A master plan is a plan that is intended to help someone succeed in a very difficult or important task. Simple to say, very difficult to execute well.

Applying a digital methodology to organic complexity

Authors: Steven Tilkin and Tanya Oram.

There are many ways to approach master planning in design. At Bryden Wood, we combine our core principle of Design to Value with an overarching digital methodology to deliver master plans that tackle the most complex of scenarios. This enables us to give clients overall clarity and big-picture understanding, together with highly detailed recommendations and a range of practical, prioritised solutions.

Recent clients like GSK, Johnson Matthey and MSD have all faced similar problems: large and complex sites that have developed organically over time, resulting in some parts being highly utilised and others much less so, or even being mothballed altogether and standing unused.

For each site, creating a master plan is initially about bringing to life the full range of issues for that site, and exploring multiple layers of value drivers – financial, operational, environmental, aesthetic, attractiveness for investment, and so on – and not just for the status quo, but also modelling future scenarios. An effective master plan gives the client clarity, understanding and tools for improvement.

A Design to Value master plan is not simply a design, or a set of drawings or visuals for a site. It is a means to understand current processes and activities, and plan for their development in what may be a changing and unpredictable environment, with multiple stakeholders and agendas. 

The very process of creating such a plan – gathering all the relevant information and data and presenting it back to clients in a structured way – is in itself a highly productive exercise, allowing people to pull back from the detail of day-to-day operations, and take a more holistic view of what they are doing. Many activities, processes and sites develop organically over time, meaning that the big picture can become confused or even lost altogether. Agreeing what needs to be done can be a challenge in itself, as it can be hard even to know where to start.

Design to Value master planning is a highly collaborative process, customised to the client’s specific situation and requirements, which aims to create sufficient understanding from which to decide what, how and when to improve – and why. And given that the constant in every project is uncertainty and change, it must always allow for multiple variables, both known and unknown. 

Importantly, effective master planning also allows the client to explain simply – and sell – their issues, requirements and planning to other (senior) internal stakeholders, demonstrating clearly how to move from a present state to potential future states, and the benefits of doing so.

Bryden Wood’s master planning process

Our approach to master planning is collaborative, and iterative. Collaborative because there is usually no one person who understands every element of the situation (we bring together the right people to combine their knowledge and experience). Iterative because the problem is unwrapped and understood gradually, by identifying potential solutions, analysing them and feeding the outcome back into the continuously evolving problem statement. The team evaluates the outcome, revises their understanding of the problem (if required), and goes around the loop again, with new, adjusted or more developed solutions.

The key principles of our master planning approach are: to adopt a common language that can be understood by all involved; to use clear visualisations rather than words as much as possible, as this aids general understanding; to be clear and explicit about any and all assumptions, and; to capture as much data and information as possible from as many sources as possible, so that no knowledge goes to waste.

The first step is to gather that information. We use a number of strategies – including questionnaires and in-depth workshops with client teams – to gather as much qualitative and quantitative data as we can. We then review the data, organise, consolidate and present it back to the client, to check our understanding and its validity and accuracy.

Then we identify and agree a number of potential scenarios with the client, which describe a hypothetical future – for example, a change in market direction – from a number of different perspectives; commercial, operational etc. We then look to identify potential solutions or options and evaluate how these perform against the problem statement and value drivers in the agreed scenarios. 

We combine a number of clear strategic directions with a systematic exploration of potential improvements at different levels of detail, using the ‘5S method’ as guidance. This is an established methodology for handling workplace organisation, which breaks the master planning process down into five steps: sort, set in order, shine, standardise and sustain.

At each stage we determine the appropriate level of detail (resolution) at which to visualise and model, depending on whether we are looking at the whole site or a single unit or process, for example.


We present the options or solutions and our evaluation back to the client and agree whether there are further options to be considered or whether the existing options need to be adjusted. Once an agreed set of options has been identified and developed, we finalise our evaluation, develop recommendations and an output which is a clear and compelling presentation of the findings, and possible next steps. We focus on ensuring that the output: meets the business’s needs; is cost effective and robust, but also flexible and adaptable, and; is practical to implement (for example: along with the usual constraints of time and budget, we may well need to work around keeping current processes fully operational while we effect any changes).

It’s important to state that this is not Bryden Wood dictating the master planning solution to the client. This remains a collaborative process. What we are doing at this stage is offering a range of best possible options, to allow the client to decide for themselves the approach they want to follow. This decision is rightly theirs – based as it may be on future flexibility, their assessment of market direction or, not unusually, on commercial considerations that they may not want to share with us. But it is important that we can demonstrate that the analysis leading to this point is robust and that we have properly considered every angle. This is also a benefit when there are any late entrants to the discussion, to assure them that the analysis and enquiry have been thorough and rigorous.

Case study: an extensive pharmaceutical manufacturing site

In one recent project, we worked on the quality assurance (QA) elements of our client’s operation. QA covered four distinct areas of manufacturing, both primary and secondary, and small and large module, split across two campuses and 13 separate testing laboratories, each conducting variety of tests and other QA processes It is not hard to imagine the complexity that engendered. And while many people had an understanding of parts of the process, no-one had a complete understanding of the whole picture.

We gathered, consolidated and agreed enormous amounts of site and process data with the client and then assessed, in a variety of ways, each of their laboratories. We gave each laboratory a consolidated, weighted score based on their effectiveness and considering any known issues (always using visualisations and the agreed common language).

We produced visual analytics of the entire web of processes on site in a way that was clear and, as a result, very powerful: it gave the client the tools to be able not just to see and understand their complex processes in their relative context, but also to discuss them with each other (regardless of specialism and teams) and senior management.

We could then map this analysis against a range of desired objectives and value drivers, to describe dependencies, adjacencies and requirements, and how to be able to measure outputs. We presented a wide range of variables, for example: density of operations in laboratories by m2; activity in terms of people per m2; test time by laboratory and category of test; laboratory capacity by time taken per test, and by number of tests carried out per year; and so on.

This gave the client a clear way to see the most pressing requirements, and an initial indication of how to prioritise and plan the way ahead.

We carried out further analysis of the full scope of what is covered by ‘Quality Assurance’ – from the routine to the exceptional – and what impact this activity has on value in the client’s manufacturing process (cost, speed, quality and flexibility, for example).

Finally, we offered options for strategic direction for improvement, combined with comprehensive and highly detailed potential improvements (using the 5S method). These ranged from maintaining the current system but fixing the most obvious issues, through to relocation and/or consolidation of laboratories, and optimisation and automation of Quality Assurance processes.

A digital methodology

At Bryden Wood, we say that we are powered by technology as a methodology, a way of thinking that unlocks new approaches to complexity. Our Design to Value approach to master planning is an example of that.

Our Creative Technologies team has produced a number of digital configurators, including master planning tools for railways, roads and data centres. These configurators rely on comprehensive data sets, organised in such a way as to be codified and machine-readable. The master planning approach described in this article can be seen as the data-gathering and organising part of digital master planning – the preparatory work which could lead, in this case, to a digital configurator for pharmaceutical facilities.

While the data we gather in master planning involves large amounts of human activity and processes, the outputs are all digital to some degree, and the entire process is digital in character, seeking to extract and organise data, so that at a later stage we can establish and apply rigorous rules. This is where Design to Value intersects with digital.

For master planning, this is an approach that is proven to deliver substantial benefit to clients, against a wide range of value drivers. The collaborative element is essential. The distance travelled across a project is always impressive, and the destination is rarely what the client imagined it would be at the outset – but it is always better.


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