Dearest Small & Medium AEC Firms: Restructuring for BIM (Now) Applies to You

To find success with BIM, firms need to look beyond the CAD processes that are comfortable to staff. Assessment, planning, and communication are key, but transformation is a do-or-die proposition for the long term

The transition into BIM is a foregone conclusion for A/E/C firms large and small. But once they make the decision to implement BIM, firms are left with new software and old processes; therefore, creating BIM processes is fundamental for successful transition.

CAD processes don’t require that architectural practices be good, but BIM processes do because without teamwork, communication, and defined processes, firms cannot realize the full benefits of BIM.

Firms that have found success using BIM have done so in large part due to creating and following clearly defined, rigorous, and robust processes. BIM project success requires much more than simply excelling at software. Getting the right work done at the right time with BIM requires a highly organized practice.

In an architectural team, each person has specific tasks and responsibilities. When everyone is performing their tasks, it’s smooth sailing toward project completion, but if one team member fails to deliver—say a designer doesn’t meet an important deadline—then the team can expect cascading negative and costly impacts.

A winning environment is created when thorough process plans are in place for each aspect of the team and timelines and responsibilities are clearly defined and followed. There are always outside forces acting against our plans, so flexibility is necessary, too, but with effective communication, active management, and coordinated efforts, the promise of BIM can be achieved.

Many of the workflows that have typically been employed for CAD are now considered inefficient. One that masks its own inefficiency is the throw-extra-staff-at-it workflow. That’s not a production failure; it’s a management failure. And if that approach is used on BIM projects, the inefficiency becomes a glaring indicator that effective management processes weren’t followed. Throwing extra staff at BIM production without the new team members understanding the project can be dicey; the result can be an enormous amount of time spent fixing avoidable mistakes. If there are struggles or failures on BIM projects, they need to be captured and used to benefit future projects, not simply hidden away and ignored.

There are potential pitfalls in BIM processes, as well. Modeling can be a hypnotic endeavor. Teams can find themselves meandering back and forth in the model, losing sight of the bigger picture such as schedules, time, and money. Rigorous processes can keep that problem in check.

Transitioning to BIM

How does a firm become successful at transforming its processes for BIM implementation? It must begin by being clear about what currently works and what doesn’t in the organization. Its leadership must be willing to embrace new ways of production, coordination, and presentation. The creation of project guidelines and systems that will help teams manage project objectives and overall firm goals is also necessary.

What to focus on is important, but doing so at the proper time is equally so. Change can come in many ways, such as allowing existing processes to evolve. For example, chasing CAD symbologies is not always recommended; rather, allowing an evolution of symbology in BIM is more desirable, especially since tags, keynotes, and such can be associated to actual building elements. This gives the project better data with less need for QA/QC compared to CAD. BIM output is another evolution that, while it can be distinct from the look of CAD in many ways, it can also be extraordinarily better, providing more informational and coordinational value. BIM can tell a better story than CAD. (The shape of a tag never made a firm any more money, but chasing the perfect shape certainly has cost many a firm.)

People will often say things like “You can’t do that in BIM.” While it is natural for humans to resist change, it’s a mindset that needs to be eradicated. Such roadblocks are simply excuses for people to remain on an inefficient yet comfortable path. The truth is that anything done in CAD can be done in BIM. Anyone who claims otherwise is simply unaware of how to do it or they are trying to stall the inevitable. Firms may need to learn new approaches for BIM, but that is what will enable growth of our industries and allow better projects to be built. BIM authoring tools work just fine. It’s mainly inexperience that creates problems and confusion.

The addiction to CAD is perhaps the single most difficult obstacle that BIM adopters will encounter when transitioning. If a full BIM transformation is to take place, then CAD addiction needs to be acknowledged and mitigated. The same kind of transition was necessary when firms and individuals hesitated to adopt CAD at the expense of hand drafting. But where are all the hand drafters today? They are either using CAD or they’re in other lines of work.

CAD may be around in many industries for a long time to come, but in A/E/C, CAD will be replaced by BIM. For many firms, it already has been.

Restructuring for BIM

We cannot effectively create a better future if we don’t understand the past and present. Assessment will give insight into what is necessary to change or refine during the transition and restructuring process. Assess the staff, existing systems and infrastructure, as well as project procedures. These assessments will be used as a baseline of the state of the firm, its capacity to absorb change, fiscal impacts, and staff mindset.

To assess personnel, create a 10-question interview that will be given to all staff and managers. Ask them what works in the current process, what doesn’t, who they think are the best teammates, how they like the infrastructure, who they feel may hold the process back, etc. Make the interview setting safe and confidential. The goal is to get honest input on the state of affairs, not to interrogate. These assessments will help you identify potential champions as well as gatekeepers by connecting actions to issues.

Since the goal is to restructure A/E/C processes for BIM, the next step is to assess and define objectives. This is the point to review current processes and map them out visually so the current approaches can be used to influence BIM approaches.

Providing an interactive, live assessment can be done in several ways. Digital tools such as traditional process maps or mind-mapping software can be used, although I suggest starting off by using index cards posted on a wall. Digital process maps can be created later on, but the storyboard approach adds benefits such as immediate collaboration that allows people to add all variety of documents, notes, and drawings. Include the entire staff in divining the process maps so expertise at all levels is included and every possible measure is addressed.

Set up the storyboards and refine the map until it addresses the entirety of the firm’s current processes. After each process is fully vetted, input it into a digital process map for use in later phases of restructuring and documenting.

Process maps will include all the steps taken to complete an A/E/C project in your firm, practice area, or team structure. Provide time to review these and color-code them for prioritization, distinguishing what works and where the pain points are.

The BIM process map can be started by using copies of some of the items from the current process map: colored strings can define critical paths, connections, etc., and those paths can be translated to the digital copies.

The BIM process plans will require different input than the CAD processes did. People who have extensive knowledge of both BIM production and project execution will be included, for example. The team that creates the new processes should incorporate all levels of project execution, including technical and managerial. If there is no one on staff with BIM leadership experience on the kinds of projects your firm produces, then get some. Not knowing what you do not know can create failure, so bring in staff or consultants if necessary to help you understand BIM processes.


A key to transformation is determining the goals then creating plans intended to accomplish those goals and completing the necessary actions in the plans.

Restructuring a practice to incorporate new processes requires many levels of buy-in and transformation. People will have varying degrees of willingness to change, and that needs to be figured into the restructuring plans. If staff openly agree that they want to be part of the firm’s success and the leadership publicly states that they want to better the firm by refining its processes for BIM, then it becomes natural for the staff to do what it takes to accomplish that goal—namely, following the plans that are being created. If there is no implicit, open, and public agreement between leadership and staff, then the restructuring itself may not be efficient and may speak to how future projects will run.

The public nature of these agreements can provide an environment of empowerment and self-oversight. Conversely, if people say they accept the plan yet don’t follow through on their agreement, then there is a need and an opportunity to deal with whatever issues are lingering.

If it comes to pass that there are any parts to the plan that have not been as scheduled, then these objectives need to be completed or, if found to be unnecessary, dropped from the plan. Either way, there is a mechanism for responsible and managed follow through.

A structured plan is necessary for success in anything, and BIM is no exception. An implementation plan is used to provide on-demand insight into where the project is at any moment and can be developed into a recipe for project performance. This plan should encompass the gamut of necessities from an overall strategic plan down to task lists. The plan should include infrastructure, staffing, training, implementation timelines, and fiscal plans—all of the whats, whens, and whos.

Successful BIM projects have team members with intimate knowledge of the design, production, and documentation processes used. By documenting the project execution tasks, the management can predict staffing needs and budget impacts proactively with more predictable results. Unplanned up-staffing can throw unnecessary trouble into the mix and should be avoided.

With the completed assessments directing an understanding of what to plan, a host of documentation can be created to explain what needs to be done, when, and by whom, as well as to provide management with tools to keep items from falling through the cracks. Good planning documents will enable prioritized workflows, tighter timelines, and overall project health since knowing what still needs to be done at any one time is critical.

BIM and IPD projects benefit from process maps and demand that granular plans be generated throughout the project lifecycle from preliminary submissions onward. The better we get at planning, the better our potential for success will be.

The AIA E203 and AIA E202 Building Information Modeling Protocol Exhibit are some of the great starting points for helpful, if not necessary, documents that BIM teams use. Similar types of matrixes can be used to create overall project checklists as well as team-specific plans. Creating a team toolset that uses task lists interlinked with project schedules offers even greater opportunities to manage projects and teams and to keep everything running smoothly.

Once the plan is in place, it is time to do. Implement the plan, making everything necessary for staff to understand what the goals are, then validate the plan for future repetition, and you’re on your way to restructuring from old processes to new. Built on good planning, teamwork, management, communication, and follow-through, a BIM process can realize successes for the entire A/E/C team.

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