How to Improve Productivity with Design Thinking

Rena Klein , 19 April 2016

Your staff are the best people to work out how to improve the productivity of your practice. Rena Klein explains the benefits of an Operational Improvement Charette, and provides a guide to running one.

In the early 1960s, when automation was being integrated into office work (think electric typewriters and copy machines), social scientists began to consider the design of work processes. This gave birth to a discipline known as socio-technical design, which explores the best fit between social and technical systems of work production.

Architectural firms are perfect laboratories of the interaction between people, technology and the magic of the creative process. However, as small firms grow and technology changes, it’s easy to get bogged down in ineffective processes and unproductive work patterns. This is when design thinking applied to the work processes of your firm can be transformational.

Examples of unproductive work patterns abound. Recreating a detail that already exists in a previous project; redoing work that went in the wrong direction due to miscommunication; correcting permit sets or mistakes in the field because of inadequate quality review; the list goes on and on. If operational hiccups recur repeatedly, it results in the kinds of inefficiencies that suck the profit right out of any job.

The unfortunate, yet typical, long-term consequences of low productivity are overwork, undue stress, depressed profits, and wide spread dissatisfaction, making these challenges even harder to overcome. Is there a bright side? Yes. Identifying ineffective patterns gives you an opportunity to take corrective action.

But how do you bring the issue to the surface and what corrective action will work?

The causes of operational issues are often interconnected and complex, and are usually about the need for systems rather than being the outcome of individual incompetence. It may be difficult for firm leaders or outside consultants to identify underlying issues and points of leverage on their own. Instead, what is usually required is a process that taps the intelligence, energy and design thinking of the firm’s entire staff. In other words, those who are doing most of the work will be the ones best capable of identifying and solving productivity challenges.

Operational Improvement Charette

One way to facilitate an operational improvement process is to hold an operational improvement charette. As the name implies, this applies design thinking and design processes to improving the way work is done. As usual in charettes, it is a highly participatory and pragmatic process that involves problem seeking followed by problem solving in small groups.

In my consulting work with small firms I have conducted numerous operational charettes in the past year. They have been universally effective in engaging all staff in improving work processes and have resulted in both incremental and transformative change.

Operational Improvement Charette Warm-up: Work Types Exercise

In the 1960s, as they were trying to determine where automation would be most effective, socio-technical designers identified four different types of work tasks.

Highly analyzable tasks are those that can be described by a sequential step-by-step process.

  • Routine tasks are analyzable and the same every time they’re done (low variety);
  • Engineering type tasks vary in each circumstance, but are still analyzable. For example, to size a beam you would follow a step-by-step process to arrive at the answer, but the loading conditions, support conditions, and material strength will be different every time.

Routine and Engineering type tasks are the best for systematizing and creating forms, checklists and standards. One this is done, highly analyzable tasks can be more easily delegated to less experienced staff.

Tasks that have low analyzability are best for more experienced staff and have to be taught through mentoring and coaching, because they cannot be described as a list of steps.

  • Craft tasks are those that you get better and better at the more you do them, because the process is basically the same every time (low variety).
  • Non-routine tasks, such as design, are also improved through experience, but can be impacted by inspired creativity, which may have little to do with time on the job.

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Starting the charette by having staff identify tasks that they do that fall into each of these work types can prime the pump for conversations about how to improve operations overall. Here is an example of the list developed by one of the firms I work with.

NON-ROUTINE (individualize) 

  • facade design
  • CCA problem solving
  • finding solutions on site
  • client presentation development
  • schematic design
  • finding creative design solutions
  • marketing strategy
  • website building and updates
  • finalizing proposals/contracts
  • strategic business planning
CRAFT (coach)

  • project management – CD set prep
  • interior finishes specifications
  • quick diagram sketches
  • plan diagram
  • section diagram
  • residential programming and layout
  • drawing production in CAD
  • review of submittals and shop drawings
  • client management and communication
  • detailing


ENGINEERING (delegate)

  • Quality review
  • Standard technical details
  • Zoning analysis
  • Code review
  • Bid leveling
  • Permit forms and filing process
  • Consultant coordination
  • Permit submittal sets
  • Proposal/contract development
  • Office management
  • Client relationship management


ROUTINE  (direct and standardise) 

  • Timesheets
  • Social media output
  • Project set-up:
  • File structure, budget and fee tracking, blocking up drawing set, create project schedule
  • Initial site survey
  • ADA diagrams
  • Drafting interior elevations
  • CCA routine documentation and transmittals: field reports, meeting notes, submittals, RFIs…

Of course this is a general list developed by one firm. It is a worthwhile exercise to develop it for your own firm. This will help you identify which tasks to routinize so that you will have more time for the non-routine tasks and you can be more certain of consistency, quality and efficiency throughout. 

Operational Improvement Charette Process and Agenda

The operational charette is an opportunity for the entire staff to apply design thinking to the work processes that are performed every day. It is a reflective process in which people are asked to engage in ‘problem-seeking’, such as when programming for a design project.

This is followed with time for ‘problem-solving’. Staff will have a chance to gather in small groups to generate ideas on how to improve different aspects of work process design. Everyone has the opportunity to suggest a topic related to improving work processes. They are asked to look for issues they really care about and want to discuss with their colleagues who feel the same way.


Operational Improvement Charette ‘calling questions’

How can we simultaneously foster effective productivity and design excellence?

What opportunities exist for improving work processes?

What challenges need to be discussed and progress made on solving them?


Examples of opportunities for improvement:

  • on-boarding of new staff
  • understanding of expectations in design exploration processes
  • standardisation of file organisation on projects
  • learning lessons from one another’s project experience
  • work planning and project tracking by project architect/manager
  • quality assurance as a project moves through its phases

Examples of operational challenges:

  • delegation of work to others
  • transference of institutional knowledge about standards, templates, exemplary details
  • assignment as project architect/manager before a person is really ready
  • how to have more “eyes on a project” and more people engaged
  • how to have more structured project teams with clear roles and responsibilities
  • improvement of Revit standards and work processes


Typical Operational Charette Agenda

1:00 – 1:15                  introduction by firm leaders

1:15 – 2:00                  background slides, retreat theme, work-types exercise

2:00 – 2:45                  process description and agenda formation (problem-seeking)

2:45 – 3:30                  small group session 1 (problem-solving)

3:30 – 4:15                  small group session 2 (problem solving)

4:15 – 5:15                  closing session

5:30 – 6:30                  happy hour / dinner


Operational Improvement Charette Outcomes

Following the charette, a staff meeting is held to review the outcomes. In my role as facilitator, I create a summary of outcomes and an action plan for implementing the many good ideas that surface during the charette. Before the staff meeting, it is my usual practice to meet with firm leadership for their take on the outcomes and plans moving forward.

Some of the ideas that come out of the charette can be immediately put into practice. Others take study and development in order to implement. This usually leads to the establishment of task groups, to make recommendations and facilitate implementation of change that is needed to improve operations. Examples of these task groups include those that are establishing standards, facilitating staff education and community engagement, organising files and knowledge assets, improving integration of technology into the production and presentation processes and coordinating marketing and business development efforts.


Firm retreats are often thought of as time-wasting ‘feel-good’ exercises that have no relationship to managing a successful firm. Operational improvement charettes, on the other hand, are pragmatic focused efforts that have tangible outcomes. These outcomes include improving productivity, familiarity, and firm-wide understanding of work performance expectations, including each person’s roles, and responsibilities.

Operational effectiveness, along with managing scope creep and charging enough, is key to having a consistently profitable and sustainable firm. It’s difficult to improve operations during the day-to-day work of juggling minor crises and dealing with the unexpected opportunity. It’s hard to put fire prevention measures in place while you are actively fighting the fire. An operational improvement charette takes the firm away for an afternoon of co-creative work on issues that are important to everyone. The results can be unexpected and innovative solutions that are transformational for the culture and the financial success of a firm.

Rena M. Klein, FAIA is the author of The Architect’s Guide to Small Firm Management (Wiley, 2010) and principal of RM Klein Consulting, a firm that specializes in financial management support, strategic planning, and helping small design firms prosper.

The article first appeared in Licensed Architect Magazine and is republished with permission.