The Agile Architect: Using Kanban to Streamline AEC Project Management

Project managers in architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC), know the importance of managing projects effectively and efficiently. They are always looking for ways to streamline workflow and improve communication between team members and clients. As an inherently iterative process architectural and engineering design is well-suited for agile Kanban-style project management. 

Kanban is a structured, open management framework where work is divided into tasks visually represented on a cloud-based dashboard. Agile-based project management improves results continuously and incrementally and informs the client and design team of the status and results. Kanban originated from the manufacturing industry and has been adopted by various disciplines due to its flexibility and effectiveness in managing workflows. It offers several unique features that provide benefits for managing complex, multi-discipline, multi-phase projects — typical for AEC project management.

Implementing Kanban for AEC project management involves breaking down the project into distinct disciplines and phases. The visual Kanban board includes columns showing Backlog, To Do, In Progress, Ready to Review (QA/QC), and Done.” Each phase’s interdisciplinary tasks are cataloged on a unique checklist-based Card, representing the tasks associated with each discipline in each phase of the project. 

Each discipline’s card (and associated task list) is linked to the master Project card to give the project manager and team a simple and intuitive visual status dashboard. The project card shows Principal-in-Charge, team members, scope summary, project size, phase schedule, budget, priority, and focus. Icon-based “tokens” are used as visual clues to make navigation more intuitive.

sample board for AEC technology project management

By adopting an agile Kanban-based process, teams adapt and respond better to change, are more productive, identify and prioritize high-impact activities, and deliver demonstrable ROI. 

The Challenge with Gantt

Traditional waterfall (i.e., Gantt charts) project management tools, while popular, limit efficiencies by their inherent rigidity — a linear and structured nature. Because Gantt is timeline based, the impact of phase/task assignments is diminished and often overlooked. Any changes to requirements or design leads to delays and additional costs. Interprofessional (i.e., supporting engineers and consultants) siloed work plans often result in a lack of communication and collaboration among team members. The sequential nature of a waterfall approach means that delays in one phase have a cascading effect on subsequent phases, pushing out deadlines and increasing costs. 

Adopting a Kanban approach to inter-disciplinary project management, such as AEC project management, requires change. Change management starts with building an agile mindset throughout the organization, launching a pilot Kanban-based process, monitoring progress and results to inform future teams, and creating a plan for taking the organization agile.

Advantages of Kanban

Kanban offers several advantages compared to traditional Gantt-based waterfall-style project management methods:

  1. Flexibility: Kanban is a more adaptable method as it allows for changes and adjustments throughout the project without causing major disruptions.
  2. Visibility and transparency: Kanban boards provide a visual representation of the project’s progress, making it easy for team members and stakeholders to see the status of tasks and understand potential bottlenecks.
  3. Improved collaboration: The Kanban board encourages collaboration by allowing team members to see the work being done across all disciplines and phases. This shared understanding helps break down silos, leading to better coordination and decision-making.
  4. Continuous improvement: The Kanban mindset encourages teams to regularly review their processes and identify areas for optimization.
  5. Reduced overload: By setting work-in-progress (WIP) limits, Kanban helps prevent team members from being overwhelmed with tasks, leading to higher productivity, increased focus, and better-quality work.
  6. Faster response to changes: Kanban’s iterative approach allows teams to quickly adapt to changes or new requirements, ensuring the project remains relevant and on track.
  7. Early identification of bottlenecks: The visual nature of the Kanban board makes it easy to identify bottlenecks or potential issues in the project workflow. This early detection helps prevent delays and improve overall project efficiency.

The Use Case at Clark & Enersen

As the Director of Digital Experience Design at Clark & Enersen, I lead the team responsible for integrating low-voltage technology systems (audiovisual, information technology, telecommunications, and electronic security systems) in support of our projects for our workplace, education, government, and healthcare clients. 

Our holistic practice includes almost all disciplines needed to support their client’s development of integrated design, including architecture, interior design, MEP engineering, civil and structural engineering, and landscape architecture, that serve clients across the country from multiple locations. As the latest discipline to join their firm, I faced the challenge of integrating technology planning and design into well-established workflow processes that did not always follow structured project management programs. 

I became interested in Kanban several years ago while reading Scott Brinker’s Hacking Marketing, while researching new methods to manage marketing programs at my previous firm. I saw an opportunity to explore using Kanban tools for our technology design team as a case study that could inform the firm’s workflow process improvement initiatives. 

We identified the typical project tasks, where we need client or inter-discipline input, and set work level expectations based on various project scales and schedules. We evaluated several Kanban platforms and ultimately settled on Kanban Zone for its simplicity, flexibility, and support. 

We built a Kanban project template for inter-disciplinary input (design tasks and deliverables) across each of the typical design phases. We added task checklists, estimated time effort, and tied those to the project’s deliverable schedule. We populated the typical board columns — Backlog, To Do, In Progress, and Done, adding a new Review (QA/QC) column for internal check sets. 

We review all active project board in a 30-minute “stand up” meeting every Friday. Based on feedback from the team, we quickly review status, identify any resource needs, and adjust schedules, and add “Backlog” cards, or move them into the “To Do” column, as appropriate. This allows the team to pull tasks forward as previous tasks reach the “Review” stage and ultimately, the “Done” column. A subtle, but positive reinforcement feature is the “confetti screen” that pops up when a card is moved to Done. We are currently managing over 30 active projects, and that number grows weekly.

We also created two Portfolio summary boards linked to all the project boards to provide more global views — one that displays all projects by project phase and one that shows each project in its respective market sector. We added two additional columns to those boards to include internal operational projects (committees and taskforces) and pre-project marketing and business development support efforts. These boards are shared with the management and marketing leadership to show current assignments and staffing workloads. This allows to project workloads and justify hiring requests.

Putting Kanban to Work

These examples show the benefits to using this Kanban approach in real-world AEC project management:

  • Improved communication and collaboration: In a project for a new interprofessional medical education building, the integration of low-voltage systems required close collaboration between the architecture, engineering, and technology design teams. By using a Kanban board, team members could easily track progress, identify bottlenecks, and resolve issues quickly. This improved communication and collaboration helped the project team deliver the project on time and within budget, exceeding the client’s expectations.
  • Flexibility in adapting to changes: In a project for a regional bank’s headquarters, the client requested a change in the scope of work midway through the project. Using Kanban, the project team was able to easily adapt to the new requirements, adjusting workflow and priorities to ensure the project’s successful completion.
  • Reduced overload and improved quality: In a research lab project for a large university, the technology design team was juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, resulting in reduced productivity and quality. By using Kanban and setting work-in-progress (WIP) limits, the team focused on completing tasks before starting new ones, leading to better quality work and improved productivity.
  • Increased efficiency and timely delivery: In a project for a major renovation at a community college, the architecture and engineering design teams were working under a tight deadline. By using Kanban and optimizing their workflows, the technology team was able jump in and coordinate requirements faster and deliver the project on time, without compromising quality.

By implementing a structured, cloud-based visual Kanban project management approach, teams improve communication, collaboration, and overall project outcomes in our architectural and engineering design projects. 

The transparency, flexibility, and focus on continuous improvement that using Kanban provides has led to better project outcomes and a stronger client-design team relationship. The added Kanban Zone features of different views of the datasets (i.e., list, summary, table, and calendar) make it easy to cross-check one project against the needs of all projects in the queue.

Using a digital tool like Kanban Zone simplifies the implementation process and offers additional features like customization, collaboration, analytics, and scalability. By leveraging Kanban, architectural and engineering design teams can optimize their workflows, deliver projects on time and within budget, and exceed client expectations.

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Benefits to the Project

Implementing Kanban in a multi-discipline, multi-phase architectural engineering design project offers several benefits for the design team and the client, including enhanced visibility and transparency, improved communication, faster response to changes, reduced risks and delays, better quality deliverables, increased efficiency, timely delivery, and increased client involvement. 

Using a digital tool like Kanban in AEC project management further enhances the benefits of this approach, with features like customizable boards, collaboration, advanced filters and search, time tracking and analytics, integrations, and scalability.

Transparent Collaboration

The visual nature of the Kanban board provides enhanced visibility, transparency, and collaboration, while the focus on continuous improvement leads to increased efficiency and better-quality work. While implementing a new system like Kanban presents challenges — “the work doesn’t stop” — investing in training, ongoing support, and communication helps overcome them. As we move forward, we plan to expand the use of Kanban into other disciplines in the firm. 

As an agile-based project management approach, Kanban is well-suited to the AEC industry and the inherent iterative nature of architecture and engineering design. By embracing Kanban, teams improve their workflow processes and provide better service to clients, ultimately leading to more successful project outcomes.

This was a guest blog. Please review our guest blog disclaimer.

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About the Author: Craig Park

Craig Park
Craig Park is Director of Digital Experience Design and an Associate Principal, with national architectural and engineering practice, Clark & Enersen. Craig has worked in the AEC industry for over 40 years and is a Fellow of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) and an Associate member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). You can connect with Craig on LinkedIn.

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