New Process Puts Last Things First

January 15, 2005 · by Scott Simpson, FAIA

A good project manager must live simultaneously in all three tenses—past, present, and future. The problem, of course, is that most people don’t think that way. However, there is a technique that improves the odds for success, which is to start with the future and work backwards. As counter-intuitive as this might seem at first, it’s perfectly logical, and it actually works.

Most people know that the month of January was named after the Roman god Janus, a unique fellow with two faces, one looking forward and one backward. It was this peculiar form of double vision that allowed Janus to see the both the future and the past at the same time. Janus would be a good choice as the patron saint for project managers. As primary navigators of the design effort, they must know at all times what’s been accomplished, what remains to be done, and how to “choreograph” the team’s remaining activities within the parameters of the available budget and schedule. Thus, a good project manager must live simultaneously in all three tenses—past, present, and future.

The problem, of course, is that most people don’t think that way. Until science fiction overtakes physics, time travel is not yet possible. What’s done is done, and the past cannot be altered. Because design is an exploratory process, we expect that tomorrow will bring its own adventures and surprises, and we’ll deal with them as they arrive. However, there is a technique that improves the odds for success, which is to start with the future and work backwards. As counter-intuitive as this might seem at first, it’s perfectly logical, and it actually works.

Case in point: Standard AIA contract language assumes that the design process will proceed in orderly steps, from schematic design (SD) to design development (DD) to construction documentation (CD) to construction administration (CA). At each step along the way, new members are added to the team. For example, structural and MEP engineers generally become involved after the initial design concept has germinated; specialty consultants (for elevators, acoustics, etc.) come on board when the design is sufficiently gelled to require their advice; and construction managers (CMs) rarely participate until the CDs are completed and ready for bid. Hence, the essence of the conventional design process is built upon sequential decision-making. The logic of this approach is that expertise is added to the team as required, building a body of knowledge that culminates in the final project.

However, there is also a downside to sequential thinking, which is that the newly arrived team members do not have the benefit of the history of the project … they don’t always know who made key decisions or why. By the time they arrive on the scene, certain things may be set in stone that, with additional insight, might have turned out differently (but now it’s too late). This is especially true in the case of the CM—who must actually construct the building. Of the total capital cost of a project, design fees might account for 6-8 percent, but the remainder—by far the vast majority of the cost—is in the hands of the CM. Clearly, it makes no sense to exclude this expertise from the heart of the design process; that’s just asking for trouble.

At Stubbins, we’ve taken a different approach and seen dramatic results. Rather than conduct a conventional process, we’ve coined the term HyperTrackTM to describe a different kind of simultaneous design. Under this new model all key decision-makers, including the owner, architect, consulting engineers and construction manager, are critical members of the design team from day one. All decisions are vetted simultaneously and in concert, from multiple perspectives. For example, when the engineers propose ideas about structural or mechanical systems, the impact on the design, the cost, and the schedule are always considered at the same time. Perhaps most importantly, the expertise of the CM is woven right into the design and documentation of the building where it matters most and can have the greatest effect. The benefits of this new approach are manifold, including:

  • Better overall communication and teamwork
  • Reduced professional liability for all parties
  • More design ideas from different sources
  • Better and faster decision-making
  • Continuous cost and schedule review
  • Greater overall buy-in from the owner
  • Less backtracking and redesign
  • Better, clearer, more concise documentation
  • Fewer mistakes in the field
  • Greatly accelerated project schedules
  • Higher profitability for all parties
  • Lower capital cost for the owner

    This is not just talk. The accompanying matrix shows actual results for five different HyperTrack™ projects that have been conducted during the past two years. These projects range from research facilities to dormitories, and include both new construction and renovation. Note that the average cost savings is $5.38 million and that the average schedule acceleration is 8.4 months. This represents very considerable value-added for the client (which greatly simplifies fee negotiations!) Best of all, several of these projects are award winners. We’ve found that there’s no need to compromise on design quality using the new approach. In fact, because the process enables (actually, requires) team members to contribute their expertise at a higher level, overall design quality improves.

    The key is to get the entire team to look at the design process in two directions at once, like Janus would. By keeping the end result in focus at all times, then working backward, the overall process is more focused, meetings are run more efficiently, there’s more opportunity for creativity, and the project never gets off track in terms of schedule and budget. Ironically, despite the increase in speed, there is still plenty of time for quality because of the continuous cross-checking that occurs. The proof is in the pudding: for all the projects listed in the matrix, despite great complexities of program and stringent demands on budgets and schedules, not a single claim was filed.
    The HyperTrack™ approach fundamentally alters the role of the architect, whose most important (and value-added) role is to be the team leader. In fact we often say that under this new paradigm, “we’re in the leadership business, and design is our medium.” It’s still important to draw the “lines on paper,” of course, but it’s even more important to draw the conclusions.

    —Scott Simpson

    Simpson is president and CEO of The Stubbins Associates of Cambridge, Mass. He is co-chair of the Design Futures Council, a contributing editor at DesignIntelligence, a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the AIA and co-author of How Firms Succeed, A Field Guide to Design Management. He has been a visiting design critic at Yale and the University of Wisconsin and a guest lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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