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Galvanising small practice with a spread sheet

How a profitability spread sheet empowered staff and became an awareness strategy for better business

19 October 2017

A good spread sheet can be a powerful management tool, but can it be used to empower staff and introduce a new enterprise culture into a small practice at a stroke? Barbara Kaucky, the new chair of the RIBA’s Small Practice Group, has discovered that it can.

With the recent arrival of new staff members at erect architecture, and the memory of some challenging months post-Brexit referendum still fresh in her memory, practice director Kaucky decided it was time to start monitoring projects much more closely to ensure that at the very least they are breaking even.

erect architecture has found its spread sheet becoming the jumping off point for discussions on how the practice should move forward. Photo © erect architecture.

A practice spread sheet was developed with each project assigned a programme and fee. It can be analysed by work stages or as a monthly report and sets out how much time each staff member should be spending on a project. It can also be set up with different profit models, from break-even on upwards.

But instead of treating it as a director’s cost management tool, it was put on the office server for everyone to see and collaborate on, with staff members inputting their actual timesheets alongside the projections. It made the practice’s workflow completely open and transparent overnight.

‘Everyone can see exactly what is going on, it has become an awareness strategy for the whole practice,’ says Kaucky.

‘The original idea was to make people more responsible for and understanding of their own work, but the result has been empowering, giving everyone a new sense of control and enhancing their self-motivation.’

Although introduced only recently, the spread sheet is already providing the jumping-off point for regular office debates, both for project evaluations and client communications as well as more general discussions on how the practice is operating, staff training needs, and investment decisions.

Large practices will have workflow management systems, but small practices tend to restrict workflow monitoring to cash flow forecasts. Kaucky says her spread sheet was easy to put together and consists of information that every practice should know.

There are few secrets at erect architecture, as information is open to everyone to share. It obviously requires a transparent and collaborative approach to managing a practice and so may not be for everyone, but architecture studios do lend themselves to this way of working, Kaucky suggests.

She jokes that under the new regime, no-one gets paid until they have filled in the spread sheet. But it is clear that individual staff members have bought into spread sheet reporting, as they are happy to testify:

Tom King – ‘I was the one at a loss before I started using the profitability spread sheet. When Barbara told me about the spread sheet it changed the way I look at projects on a fundamental level, it felt like she was the profit prophet.’

Jack Hardy – ‘The profitability spread sheet helps me prioritise my workflow between projects, and keep a succinct approach to project tasks within the team. It also reminds me to keep to the RIBA stages and not produce work ahead of time when it hasn't been paid for.’

Nozomi Nakabayashi – ‘Having the profitability spread sheet gave me a real feeling about the finance and timeline of the project and put the everyday task into perspective. I feel more a part of the team and the collective destiny of the office.’

Ashleigh Watkins – ‘Before the profitability spread sheet I was responsible for running a number of projects at a loss and was gloomily left none the wiser as to how I could have done things better. Barbara’s creation has found me a new horizon, allowing me to spend my days sunbathing in profit.’

Sarah Ackland – ‘The spread sheet keeps momentum in the office and introduces a healthy competition to keeping your projects on budget and in line with what is expected at each stage.’

Thanks to Barbara Kaucky, director, and everyone at erect architecture.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a ‘Practice News’ post edited by the RIBA Practice team. The team would like to hear your feedback and ideas for Practice News:

Posted on 19 October 2017.

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