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Do the Work Quicker and Better
by Rena M. Klein, FAIA

Architectural practice can be described as an endless and simultaneous cycle of “get the work, do the work, get the work, do the work, etc.” However, managing the processes of how these tasks are accomplished is also a significant part of the effort, even for a solo-practitioner.

This requires tracking of financial results to be sure, but it also includes awareness of work process effectiveness, staff (and personal) satisfaction, and the ongoing need to learn in order to stay relevant in the marketplace.

While much is said of strategic planning as a tool for success in design firms, critical thinking about how the work gets done is sometimes left out of the considerations. Understanding both the tasks and the relationship building necessary to deliver projects effectively is the key to productivity and resulting firm profitability.

As the construction industry enters the recovery stage of the business cycle, firm owners have the opportunity to re-craft how things are done. This does not necessarily mean purchasing and going through a process of learning and integrating the newest technology platform. Although deciding to upgrade technology may be the result of careful thinking about work processes, it is not likely to be a quick fix to the problems of ineffective project execution. In fact, integrating new technology, without careful thinking about work processes, may actually make things worse.

Routinize the Routine

When office technology was first introduced in the mid-20th Century (think electric typewriters and copy machines), social scientists began to think about which types of office work were appropriate to automation. This gave birth to a discipline known as socio-technical design – how to best leverage the social and technological tools available to get office work done better and more quickly. They discovered that there are four different types of work, and that matching the work processes to the type of work being done can strongly influence its effectiveness.

These four types of work, routine, engineering, craft, and non-routine, exist in all architectural practices and are described in the graphic shown below (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Types of Work

The vertical scale measures a quality of work known as analyzability, which means the ease by which a work task can be described with simple directions – a memo or list of sequential steps. Highly analyzable tasks are easy to describe, while low analyzability means that the task is not so easily understood and may not involve a linear progression. The horizontal scale measures variety, which means the level of sameness encountered each time a task is undertaken.

Routine tasks or processes, shown in the lower left-hand quadrant, such as recording reimbursable expenses, are the same every time and are highly analyzable. Engineering tasks have high variety, such as the different loading or support conditions when sizing a beam, but are basically understandable through a step-by-step procedure that can often be prescriptive.

Craft is the opposite of engineering – low variety and low analyzability. Craft processes, such as doing a watercolor rendering, cannot be described as a simple linear progression and take practice, with skill developing over time. Yet each time craft-based work is undertaken, the process is virtually the same, making it low-variety. By contrast, non-routine work, such as design, invention, problem solving, and even some aspects of proposal writing, is always changing, often complex, and demands experience, intuition, creativity, and even, sometimes, inspiration.

Identifying and routinizing routine work can help avoid wasted time and unnecessary “reinventing the wheel.” Developing standard processes that handle routine tasks in routine ways will always create more time for the non-routine work and craft (architects often delegate the “engineering” type tasks). But remember, for non-routine work, “reinventing the wheel” might be fine and is often required in complex and innovative design projects. The critical issue is to differentiate between different types of work and apply the appropriate processes to each.

As they begin to take on the new opportunities that the recovery may offer, small firm leaders would be wise to take the time to design the processes involved in producing the work. Make a list of the routine work needed for the delivery of every project, such as code review, and for business development processes, like tracking leads. Create a work flowchart that shows the steps needed to accomplish each of these routine tasks. Then create reusable templates, repeatable systems, and reliable checklists that help maintain accuracy and completeness every time the process is done. Think about what technological tools might aid in the quick and correct accomplishment of routine work –these will likely pay for themselves quickly over time. Even solo-practitioners can benefit from this approach by introducing efficiency to the customized ways they may accomplish their work.

Along with routinizing the routine, doing the work better and quicker requires reflective leadership, continuous learning, and an enthusiastic and motivated staff. Stay tuned to coming issues of the CRAN Chronicle for insight on these topics.

Rena M. Klein, FAIA is the author of The Architect’s Guide to Small Firm Management (Wiley, 2010), and is the executive editor of AIA’s The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 15th edition (Wiley, 2013). With 20 years of experience as the owner of a small architecture firm, and 10 years as a consultant and educator, Rena specialized in helping owners of small design firms, offering services including management coaching, business planning, and retreat facilitation. For more information please see


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