A/E Discovers the Mythical Man Month

Less staff but productivity rises? Programmers learned this a generation ago. Too bad it takes The Great Recession to wake up A/E.

A new survey claims architecture and engineering design firms (A/E) are simultaneously increasing productivity while reducing headcount. The survey doesn’t point to the reasons, but I think A/E is slowly starting to adopt progressive design & engineering technology.

A recent survey by The Zweig Letter demonstrated a pattern of A/E leaders cutting staff as means of reducing firm costs. Aravind Batra, principal with Long Beach, CA, engineering consulting firm PS2 Engineering Inc., said the company “cleared our dead wood a few months back without affecting our productivity.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. is now more productive than ever. Nonfarm business sector labor productivity increased at a 2.8% annual rate during the first quarter of 2010 with output rising 4% and hours rising 1.1%. I don’t find any pundits out there crowing about the residual effects of IT upgrades as part of the reason, but I think some smart Master’s candidates in economics or management should look into it.

The Zweig letter survey says architecture and engineering firm leaders have also realized that productivity has increased with fewer staff members. “Deep cuts are possible as remaining staff generally are able to produce more with less,” said Jeffrey Grau, a principal with the Sacramento architecture firm Rainforth-Grau Architects. “This is obviously because the best staff is retained.”

Edward “Jeb” Snider Jr., president of Manassas, VA, engineering consulting firm Rinker Design Associates, P.C., said he has always run a relatively lean business, but it’s leaner now. “Prior to the recession, we had 105 employees,” he says. “We found the need to cut 15 employees in March of 2008. We made a quick, decisive decision and ran with it. We never dropped a beat without those people. It made us realize we weren’t quite as lean as we thought.”

A/E Discovers the Principle Behind the Mythical Man Month
In 1975 software development manager Fred Brooks published a thin book that has become a bible to programmers. In “The Mythical Man Month” Brooks describers his experiences running projects at IBM, including the development of OS/360, a seminal mainframe programming language. His key theme is that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

It is too bad it takes a recession to teach firms in other industries the value of limiting creative staff to a fundamental core. It has long been my guiding philosophy that technology empowers the creative process in new and profound ways. Many professions have adopted the same way of thinking, but A/E has been a noted laggard.

To many people, it is a violation of common sense that you can lose productivity by adding workers to a creative project. But we are not building pyramids by hand anymore. I would like to see an independent study that compares the output of two well-trained users of Autodesk Revit Architecture or Nemetschek ALLPLAN or Bentley Architecture with the output of four or more well-trained AutoCAD users on the exact same project. I think the results would raise a few eyebrows.