Dare to Compare: Improving Your Practice Through Benchmarking

September 1, 2001 · by Ken L. Ross, Jr.

What we found is helping us improve both the business side of our practice and the quality of our design work. It also is energizing our shareholders to become engaged in the process of making our firm the best it can be.

bench mark n a : a point of reference from which measurements may be made; b : something that serves as a standard by which others may be measured or judged.

Striving to be the best at what we do is a challenge for all architectural firms. Having been in business for more than 20 years, Watkins Hamilton Ross (WHR) is no different. We are constantly evaluating our performance and the quality of our work, and have built a solid reputation with our many repeat healthcare and institutional clients. When searching for some answers to improve our own practice recently, we decided to conduct our own benchmarking exercise. What we found is helping us improve both the business side of our practice and the quality of our design work. It also is energizing our shareholders to become engaged in the process of making our firm the best it can be.

We first became aware of benchmarking through our healthcare clients, who, for years, have been touring each other’s facilities before beginning major projects. The practice of benchmarking became widespread in the U.S. in the 1970s as a tool for improving performance by learning from best practices and understanding the process by which they are achieved. Although it has its roots in manufacturing, benchmarking is now widely used in many areas of business—from service companies to universities.

Although there may be some management consultants who use benchmarking comparisons to help architectural firms improve their practices, we had not heard of any firm-to-firm benchmarking before. Our experience, as far as we can tell, was unique, and one that we are willing to share so others can benefit.

What We Did. Using personal contacts developed through involvement and networking in the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health, we approached the principals of five firms in the Boston area—Payette & Associates, The Ritchie Organization, The S/L/A/M Collaborative, Steffian Bradley, and Tsoi/Kobus & Associates — to see if they were interested in making benchmark comparisons. These firms are all about the same size as WHR, specialize in healthcare as we do, but against whom we rarely compete for projects because of our geographical separation. They perceive us as “out of towners,” and do not consider us a threat to their business. None refused; all were happy to participate, but like all good architects, they wanted to be prepared.

We sent them an agenda for the day, as well as a list of questions that focused on our areas of interest: design quality, integration of architecture and interiors, integration of design and technology, project teams, leveraging computers to improve the work process, healthcare marketing, specialization in practice vs. diversification, providing real value to clients, recruiting and retaining the best, and transition planning.

Six principals and associate principals from our 90-person firm then went to Boston and spent five days visiting these firms. It was a significant commitment of time and money, but well worth it. We spent 6-8 hours meeting with our counterparts at each firm in management, marketing, and design. We felt that, like us, all these firms are striving for the same goals: to provide quality design, management, planning, and technical documentation on projects, while creating environments that are supportive of the healing process. But we observed many different ways to go about achieving those goals.

What We Learned. Perhaps the most significant thing we discovered is that, unlike WHR, all of these firms operate on the principal-in-charge (PIC) model. In every case, the principal-in-charge carries the final “buck stops here” authority for design and project management decisions, and is fully responsible to the firm for what their teams produce. The project teams are assembled from studio personnel as needed. There are no “star” designers. One firm has a “design principal.” The others have a full-time “design resident” on every project team who stays on the project through every phase.

We surmised that the reason these firms operate on the PIC model is because that is how firms have historically operated in the Northeast. In Boston, leading firms were founded by a single named principal who had individual control and responsibility for the entire project delivery process. Architects who began their careers at those firms went on to found their own firms based on a similar practice model.

The same thing happened in Texas, where CRS influenced the way many of us now practice architecture. Most of WHR’s leadership came from CRS or firms that were significantly influenced by the CRS model of project delivery as described in Bill Caudill’s book, Architecture by Team, published in the late 1960s. Project teams are typically built around a trio of leaders with primary responsibility in each of three architectural disciplines: architectural design, project management, and building technology. While these seem like very different project delivery models, both seek the same outcomes with slightly different staffing structures and client contact methodology.

One of the reasons we chose these five firms is because we admire the quality of their design work. So we were curious to learn about their quality control for design. What we found out was that all of these firms have a complete commitment to design, from top to bottom, which might be described as “design culture.” Yet, they don’t seem to require a design “guru” to make it happen.

Instead, they all have variations of an entire team concentrating on design in every phase. We heard everyone describe their role as design, even when the tasks were management or production. Some organize charrettes to get projects started and have frequent design “pin-ups” for timely and productive reviews with a range of junior and senior contributors. Some firms have more formal and more public project reviews in which younger team members get practice explaining their work and the whole firm sees what’s happening on most projects. We also heard about educational programs and lectures on design issues where the firm’s work is not discussed.

Interior design in these firms is both centralized and decentralized. We concluded that integration of interior design into the project delivery process does not depend on whether the interior designers sit with the architectural team. Rather, it is more of a professional problem in that some architects do not respect or value the importance of what interior designers bring to the team. If an architectural team works well with interior designers, they be located anywhere within the firm’s office. If an architectural team doesn’t work well with interior designers, it won’t help to move them closer. What is most important is to make it clear that interior design is an integral part of the architectural team no matter where they sit.

How We’re Using What We Learned. The changes we’re making at WHR as a result of this trip are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Shortly after we got back, all six of us wrote up our impressions, which were then combined into one document and circulated to our shareholders. We believe that our project management, functional planning, and technical documentation skills are as good or better than any of the firms we visited. Although many of our projects have won design awards, we want to nurture and elevate our design culture. After all, no matter what their responsibility, design is something everyone in our firm has in common.

We’re going to start structuring our teams differently, perhaps drawing on skill sets, rather than our established studio concept. Each person on the team should be encouraged to explore all aspects of design. We are doing more design charrettes and reviews. These review sessions are not judgment sessions, but rather opportunities for colleagues to provide fresh input and advice. The benchmarking trip reminded us that there is an appropriate time for a skilled review team to assist the design team with a project in an early phase before change is difficult.

While our IT department is comparable to the firms we visited, each has a CADD manager trained and experienced as an architect. So we are considering designating or hiring a full-time CADD manager to monitor, update, and enforce our CADD standards, as well as provide training and software trouble-shooting.

We also found that each firm has dedicated graphics staff in their marketing department. By adding personnel in this area, we can improve the quality of our awards submissions, mailers, and marketing pieces—as well as the presentation graphics on all projects.

Where Do We Go From Here?
We want to repeat this benchmarking trip, but go to a different region of the country that is also rich in successful healthcare architecture firms, such as the West Coast. We’ll probably send some different people, to give them the opportunity to learn and participate in this remarkable learning experience. Why? Because we feel there is much to be gained. Architecture is a competitive business, but it’s also collaborative. It is in the spirit of collaboration that we approach other firms. They have as much to learn from us as we have from them.

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