6-Dimensional Modeling: The Workflow Dimension click here to download a printable pdf white paper

In every industry, people are striving to deliver more with higher quality at lower cost. To do so, many industries have turned traditional ways of doing things upside down — they have engaged in huge paradigm shifts to reinvent their business processes. The driver for successful reinventions can always be traced to better alignment with workflow.

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What is Workflow?

We define workflow as the total flow of functional operations that allow an organization to execute its mission, the systems and processes that provide the optimal path to success. The more efficiently any organization executes its workflow, the more successful it will be.

The operations of the total workflow can likely also be described as workflows, some of which may be physical workflows and some of which will be information flows. By integrating information technology with both physical and information workflows, workflows become at once highly rational in their organization and highly flexible, adaptable and responsive. This is the principle that led to the development of modern flexible manufacturing systems, just-in-time inventory management, and other highly agile and adaptable systems of workflow.

Individual workflows may described as diagrams, sometimes called process maps, that show the flow as a series processing steps leading from input to output. Inputs are the information or materials need to perform each step and outputs are the information or materials that result from each workflow, and may constitute input for the next.

Although it may be easier to understand workflow in the context of operations designed to produce concrete outputs such as widgets or buildings, every endeavor has a workflow. The author of these pages engaged in a workflow to assemble the topics, research the needed information, write the text and style it. That workflow can be described, analyzed and optimized just like any other. Optimization may include changes to the information flow or changes to the physical environment, such as improving the ergonomics of the workstation or stabilizing the temperature of the working space.

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An Example from the Construction Industry

In today’s construction industry, the workflow of building users is the last parameter taken into consideration during the design-build process, if, indeed, it is considered at all. Buildings are designed and built with little or no reference to the workflow that the building will house. Such a building will almost inevitably be unsuccessful, where a successful building is defined as one that facilitates the workflow of its inhabitants. (We are making an important distinction here between the success of the building and the success of the process of building it.) Buyers accept successfully completed unsuccessful buildings because that is the way it has always been — but it doesn’t have to be that way!

A few pioneers are breaking the old paradigms, and the results of their work serve to emphasize its importance. Take the work of Gensler, a global architecture, design, planning and consulting firm working with clients to support their strategies and improve business. Gensler’s whitepaper, These Four Walls: The Real British Office, explores the effect of workplace design on productivity, job satisfaction, recruitment, and retention. In one of the case studies cited, a client states that since moving into new offices designed by Gensler, staff retention has improved 150 percent. Since the cost of turnover is variously estimated as 30 percent to 150 percent of yearly salary, such a reduction will add significantly to that company’s bottom line. Gensler, in fact, practices what we call workflow-driven design for office spaces.

Workflow-aligned building design can improve productivity 19 percent.

Gensler's whitepaper, which examines such designs in the UK, cites a British Council for Offices (BCO) estimate that building construction, building operation and staff salaries are in the ratio of 1:1.5:15. Another BCO paper cites an estimate that a 2 percent to 5 percent increase in staff performance can cover the total cost of providing their accommodation. In fact, the Gensler whitepaper estimates that, accumulating the impact of workflow-aligned design on job satisfaction, recruitment and retention, the potential productivity increase is on the order of 19 percent.

The principle of designing to workflow extends to all manner and nature of building, as well as to the surroundings of the building. The trend toward requiring developers to design Master Plan Communities (albeit fairly primitive and with little feedback from the users when finished) rather than racks of housing, acknowledges that a community has a workflow, a sequence of interrelated activities that take place within it, and that designing to that workflow improves quality of life in that community, which in turn gives greater value to the community and consequently to the developers’ profit line.

Leaders in educational reform are arguing that school design can impact educational outcome as much as curriculum design. Innovative healthcare leaders are pointing to the impact that facility design can have on outcomes in their industry. This realization that the ability to execute soars when form follows function is repeated again and again in multiple sectors of our society. The eventual waste caused by ignoring this principle is incalculable, as is the impact on the non-profit sector, which is frequently called on to mitigate the results of dysfunctional design.

So why are buildings not designed from the workflow out — a design/build process driven by 6-dimensional modeling? Real 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-dimensional models (as described below) are readily achievable today at modest cost using existing technologies and building on legacy applications where it makes sense to do so. Real 3- and 4-dimensional models are used routinely in a few industries, even among the construction trades. In some industries, 5-dimensional modeling is also routinely understood and applied — when a salesperson shows a rendering of a kitchen with alternate pricing and delivery estimates for different components, this is 5-dimensional modeling. In airplane and petrochemical plant design and manufacturing, however, 6-dimensional modeling has been in use for decades. Most airliners are flown and optimized in simulation long before the first prototype is built and tested.

Business Information Model (BIM): a 6–dimensional dynamic virtual surrogate of a business and the environment within which it operates.

But for the construction industry, 6-dimensional modeling requires a paradigm shift in the approach to construction, and there, we suspect, is the sticking point. As other industries are achieving success by partnering with their clients, the building industry must learn to build for their clients’ workflows. This effort cannot be in name only, or it will fail and lead to even more waste and dysfunction. The construction industry is slowly and reluctantly admitting the need for BIM — but it prefers to define a BIM as a “Building Information Model.” Well, the initials are right, but in practice this kind of BIM routinely stops at the fifth dimension. That is why we prefer to define a BIM as a “Business Information Model.” Actually, to avoid misunderstandings, we usually call our BIMs 6-dimensional models. These are models of a physical building in its physical environment and of the workflows that both operate the building and operate within the building.

N-Dimensional Modeling
Direction of Control Tools to ... Types of Models Characteristics


by construction
= lowest initial, highest lifetime



by workflow
= highest







The 20th Century Way:
1-dimensional model
planar representation or verbal description
2-dimensional model
CAD plan
3-dimensional model
Extruded CAD or isometric view tied to Cartesian coordinates along X-Y-Z axes, created and displayed by raster technology
4-dimensional model
3-dimensional model with a Bill of Materials (BOM)
  • Fixed dimensions (size and coordinates)
  • Closed system
  • Static
The Turn of the Century Way:
3-dimensional model
Parametric model with unlimited Points-of-View (POVs) created and displayed by vector technology; the whole or any of its parts may be moved or resized on the fly and affected components will be altered according to the parameters and constraints defined by the user
4-dimensional model
3-dimensional model with integrated project management, containing parametrizable quality, scope, time and cost information (including BOM)
  • Flexible dimensions (size, coordinates and parameters)
  • Open system
  • Dynamic
  • Relational (“complex”)

Design, Build
and Operate


Operate Business

The 21st Century Way:
5-dimensional model
4-dimensional model capable of receiving readings and information from sensors and intelligent components of the structure and sending control instructions back
6-dimensional model
5-dimensional structural model with integrated parametric workflow model
  • Flexible dimensions (size, coordinates and parameters)
  • Open system
  • Dynamic
  • Relational (“complex”)
  • Bi-directional