How to invest in operations to connect the dots and make better decisions
Life at a busy firm can be a mad scramble. When partners and owners start to wear too many hats, key information can slip through the cracks.
Over time, the value of that missed information and haphazard staff planning can add up.
That’s why mid-size firms with a healthy budget should consider investing in a new hire: an operations role.
When Snow Kreilich Architects hired bookkeeper and architect Sarah Hughes as Director Of Finance + Operations, they quickly felt the benefits.
Sarah and Snow Kreilich senior associate Trevor Bullen shared why it’s an investment that will pay dividends.
Connect the dots on staffing and financials
Before Snow Kreilich hired Sarah as Director Of Finance + Operations, Trevor was one of architecture’s many professionals wearing too many hats.
“One of the things that happens when a small firm grows is that a lot of things are decentralized,” Trevor said.
In addition to his main role, Trevor was taking on HR and staffing duties. It was always a challenge to get a cohesive, central view of firm operations.
“I inherited some systems. We were constantly struggling with how best to balance staff,” Trevor said.
At first, they hired Sarah in a part-time bookkeeper role. It worked for a while, but as time went on, both Sarah and Snow Kreilich leadership realized that they needed more.
Sarah had some great insights and ideas for how to take operations at Snow Kreilich further, but was juggling many other consulting clients. When she pitched the team on a full-time role, they were intrigued.
“What became clear was that with Sarah being part-time, there was still a little bit of a disconnect between the financials on a project and the project day to day,” Trevor said. “Hence we were always trying to maybe get a little bit more of Sarah's time.”
Now that Sarah is full-time, she can close the loop and connect all the dots, which means improvements in workflow and a deeper understanding of project success.
Trevor said the biggest value in hiring a full-time operations director has been making sure that no important details slip through the cracks.
“The minute we got busy from a project standpoint, those operational things would more often than not be pushed to the side, because we had this paying billable work that needed to happen on a deadline. And so our overall tracking and all of those things weren't happening as consistently across the board over the entire arc of a project or the entire calendar year as they should have,” he said.
A dedicated operations team member can make sure all those loose threads and important details get the attention and follow-up they deserve.
Engage in cashflow forecasting
When you have an operations guru on your team, they can help map out the proposals and plans for a new project from square one.
Sarah explained that for every project, the firm maps out a tentative staffing plan, excluding various alternative scenarios. She likened it to a giant game of Tetris.
Firm owner Matt Kreilich has an uncanny knack for assessing new business opportunities and their likelihood of success.
“We take those odds. We line them up into cashflow forecasting, which is what I do, and line that up with staffing and make hiring decisions based on that,” Sarah said.
They don’t just plan one staffing scenario. They plan multiple scenarios. That’s because in the development world, projects don’t always run from start to finish: there are often big pauses.
Paused projects can present a significant challenge for a firm. Big projects anchor you financially, but become an anchor that drags you down when they stop.
“Those projects are really tough when they either go on hold or when they stop, and when they transition from say CDs and suddenly it's in CA where you go from a four or five-person team down to one person. It's very hard to shift on a dime,” Trevor said.
Snow Kreilich tries to keep things balanced by taking on a combination of public and private projects.
The rest of the solution comes from Sarah’s operational plan.
Monitor staff hours to prevent burnout
A big bonus to having an operations director keep tabs on your timesheets?
Flagging issues before they can become negative trends.
Sarah keeps close tabs on employee hours on a weekly basis. If employees are working overtime consistently, she lets Snow Kreilich leadership know, so that work-life balance can be restored.
“I see everybody's time every week,” Sarah said. “When I see situations where there are clearly far too many hours being put in above and beyond the standard 40 hour work week, I will flag it and communicate it directly to Matt and Julie.”
The purpose of this oversight isn’t to admonish team members for busting the budget. It’s to keep things in balance.
“We do not want people frying out. We do not want the idea that we expect you to be available 40 hours a week, and then do all the other overhead non-billable work on top of it,” Sarah said.
When employee hours get flagged, it presents leadership with an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with that employee to make sure everything’s going well.
Use project data to make better decisions
Trevor said that in addition to preventing staff burnout, tracking staff hours illuminates when project delivery is not going according to plan.
When staff members are drowning in project hours, it means there’s been a financial failure as well as a staffing failure on the part of the firm.
“The first one is that we did not adequately anticipate or plan the work, and obviously it's not going to be sustainable over the course. Financially, that's also a failure. If we're not tracking those things, then we're not improving on our project delivery,” Trevor said.
“That's where we're also coming at it as an organization, trying to think about how do we do this better? How do we work smarter, not necessarily harder?”
In the vein of working smarter, another tactic Sarah uses is inserting herself in the proposal and contract phase.
She reviews each and every proposal and contract to ensure that it is in line with similar projects the firm completed in the past. This includes gathering lessons learned and potential pain points to keep in mind.
“It's not because I have some great deep legalese prowess. I want to be able to look at what we're saying and be able to look at what we've done in the past that compares, and see where we got hung up,” Sarah said.
Her insights won’t always impact the proposal cost or schedule. But it will give the team an edge.
“At least we can start to have the conversation. ‘Okay, we can put this forward, but let's remember XYZ happened last time and we need to just keep an eye on it the second time around.’ Then if it happens a second time, we definitely know that we need to really be restructuring how we are planning this project typology,” she said.
Do the math when hiring for operations
Interested in whether or not your firm could benefit from an operations role?
In Sarah’s mind, it’s impossible to over-invest in operations. But that said, she recognizes that only firms of a specific size can hire an in-house operations role full-time.
As a bookkeeping consultant, she was able to do the math and only approach a small handful of firms for which her full-time services would be a good fit.
“I had to make sure the cost of my salary made sense to a firm. Because having one full-time person at a managerial level—the salary and the benefits that come with it for a small firm is not a small undertaking. And there has to be the ability to back that up with billable sales and profit,” she said.
Sarah believes that as long as it’s financially viable, every firm should consider seeking dedicated operations support.
“Small businesses as a whole, they do not receive the same level of support on any level that large businesses do. That's a pretty obvious statement. But so much of the support in terms of operations is overlooked,” she said.
“Owners are doing it at three o'clock in the morning when they've gotten done with all the other things they need to do. I don't see how any firm could not benefit from having a designated operations role. It's really just the viability of it, and what makes sense given the size of the firm.”
Whether you begin by hiring a bookkeeper or looking for a full-time hire, investing in operations is something that can pave the way for long-term business success.
Join us for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Trevor Bullen AIA and Sarah Hughes of Snow Kreilich Architects.
Trevor Bullen AIA is a Senior Associate at Snow Kreilich Architects. Over the past four years, Trevor served as Director of Operations at Snow Kreilich Architects and has since handed off the role to Sarah Hughes. Trevor is a broadly experienced architect with over 20 years of professional experience. He brings to Snow Kreilich Architects significant international experience; having worked on a wide range of architecture, landscape architecture and planning projects in Europe, the Caribbean and the United States. He enjoys the deeply personal and collaborative aspects of architectural practice, tailoring specific solutions to individual needs. From 2000 to 2016, he led an award winning architecture and planning studio on the island of Grenada, completing more than 30 built projects. The work of his firm has been published extensively in journals and books, including being featured in a monograph on Contemporary Caribbean Architecture (Lumis 2015). In addition to practice, Trevor has remained active in academia. He has taught architectural design at the Boston Architectural College and the City College of New York, as well as a guest critic at Harvard University, Parsons School of Design and Pratt Institute among others.
Sarah Hughes is the Director of Finance & Operations at Snow Kreilich Architects. She was educated, trained, and practiced as an architectural designer for a decade before transitioning to small business operations. Prior to Snow Kreilich, Sarah was a bookkeeping and accounting consultant, catering primarily to architects, landscape architects, interior designers, and other creative-based companies in the Twin Cities area. She has over 20 years of small business understanding, advising and developing upon the specialized nature of design firm constructs.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Trevor and Sarah about how to run operations at a mid-size architecture firm.
- How Trevor handed off the director of operations role to Sarah after his four years in the role
- How Snow Kreilich designs their practice around quality of life
- Navigating the mid-size studio conundrum
Snow Kreilich Architects is a nationally recognized, award-winning architectural firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The studio focuses on producing architecture that performs against multiple measures of design success, including sustainability, equity, economy, and beauty. www.snowkreilich.com