Business Challenge

Image of a typical mid-century executive office
Photograph of sales office built from Herman Miller Ethospace systems furniture

In 1985, Herman Miller, Inc. (HMI) introduced Ethospace, a radically new type of systems furniture. Each frame contained multiple tiles; each tile could have one of 75 different finishes...on each side. The flexiblity of the system came at the cost of complexity: in the past, an office could be specified with 10 line items. With Ethospace that blossomed to over 100. HMI knew the only way to specify this new system was using CAD. 

HMI approached me to train their elite "Pavilion" dealerships on the use of PC-based CAD and specification systems, thinking the new technology would be their biggest challenge. As it turned out, the Pavilion dealers' problems went much deeper: specification errors. Historically, to mitigate errors in specification, they ordered as much as 20% additional product. 

With only 10 line items per office, warehousing a few extra parts may have made sense, but with Ethospace, companies were storing 1000s of parts and pieces to cover contingencies. All at once, the Pavilion dealerships faced three massive challenges:

  • an entirely new technology
  • an entirely new product line and
  • entirely new processes of design, specification, delivery and installation.


Photo of Leo in training session for Ethospace CAD designers

Training session on use of CAD / Specification system for Ethospace.

Image of systems furniture layout in architectural plan

Typical floor plan of Ethospace workstations.

Image of Herman Miller Ethospace symbols

The custom-built CAD symbol library - the heart of the improved process.

I founded Phase II thinking I would provide training services to the Pavilion dealers. Within a few months of getting started, I had pivoted from that original notion to creating a computer-based service bureau.

In my meetings with Pavilion leaders, I learned they were less interested in one-time training on their IT infrastructure compared to improving their overall business processes. Once I had completed an end-to-end investigation of how they delivered their services, I was able to envision, design, and deliver a computer-based service that replaced the dealer's 20% contingency with a 5% cost-of-service.

Further, by re-thinking how the CAD and specification software worked together, I was able to guarantee Phase II's error rate at less than 0.01%.  On a $1M project, Phase II guaranteed no greater than $100 in errors. Compared to $200K in contingency product, Phase II's cost of services ($50K) were a no-brainer.

Not only did the re-engineered method reduce errors, it simplified the use of the tools. As a result, Phase II was able to hire less experienced designers, improving our bottom line.


Image of system analysis diagram illustrating how errors increase as data moves from one actor to another

System diagram indicating how errors increase as data moves from one actor to another.

Image of Ethospace layout using standard symbols

Typical furniture layout using standard symbols. Note the reliance on text.

Image of revised system diagram illustrating how errors can only be introduced at the start of the process

Revised system diagram; errors can only be introduced at the beginning.

I began the effort in two ways: interviewing key stakeholders in the value stream and immersing myself in the existing technologies.


I interviewed Herman Miller staff, Pavilion dealership owners, finance officers, account managers, designers and project managers. I also interviewed furniture installers, who it turned out, became the key to improving the overall process.

Technology Deep Dives

Multiple products were required to deliver electronic specifications and CAD drawings: A CAD system (Cadvance or Autocad), a specification system (originally CAP, later purchased by McGraw Hill) and a database system, dBase. I flew to Michigan to be trained by CAP; I became an Autocad and Cadvance VAR and I dug into dBase.

Numerous minor "ahas" emerged throughout these two efforts. For example:

  • the CAD systems relied on embedded text in the symbols to do the data extraction and linking to the dBase database. This would prove to be a key source of errors.
  • the specification system training was about the technology; none of the trainers had actually worked in a dealership. Their suggestions for implementing the system failed to address the way dealerships (and their clients) specified furniture in the real world. 
  • The CAD symbols used text as the primary means of distinguishing one element from another. This posed two problems: plotters took forever to draw the text, and people took forever to read it.
Photo of knocked down cardboard boxes

Installations were limited by the amount of packing material the installers could remove from a floor.

Image of detailed staging area of systems furniture layout in architectural plan

The CAD system could count areas of workstations to the installer's specifications.

The breakthrough came in an interview with a well-respected installer: from experience, he had come to distrust the specifications from the designers. During our interview he demonstrated highlighting the CAD drawings with markers in preparation for counting all of the pieces by hand!

He also told me the real crux of the problem: garbage. Literally garbage. His installation crew was limited to using the freight elevator, and only during off-hours. For large installations he was limited by how much packing material, garbage, would fit on the elevator ride down.

Here again, Phase II could solve his problem by giving him product counts based on areas in the floor he specified.

Image of Ethospace layout using graphic symbols

The same layout as above, but rendered with graphic symbols instead of text.

Image of panel symbol, showing width indicator, height infill and power elements

Panel symbol with height infill (62"), width symbol (60") and dashed line indicating power.

Image of panel symbol detail, showing embedded text used by CAD systems to count elements

Panel detail showing embedded text used for automating panel counts.

As a result of that interview, I envisioned a solution to reducing errors: a custom designed symbol library. The foundation of the system, the symbol library, wasn't up to the tasks required by the different actors. I approached the symbol library as if it were an object-oriented database, crafting each component in the system using graphical markers to distinguish one piece from another:

  • Panel / frame heights were distinguished by in-fill patterns
  • Electrical panels had dashed lines adjacent
  • Widths were double-encoded: actual length, and easily distinguishable icons
  • The specification system still needed embedded text but it never needed to be printed or visible. Phase II customized it as well to improve system accuracy and flexibility.

Once a designer or installer learned the key, they could easily interpret any drawing. By reducing the amount of visible text, the process became far more efficient: the plotters moved lightning fast, and the people could quickly identify errors in the layout by simple inspection. As the process became more mature, Phase II authored CAD macros to audit the drawings to identify potential symbol duplication, further reducing our error rate.

Collaboration | Contributions

Contributions | Partnerships | Team 

With the exception of establishing Phase II as a consultancy (my business partner, who I later married, helped establish all of the operational elements of the business - payroll, invoicing, project management and the like) I was responsible for all of this effort.

I performed all of the research and analysis; I crafted the symbols, wrote macros and dBase scripts (as needed), hired and managed all employees, and delivered training to clients.