I am driving through a project in Texas with Tony, a construction manager. I point to a group standing on the curb holding a plan over their heads, up to the bright sun, glasses off, talking and pointing. I ask Tony, “What’s wrong with this picture?” After a long pause, he explains they are building a left-hand house from a right-hand drawing.  

When I ask why the builder would possibly ask anyone to do that, Tony gives the stock reply, “It costs a lot to reverse those plans, and we had to let our CAD guy go.” So I ask, “How much?” But it’s a gotcha question, because I have asked it a hundred times. It costs between $75 and $200 if you have your own “CAD-guy,” depending on your system capability and how complicated your plans are. An outside architect will charge somewhat more. We agree on “150 bucks.” I follow with, “How many mistakes might result from 40 or 50 suppliers and trades, all building a mirror image, with no reversed plans?” We settle on a very conservative, best-case guess of 10 mistakes. Final question: “How many mistakes avoided does it takes to break even on the cost to reverse that plan?” Tony gives me a pained look, shakes his head, and says, “About a half of one I’d think.” Then he adds, “Do you think you could explain this to my boss?”

A few months later I presented at the NAHB International Builders’ Show to an audience of more than 300 who had come to learn about implementing Lean Methods in home building. I retold the “Tony story” and several similar ones, bolstered with pictures illustrating an issue costing the industry literally billions annually. My TrueNorth colleagues and I continually witness a disconnect between builders and their architects. There is a huge gap, a chasm, between architectural plans and genuine, fully fleshed out, iron-clad , site-specific working drawings. It causes continual errors, schedule delays, and rework resulting in incredible cost, adding no value, yet is almost never identified and attributed to the true source. One audience participant raised her hand and asked a pointed question. “Okay Scott, so how do you find an architect who gets it?” “Simple,” I replied, “you wander from office to office, desperately seeking one pair of muddy shoes.” Careful, though, the architects are only part of the problem.

Builders are desperate to reduce costs and have pushed themselves to the limit, yet we continually observe them walking right past some of the best savings opportunities. There are millions sitting right under their noses yet builders don’t see it because they don’t know how to measure and track the waste. Most simply assume these costs are just part of doing business. Those few that have cracked the code on the plans issue reap astounding gains in profit, quality, homeowner satisfaction, and supplier/trade loyalty. Last year I experienced it first hand—Plan Nirvana. Yes, there is such a place. I saw a company that had working drawings so detailed, so thorough, so complete, so site-specific, that any competent trade could build these homes right the first time, every time, to code, at or below target cost. Nothing whatsoever was left to debate or question. I had seen “good.” This was “great,” and I was taken aback seeing that it actually could be done.

This builder had succeeded in bridging the great cost chasm between beautiful architectural plans and truly functional working drawings. I asked them a ton of questions that day and answering them all would give away too much, but just one example will suffice. I asked if the cabinet supplier ever had to come out and measure the specific jobsite. They were almost offended as they replied, “Never!” Now, find an example of how costs would be reduced with this level of functionally perfect working drawings for each of the 40 or 50 suppliers and trades who build your homes. Cost it out. Do it right, and you’ve just found a good chunk of the precious margin you lost over the past few years.