The strategic convergence of operations excellence and brand positioning has potential to make a firm thrive even in a recession.

Today’s economic conditions have led some business entities to seize the moment, turning the current context of challenges into opportunities. They are taking stock and strategically preparing to rise above their current market standing, perhaps even to leapfrog their competition. This strategy has enabled some organizations to move beyond mere survival and to thrive.

This strategy is a bold one. It takes no small amount of courage and vision to look beyond the considerable challenges of getting through each month, searching for new opportunities, and balancing a firm’s personnel and financial formulas. There is every reason to believe that the organizations that seize these challenging times as an opportunity to grow will lead the marketplace when an economic recovery gains momentum.

Here’s an example to illustrate this phenomenon. As many other restaurant chains experience significant downturns, cutbacks, and even closings, P.F. Chang China Bistro has recently realized modest profit growth. It’s done so by aligning its powerful brand with a focus on operational excellence, finding greater efficiencies, process improvements, and work flow economies. For example, the company has implemented a program to cross train the food preparation staff. That simple operational shift has brought greater versatility to the scheduling of prep cooks and line cooks and has reduced a segment of operational costs. It may seem a small tactic, but that change has kept the company from reducing prices to keep margins healthy. It’s an approach that is enabling P.F. Chang to avoid restaurant closings, minimize damage to its brand, and make a leap in market standing.

Granted, a restaurant chain is not a design firm, but there are relevant comparisons in terms of positioning an organization to seize opportunities and thrive during a downturn.

One approach is the opportunity embedded in the convergence of operations and brand. It’s the power that is generated when an organization is able to look simultaneously inward and outward — to find internal improvements in the way work is accomplished and external enhancements in the way the marketplace perceives and experiences the firm’s value. There’s every reason for design firms to consider seizing this sort of approach.

Such an exercise can uncover opportunities for greater efficiency, sharper clarity of purpose, and a more compelling presentation of value to clients.

A focus on operational excellence and brand positioning means creating strategic integration between these two business functions, a strong linkage between what happens in front of the curtain (presenting your firm to prospective clients) and behind the curtain (managing the functions that support the firm’s personnel and the processes that create product and service offerings).

What is it about this integration of operations and brand that yields such compelling potential for design firms? Let’s consider each one separately.

Operations Excellence

In many ways, the operations arena of a firm could not seem any more pedestrian or less glamorous. Behind-the-curtain functions of the firm — time tracking, accounting, technology systems and support, document security and storage, employee benefits and staff support, space and facilities use — appear to be a generation away from the things clients experience.

These and other functions are most often viewed simply as overhead, the cost of being in business, a necessary evil.

But operations is really about service. It is the array of functional support that serves the staff of a firm and ultimately serves its clients. Seeing operations as service acknowledges its valuable role and accents its potential for positive impact on a firm. It’s a matter of service to clients when your staff, for example, can track their time more efficiently and accurately. It’s a matter of service to clients that invoices are generated with clarity and precision. It’s a matter of service when technology systems offer maximum compatibility and reliability.

It’s tempting to think of these operational functions and so many others as secondary, back-room necessities. However, they offer significant potential to add value in your efforts to thrive.

Attentiveness to operational excellence can yield three distinct value points:

•    Ease. Operations excellence enables the unburdening of creativity. If the operations functions of a firm are easy to access and use, then greater energy and focus can be devoted to what really generates value — creativity, imagination, and innovation for clients. Enhanced internal operations lubricate the true nature of what a design firm does — envision and design.

•    Economy.
Operations excellence offers the potential to improve margins on work performed, and it offers the potential for presenting competitive fee proposals without sacrificing profitability. Imagine if your pricing could help you win a project but your margins on the work would be as good or better than that of your competition. It could not be more crucial in these times to leverage all the financial advantages you can, and operations excellence can be a significant source of those advantages.

•    Efficiency. Operations excellence has the potential of significantly increasing the speed at which a firm works both internally through project phases and externally in the final delivery of projects on time and on budget. Speed is not necessarily an enemy of creativity, and it is certainly an accelerant for economy and market success.

The final and most often overlooked element of operations excellence is the impact it can make externally, the effect it has on a clients’ experience of a firm. Greater ease, economy, and efficiency of operations are fundamentally good for the many ways you touch clients in the marketplace. For example, when the technology systems that are the backbone of your operations enable a client to quickly see more refined project ideas and changes in renderings, their impression of your firm’s responsiveness is enhanced. It’s a very real and forceful client experience of operational excellence.

Brand Positioning

The notion of brand has been beaten about so much of late that it can seem a tired concept. It may well be worn, but it’s no less true, and that’s why the focus on brand persists. In addition, the power of brand has been less than fully leveraged in the business-to-business market segment. Few organizations beyond the consumer arena have realized the potential of brand loyalty as a powerful, pulling force.

In the end, brand is one of the most powerful tools in business. Recall Peter Drucker’s remark that there are really only two critical business activities — innovation and marketing. Brand is perhaps the most powerful marketing tool at your disposal for positioning your firm for innovation, achieving a focus on Drucker’s two critical activities.

Enhancing your brand position, your standing and stature in the marketplace, is a decidedly worthwhile activity. In addition to the clarity and consistency it creates in presenting your firm, it yields three crucial success factors:

•    Differentiation.
Clients most frequently select a firm primarily based on the ways that firm distinguishes itself from its competition. In highly competitive markets, differentiation is more influential than ever, and enhancing your brand position has the greatest potential to support that differentiation. In the current market when competition for some projects is increasingly global, the impact of differentiation is even more significant.

•    Loyalty. The most successful brands build and maintain loyalty among an evolving customer base. Brand positioning is a key ingredient in establishing and strengthening loyalty among clients, which is also a powerful engine for generating repeat business. And loyalty can be contagious. As your brand consistently signals that you are a responsive, creative, and effective partner, a loyal base of customers will refer you to new potential clients.

•    Internal alignment.
In addition to being a powerful tool in the marketplace, brand is equally powerful as an organizing element in a firm’s internal management. A clear and strong brand position enables staff to understand the success measures of the business, the value delivered to clients, and the caliber of work to which they must aspire. A strategic and compelling statement of brand helps staff become a firm’s best ambassadors. Finally, a strong brand position is a crucial ingredient in growing your firm’s reach, particularly in recruiting new talent: The best and the brightest are drawn to strong brands.

As you can readily see, this final success factor that emerges from brand enhancement loops back to the more internal focus of operations excellence. This circular integration of operations excellence and strategic brand positioning is the source of the significant opportunity in a simultaneous convergence of these focal points in your firm — operations and brand.

Convergence of Operations and Brand

What does this simultaneous convergence look like? How does it work?

Generally, a focus on both operations excellence and brand positioning is structured around a three-pronged approach.

•    Audit. This phase is a careful audit and analysis behind and in front of the curtain. How are the elements of operations working? Which need attention and why? Which areas would yield the greatest return on an investment in excellence? A thorough analysis of this discovery process can uncover valuable insights. Simultaneously, this phase takes a careful look in front of the curtain, a look outward into the marketplace to assess the perceptions of your brand, its stature, its key attributes, and its potential for differentiation. This market analysis includes a survey of competitive firms and factors in your market, all set against the backdrop of the validated essence of your firm’s brand. Such a dual-focus audit is a pivotal first step in integrating a focus on operations and brand.

•    Alignment. This phase includes the organization and articulation of all the knowledge generated in the audit phase and then creates a method for the leaders and staff of the firm to edit, endorse, and align around the findings of the audit phase. Typically, a great deal of organizational insight emerges from this phase as leaders and staff come to new understandings of how the firm operates and how it is positioned in the marketplace. It is crucial that the entire firm understands and supports the overall strategic direction that arises from the jointly focused examination of operational excellence and brand positioning, and it is equally important that this alignment happens early in the process.

•    Application. This final phase ensures that this simultaneous focus on operations and brand does not become a mere academic exercise. The insights and knowledge generated by the first two phases must be crafted into actionable plans with a clear time table. Much of the value of this exercise will be lost if there are not concrete steps outlined to be taken to improve operations and enhance brand position. The final piece of the application effort is to develop and implement a measurement system, enabling the firm to have in place an ongoing barometer of operations and brand.

Many firms benefit from outside facilitation and guidance in integrating operations excellence efforts with the enhanced strategic brand positioning. An outside consultant can bring expertise, time resources, and perspective that may not be present within a firm.

In the end, your firm has the opportunity to emerge from the challenges of today with strength and vision rooted in this simultaneous and integrated approach to operational excellence and brand position.

Doug Parker is a consulting principal with the Greenway Group and the chief operating officer of DesignWorkshop, a landscape architecture and urban design firm. He is the author of several tools, articles, and processes that bridge communications, provide role clarity, and leverage the value of design throughout project delivery. He has consulted with building product manufacturers and worked with Fortune 500 companies as well as with architecture and design firms. He has a Master of Architecture degree from Montana State University.

Bill Wittland is a consulting principal with the Greenway Group and president of Vox Strategic, a marketing and communications consultancy. He has more than 20 years’ experience in the field of communications, marketing, and design. Wittland’s involvement with clients includes strategic consulting, brand development, communications planning, market intelligence gathering, naming, writing and concepting, process design and facilitation, and market planning and development.  Wittland and Parker have developed Greenway | Tango, a customized engagement that enables design firms to enhance operations excellence and brand positioning simultaneously.