Avoid Software Tool Worship by Focusing on Design, Part 2

23 Oct, 2018 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager Column: In your efforts to use the right software tools in the right ways, follow this step-by-step procedure for examining — and optimizing — your design processes.

In the last edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter,we talked about the concept of tool worship — a phenomenon that occurs when you conform your design process to the software you use, rather than optimizing the design process independently of the tools involved. The result is a subpar design process and CAD users who fumble along frustrated, repeating the same mistakes and wasting time and money.

In this column, we'll have a look at some strategies you can use to keep tool worship at bay — that is, use the right tools at the right times, get rid of the wrong tools, and improve your overall design process by minimizing steps. Here goes.

Laying the Groundwork

To begin, let's define a disciplined approach to analyzing and understanding your CAD users' needs and tasks, which will be the basis for fleshing out the most efficient design process (with optimal tool use).

As W. Edwards Deming famously said, "If you can't describe what you're doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing."

I've found that the best approach to optimizing a design process goes something like this (and as shown in the diagram below):

  1. What are the steps that make up the process?
  2. What is the order of those steps?
  3. What are the most common problems experienced during each step?
  4. What are the best solutions that users have identified for each problem?
  5. Which tools can best help to solve each problem?
  6. How should our standards and training change to optimize each step of the process?

How to Optimize a Design Process

Now that we've outlined the approach, let's get started.

Analyzing CAD Processes, Steps 1 and 2: Identify and Put Steps in Order

I'm constantly amazed by how many companies perform CAD work with no real understanding of how overall processes could be improved. By writing down all the steps in your CAD processes and getting them in the right order, you'll lay the groundwork for proper use of CAD tools. Here's how I handle the exercise with clients:

  • Get everyone together. To identify all your CAD processes and capture the steps involved, you need all the key users and project managers present, right?
  • Capture the steps. As those in the room identify all the steps of each process, I suggest you act as the facilitator and write down everything on a large whiteboard.
  • Interject as needed. If a step is missed or a sequence is wrong, you can point it out — but try to keep a flow of information going with minimal interruption and just get the steps in the right order at this point. (A more thorough analysis will come later.)
  • Save the results. As agreement forms on the steps, take care to save the information — or have someone help you do so — by recording the results in a spreadsheet. Don't rely on memory and never assume the whiteboard won't get erased.

Obviously, this effort will take time and effort from several team members — which, I realize, isn't always easy to arrange. The good news is that if you don't experience many problems currently, you probably won't have to spend too much time fixing them. If you do have several problems in your processes, you should be able to convince all involved that taking the needed time to fix them today will pay back handsomely in reduced errors and saved time on future projects.

The point of this exercise is to understand all the steps you use in your design process and get them in the right order. To paraphrase Deming, this is the only way you'll ever really know what you're doing.

Analyzing CAD Processes, Step 3: Identify Problems

Once you've captured all the steps in their proper order, it is time to start identifying the problems that occur in each step — and taking note of the tools you use during those steps.

For example: You might find that the first step of a building design process is the conceptual design done at a client facility. You could further note that your project architect likes to work with SketchUp software (tool) at this stage, and that eventually converting geometry from SketchUp into a workable BIM file is a workflow problem.

As you work through the problems and tools associated with each design step, a funny thing will start to happen: You'll see how much time you're wasting on conversions, data formatting, rework, data management, etc.

Take the time you need to analyze steps 1 through 3 as completely as possible because there's no other way to find inefficiencies in your workflows.

Analyzing CAD Processes, Steps 4 and 5: Address Problems

Armed with your spreadsheet and new-found understanding of your design processes, it's time to consider how users have dealt with the problems you've identified. Then — and only at this point — you can begin to pinpoint which software tools are best to support given tasks.

For example: You may find that a power user in a branch office has discovered the secret settings that simplify exporting from SketchUp, which you can then share with the entire design team to make SketchUp translations to BIM easier.

Throughout this process, ask yourself:

  • Is this the optimum way to use this tool?
  • Can we eliminate any tools or steps?
  • Are we using the right tool for each step?

Always question how CAD tools are being used and whether they are optimally efficient. If a tool isn't working, eliminate it. If a tool could be used better, figure out how.

The point of steps 4 and 5 is to discover and implement optimal solutions that are not universally known among users. As in the SketchUp example, you may even find that some problems are caused by tool worship that introduces needless software and complexity.

Following my advice, you should be able to eliminate needless process steps, get rid of inappropriate tools, improve the use of existing tools, and get all process steps in better order. Go back through the analysis repeatedly until you arrive at the optimal (and shortest) series of steps to complete CAD work with the fewest tools used. Be ruthless about finding the best sequence and eliminating tools that aren't working.

Analyzing CAD Processes, Step 6: Standardize and Train

Now that you know the steps, problems, solutions, and tool changes required to optimize your CAD processes, it's time to make those changes stick by integrating the best solutions into your CAD standards. Then inform users of the changes and teach them the best way to use CAD tools based on your optimized processes — and keep doing so.

Wrapping Up

I hope this analysis will start you thinking about how to optimize your CAD processes by using the right tools the right ways, rather than fumbling along in tool-worship mode. Will this analysis take time and work? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. In fact, identifying the best procedures and tools to get CAD work done as quickly and accurately as possible is what every CAD manager should be doing!

And if your management doesn't support this effort, have them e-mail me at, and I'll make sure they understand its value. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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