The Art/Science of AE and the Business of Running an AE Firm

Many AE firms focus on the art and science of architecture and engineering, not the business of running a successful company.  While it’s commonly discussed, including this recent op-ed and column in CE News, the question is: Should we let it continue?

At the ACEC 2011 Fall Conference, many firms I (@JonBornstein) spoke with shared their challenges in getting Project Managers to think about their projects like the business they are.  Then I met Chris Borton, President of Borton-Lawson.  He’s addressed this head on.  While it’s not quick or easy, his success can serve the Deltek AE firm community well.

Without further ado, Chris kindly agreed to share his thinking in this guest blog post.


It’s easy when firms are small
Most design firms start the same way: a licensed design professional or a group of design professionals believe that their expertise is unique or their philosophy of business is better that the firm they currently work for, and decide to start their own firm.  The projects they undertake are under the direct control of the owner (Project Manager) and are usually small enough that the Project Manager can successfully manage a number of projects without the help of formalized work plans, schedules, or cost controls.  All of this important information is locked away in the databases of the Project Manager’s brain.  The information is immediately retrievable upon inquiry by a client, peer, or subordinate.  The project work is performed by the Project Manager or a small close-knit team who are in constant communication concerning all aspects of the project.

Growth often leads to a “Design First, Project Second” mentality
As a firm grows and the types of projects it undertakes grow more complex, the team is expanded into different subgroups to perform more specialized work.  These subgroups grow into “groups of their own” or “silos” which sometimes perform work on their own or contribute important pieces of design on more complex projects.  As this growth occurs and more groups are formed, the capacity of the Project Manager’s capability is compromised.  The amount of data, throughput (communication) and efficiencies of a once well-oiled machine starts to breakdown.

Since the Project Manager is an Engineer, Architect or another “Design Professional”, the natural tendency is to perform the “Design Functions” first and not worry about the management of the work product.  Soon, control of the work product is lost and time is wasted, communication with the team becomes intermittent, and most importantly open communication with the client becomes stressed. The end result is that the project is delivered, sometimes late, most times over budget, the entire team is stressed, and most importantly the client is unhappy with the overall performance.

So how did we get here and what can we do to “fix the system”?  Hold On!  This is the part that makes most great design professionals’ hair stand on end. That is, what hair they have left after the last project. We need to MANAGE the project!

Most university Project Management coursework includes scheduling, economics, and communications.  Not all professors really stress the importance of management as an integral part of successful projects. Or if they do stress it, the students are so focused on the “fun stuff” that they hurry through the coursework.

The same thing happens in the workplace: an Engineer (Project Manager) is so engrossed in the exciting design aspects of a project that it is very easy to ignore the less glamorous project management aspect.  “I can check the budget, schedule the time, or communicate with the team and client after I finish the project.”

So what can we do to facilitate proper Project Management?  

  • First, standardize: not a detailed list of items but a generic work plan that can be used on each and every project.
  • Second, standardize: a list of metrics that can be used on each and every project to help anyone involved understand the workflow, the schedule, and the cost.
  • Third, automate: use a computer program to store data and report on important metrics.

These simple steps enable the entire firm to become more efficient and lead to greater client satisfaction.  As the CEO or COO of a firm, the data entered into the Vision system from our time sheets provides an overview of the entire firm on a real-time basis.  One can look at five basic metrics and determine how a business unit or project is performing.  As a Project Manager, one can drill down from the basic data and determine if any changes need to be made to keep a project on time, on budget, or whether a meeting will be needed to discuss new information with the design team or client.

Accountability and incentives
While some Project Managers are proactive, not all are created the same.  Accountability is the key.  A firm must develop a culture of incentives to keep everyone in the firm moving in the same direction.  Even with the accountability and incentives, there will be some individuals that cannot “get in sync” and, if not addressed, will decrease the productivity of the team and the firm.  In these cases management must be willing to switch the responsibilities of individuals best suited for their talents.

This is easier said than done, but with the right communication and development of a record of accomplishment, over time individuals realize and appreciate the tough decisions that must be made for the betterment of an entire organization.  It may take some time to get everyone in the “right seat on the bus”, but eventually it can be accomplished.

We now have “super design engineers” who have been bogged down in the past with Project Management duties who are performing “over and above” without the headaches of the project metrics working with “super project managers” who are not bogged down with the details of design.  A perfect match!

All of these items seem relatively simple, however the last (and arguably the toughest) is training and monitoring.  With the standardization of measurements of metrics, how to obtain and use the information is incredibly important.  Different individuals can use simple computer programs in various ways and can become highly proficient in operating a piece of software inefficiently.  We all have experienced this.  It’s one of the most annoying things to watch: looking over the shoulder of an operator who is taking 30 seconds to perform a task that should take 5 seconds had they had training.  I have done that!  I perfected a method (self-taught) to perform a simple task and later was taught a method which saved time.  If only I had taken the time to be trained correctly, I could have shaved hours of time off tasks I performed over the last year!

At Borton-Lawson, we have hired individuals or assigned roles to individuals to help us improve our delivery of projects.  First we added a Director of Engineering Technology.  This individual works with both the information technology staff and the production staff to ensure that we are using the software we have to its fullest potential by providing the training and staying abreast of the latest technology.  Next, we tasked a Project Manager with the duties of “Director of Projects.”His role is to insure that we use the proper Project Management techniques and utilize all of the resources of our Project Management Information systems on all projects.  In performing these duties he will be able to identify weaknesses and recommend training where needed.


About Jon Bornstein

Jon Bornstein manages Deltek's marketing in the A&E industry across North America. His job is to ensure that firms understand the many ways they can drive business value using Deltek purpose-built solutions.
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