention in the book that they seek out employees who don’t mind working with uncertainty – people who are, as they say at Toyota, “comfortable being uncomfortable”. The authors say that those people are very hard to find, though.
CS: I think more should be done to encourage that kind of thinking. A lot of people coming out of our schools have a tendency to think in formulas, which is a big problem. You have to be willing to look, and you have to have the humility to listen as well, and then question your own thinking. A lot of people have a tough time with that.
JS: How does the Getting Home story connect with what you taught your students?
CS: First of all, I’ve always believed that architects should be closely connected with the physical work of building, so I encouraged my students to go into the shop and make things. This was very much part of my own education, by the way. At Harvard, we had to spend a term working in construction before we could graduate. This was a very forward-thinking and unusual approach – it’s too bad we don’t see more of it.
I also believe that the architectural profession should help solve significant problems in society, just as the authors here are doing. To encourage that, I started the Community Design Center in San Francisco. This brought graduate architecture students together with low income people who wanted basic habitation solutions, but couldn’t afford expensive architectural services. A lot of the time, people who are being helped by various programs are never really consulted about their needs. They have experiences that are relevant, but they may not realize that, and nobody has asked them.
This was great for the students too, because otherwise, all they could do is work in a big firm where they are kept away from the big design decisions made by clients. To get young, enthusiastic graduates next to people who need advice is a good thing. I also felt that this was also very good for the profession.
JS: There’s a lot of emphasis in the book on treating clients with respect, and establishing a sense of urgency around their circumstances. They make sure they understand the client’s needs before beginning the project. That sounds like something you did at the Community Design Center.
CS: That’s right. Architects have a very valuable skill here because they are trained to have these conversations about living spaces, and help clients visualize what they need. Often there are solutions that clients aren’t aware of, and they don’t necessarily add any cost. Sometimes it’s about re-arranging a living area to make the most of limited space, or accommodating the special needs of somebody who is disabled. Even small aesthetic things like wall coverings and textures, plumbing hardware, or lighting fixtures can make a big difference in the quality of a living space.
JS: One of the key focuses at SBP was to standardize repeatable processes, and then find more efficient ways to do them. For example, they trained plumbers’ apprentices to do the rough-in plumbing work so the plumbers could be better utilized – that sort of thing. That’s not something that architects do – I guess that’s related more to construction management – but could you see architects as having a role in this aspect of the work?
CS: They’d need some on-the-job experience or training, but yes, I can certainly see architects at the table asking questions or suggesting alternate ways to do things. I’m going to give a small example from looking at the pictures in the book. Let’s say you’re building a roof that requires a truss because of the slope. If you used a different roofing material – and there some new ones available now – it might be possible to have a flatter roof and eliminate the truss. Maybe that could speed the process and reduce the overall cost.
More generally, some of the students I worked with would have fit into the SBP culture very well. They would have asked “why” or “why not”, and would have been comfortable looking for better ways to do things. And they wouldn’t be offended if a carpenter or a tradesperson pointed out a flaw in their thinking.
JS: One of the challenges in the book was dealing with the various bureaucracies. At one point, the authorities wanted to bulldoze all the damaged houses before any building took place – that’s called batch thinking in the lean world. I remember the CDC confronted that as well.
CS: We saw something very similar in San Francisco. The authorities demolished a whole portion of the city and left an enormous number of people homeless. So they had to crowd into whatever space was available. On the one hand, there were hoards of unhoused people, and then they had huge empty spaces in the city where housing had been.
JS: Would you have sent your students to work for SBP?
CS: Not all of my students, but some of them. That was the same, by the way, with CDC. I had some students who really thrived in this kind of environment, and went on to do some very interesting work in public housing, planning, and things like that. I’m still in touch with some of them.
JS: Why aren’t more architects involved in this sort of thing?
CS: This is something I’m very sad about. Architecture is a major technology in solving people’s housing problems, but the architectural press and the architectural schools seem unduly interested in what I call “starchitects” who are catering to the wealthiest in our population. Residential architects are winning awards for designing palatial living quarters distinguished by expensive novelties and eye-catching tricks. These designs, however, serve only a tiny proportion of society, and are insignificant in comparison with our grand effort to produce decent and affordable housing for those who really need it.
There are exceptions, of course, and there are some progressive thinkers in the schools and in various fields of practice, but they’re not getting the notoriety, and they’re not winning the awards. We need common sense, and scepticism about what’s going on in architecture. Our problem is the major problem.
JS: Well, at least there are more community design centers now.
CS: Yes, it has become a bit of a movement.
JS: I’d like to close by saying that Getting Home is a terrific book that puts lean to work on a problem that’s really significant. Let’s hope it’s an inspiration for architects and non-architects who want to make a difference.