Workplan: Building an effective tool.

thinking about The WorkplanEverything you wanted to know about The Workplan

…but were afraid to ask.

Managing workflow is a challenge every consultancy faces, and the Workplan is a tool whose value has been consistently underrated as a way to effectively manage work in a studio. Our environment is challenging and fast-paced, and it can be stressful. We have to keep all the work we do in order, and we need perspective to keep it all moving forward. A good Workplan can be the key, regardless of your position in a firm — project lead, project manager or studio manager.

Sharing resources in a studio environment is a challenge.

I have worked at 7 firms over the past 28 years, and I can attest that resource management nearly always is a challenge. In the past 12 years I have been actively involved in managing teams and studios where the day-to-day challenges of maintaining workflow have offered some valuable insight into understanding the nuances of studio resource management. I have worked in firms of varying sizes, and if the studio gets large enough, the challenge of maintaining a good balance among projects, priorities and silos of work can prove time-consuming and complex. If the firm’s studio is big enough, having a dedicated studio resource manager is common.


Managing studio resources is a team effort.

The studio resource manager has a very challenging job.

To be effective, the studio resource manager needs to understand the work at hand and know the skills of all the staff really well. The complexity is compounded with the varying types of projects each with differing financial goals. Staff members have varying strengths and levels of experience. Matching the projects with the people who are best suited for them, and in the time frame that is best suited for the project and the studio as a whole is complex at best.

No matter how challenging it is to manage a studio’s resources, the studio resource manager cannot succeed without strong project leads. Their role is crucial, not only to the success of their individual projects, but to the studio’s success as a whole.

Each project lead or project manager needs to clearly understand and plan for resources for their entire project. Otherwise it’s a guessing game. If the studio resource manager doesn’t have a clear grasp of each project’s requirements, as communicated by the project lead, then their position becomes ineffective.


That’s where The Workplan comes in.

In the design world, the Workplan unfortunately is the ugly cousin in the corner no one wants to play with. Or the last one to be picked for the team. But that ugly cousin can save our butts if we give them the time of day.

First off, what is a Workplan?

In a nutshell, a Workplan is a road map of the scope of work in a project, laid out over a specific time period, with staff (resources) assignments showing hours of work by skill set which culminates in an overall financial plan. That said, we have seen some interesting interpretations over the years.

A Workplan is thereby an essential ingredient in managing your project work, but it also is the only truly effective tool that project leads and studio managers have to understand the resource needs of a project relative to their overall studio needs. A Workplan is not effective if it’s just a simple division of fee over time divided by the cost of the assigned resources. That formula tells you how many staff you would need to spend your fee over a set period of time. But that’s really not a Workplan. For a Workplan to be effective it needs to consider the specific skills of your team members and match their assignments to the major tasks of the project in its entirety.

Workplans are getting more complex to build as we move toward new ways of documenting our work (like REVIT), but those new ways of working make Workplans more important than they ever have been. Process and scope are evolving with the changes in the way we work, and our workflow has to evolve along with it. So the more comprehensive your Workplan is, the better you can understand your needs and the better a studio manager and senior leadership will understand your goals.


The telltale signs of a good Workplan

Anyone can say they need three people for six months to complete a phase of work on a project.

If you can’t explain what those people are doing for all that time, then you don’t have a Workplan — you just have an account of how the project fees are going to be spent. That is a sure-fire way to lose profitability. Your plan needs to demonstrate that your project can achieve its goals and maximize its financial outcome based on the staff assigned and their roles on the project.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep it simple.

The more complex the Workplan gets, the more difficult it is to manage. And if something is hard to manage, people abandon it. It’s like that exercise bike that becomes a laundry-drying rack — we can have all the good intentions in the world, but if we’re not going to use it then it just becomes a reminder of what could have been.

The Workplan should be as flexible as the person managing it.

This notion also goes back to personal behaviour. People don’t like being told how to behave, and imposing a prescribed Workplan on someone is kind of the same thing. A Workplan should have some minimum requirements, not unlike the social norms we live with day by day. After that, however, the person managing the plan should be the one to set it up. Having a plan is what counts. Build it to the complexity level that works for you and doesn’t debilitate your ability to get your job done. After all, your job as a designer is to design, not to spend a good portion of your time managing an overly complex Workplan.

The Workplan should allow you to track your progress.

Tracking your Workplan as part of the monthly invoicing cycle is where the rubber meets the road. Earned value can be a complex concept to understand, but it’s crucial to maintaining your project’s success.

Simply, if what you have spent (the cost of your effort) is about equal to the actual work you planned to have completed at any point in the project, then you are basically on track. Earned value helps you see what you planned to spend versus the amount of time and effort you actually used at a predetermined point in the project (any point, really). It shows you the financial impact of your progress on your project. There are some complex tools available that can track Earned value, but if you think about it in simple terms you can see what you spent in time at the end of every month and compare it to what you intended to spend based on the progress of your schedule. The result shows you how you are doing financially.

Are you ahead of your spending target, or are you behind?

You can adjust your plan to get it back on target, but every change has an impact on your eventual financial outcome. We have a tendency to rob Peter to pay Paul (i.e. taking profit from one phase and move it to another that isn’t as healthy). It’s tempting, but it’s just moving numbers around, right? And it puts the profitability of the entire project at risk. Tracking earned value is important because it shows you how changes in scope have influenced your progress, how scheduling may have influenced your progress and whether staffing changes have affected the profitability of your project.

The Workplan is indispensable in times when your fee and reality aren’t in perfect alignment.

That’s why the Workplan is so important. In times when the fee is tight, that Workplan can become your best friend. Nurture that plan and refer to it liberally to ensure that members of your team understand their roles and deliverables very clearly. Clear roles and transparency will ensure that you stay on track.

Even if you are a superstar designer and get a fantastic fee without a Workplan, the likelihood that you will spend that fee is highly likely. It’s simply human nature. If you are that rare bird who negotiates a fee that far exceeds the effort necessary to complete the project, that’s great! It shouldn’t dissuade you from preparing a Workplan. If you are in the vast majority with the rest of us, then the fee is likely much more manageable with a Workplan than without it.

So think of your project like a garden.

If you take regular care of your workflow, then it takes less work to maintain. But if you let the weeds get out of control? Then you have a ton of work getting the garden back in shape.

The Workplan can help you manage invoicing.

The Workplan also allows you to create an invoicing schedule that can help you, your accounting team and your clients understand how you plan to manage the fee.

An invoicing schedule sets the expectations for payment so everyone involved knows what your intentions are. If it is derived from your Workplan, you can communicate your progress to the client with confidence and ease. Just remember to keep your invoicing schedule up to date if your project’s timeline changes. It’s also a good way for your accounting team to project workflow across the studio.

In simple terms your invoicing schedules for all your projects become your projections for the near future. When coupled with the full studio’s project invoicing schedules, it helps the studio resource manager and firm management understand what the studio’s commitments are.

Design is in the details. The Workplan is a design tool.

Design details make up the sum of the parts, and the result is a beautiful interior, building or product.

Without your attention to detail, the design wouldn’t be the best it can be. That’s why the Workplan, as a design tool, is so important to the process. Without it, your projects lack the rigor they need to be financially successful.

If you keep your Workplan up to date based on your progress (your earned value), then recognizing and planning for scope change becomes much easier. When there is a change in scope, just  add it to your Workplan. You can then see the impact on progress, update your tasks and schedule and evaluate the impact to your financial plan. You can keep your projections (and your invoicing schedule) up to date and keep the studio informed as to the change’s impact on the resources needed. The proactive nature of this approach makes it easier for you to communicate your needs to your studio resource manager quickly, effectively and in a timely manner.

The Workplan can help you see the future.

So go ahead and create that Workplan before you start the design process. See where it gets you.

If anything, it will give you the tools to see how your project affects your studio. If you keep your plan updated, it also gives you the tools to evaluate similar projects in the future. You can project fees based on your past performance and also see where you can improve your processes. As a post-project evaluation tool the Workplan is an excellent resource to see how effectively your planned your project and how it changed over the course of the overall project.

See? There’s no downside to a well created and well managed Workplan.

Not such an ugly cousin after all, is it?


To learn more about the mechanics of The Workplan you can get in touch with me via email herecall me at  416-500-0374 or you can ask your questions below.

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