What Exactly IS the “Autopsy” of a Project? (What Would Lu Do?)
On the show, I talk a lot about the autopsy of a project.
The autopsy is essentially a review of the project after it’s done. It’s when you take a step back and look at everything—the entire process of the project from start to finish.
You take note of what went well, what didn’t go so well, and, most importantly, what you can learn from the project.
I’ve had many discussions with designers and professionals who have some sort of autopsy method in place—a process for learning from a project after it’s done.
But I recently had a listener reach out looking for specifics on what the autopsy means to me and how I think designers and window treatment professionals can execute it.
Why the Autopsy Matters
If you’ve heard me talk about the autopsy, you know that I think it’s very important. In fact, it has three main objectives.
Main Objectives of the Autopsy: To learn what we do well, to learn what we need to improve on, and to learn what kind of projects make us the most money.
Sounds simple enough, right? It isn’t a complicated business trick. But it is important.
If you don’t conduct autopsies on your projects, you can spend years never growing or improving, years chasing your tail trying to make money and wondering why you aren’t.
You have to commit to sitting down and doing it. It’s a simple process that can and will pay off in your business.
How to Conduct the Autopsy
Now that we know the “why,” let’s talk about the how. What needs to be reviewed in the autopsy?
There isn’t one right or wrong answer. In fact, I think many business owners go about the process slightly differently. But there are some common denominators that must be examined in order to make the autopsy worthwhile.
The Gross Dollar Amount of the Project
This one is fairly obvious. If you want to know if you made money off the project, you have to look at the money itself.
At Window Works, we record the gross dollar amount in our sales logs and our CRM. During the autopsy, we look back at that amount.
The Marketing Source
Another important factor to note is how the project came to you. Was it a referral? A returning customer? Did the client find you from an ad?
Knowing how projects are coming your way is very important to your profitability. You need to know if your marketing campaigns are successful, and you need to know how the best projects and clients are coming your way.
We record this information on the customer’s invoice and our CRM. We also take the time to look back and make sure we sent a note of thanks for all referrals.
Net Cost of Goods on the Project
As we all know, there’s more to profitability than the actual payment we receive. You also have to note what you’re spending on the project.
Take note of all the costs of goods—the fabric, trim, lighting, furniture, tile, wallpaper—all of it.
You also need to record any costs that come with mistakes. For example, if I mismeasure my blinds and order the wrong window treatment the first time, I need to add the cost of that mistake in. (That also helps me keep track of what mistakes are costing the most and where we’re making them.)
All of the costs of goods go into our CRM along with the other data.
Check it Over With Your Staff
It isn’t enough to review a completed project yourself. I always review the project with installers, sales reps, and the office admin team.
Not only does this help ensure accuracy, but it also helps me uncover the “I didn’t know what I didn’t know” category of mistakes.
As our businesses grow and our teams expand, we’re going to have some of those mistakes—things that come up simply because we haven’t seen the scenario yet.
If it sounds overwhelming to review this with your team, it doesn’t have to be. Build it into your week.
At our weekly Monday team meetings, we make it a habit to go through all of the installs from the previous week, along with feedback from the installers. We talk each one through as a team.
We all grow from that information, and we’re all able to see where mistakes are being made and how to avoid problems in the future.
It also gives us an opportunity to pick the brains of everyone that touched the project and determine if there were areas we can improve on for next time.
At the root of it, we are asking: Do we know everything? Do we have all the information? Is there any stone unturned? Can we do better by this client?
Whether to Market to the Client
Another note you don’t want to overlook in the autopsy is the relationship and connection you had to the client. We mark each client in our CRM as ‘market to,’ ‘don’t market to,’ and ‘request a review.’
There are times when you don’t want to market to a client. Sometimes, that’s situational. For example, if I have a designer trade client, I don’t turn around and market to them.
But sometimes, it’s purely based on the relationship and rapport. Let’s be honest here…we all have client experiences we don’t care to repeat.
Don’t rely on yourself to just remember that. Record it, mark it down— we don’t want to work with this client again.
If all systems are a go and the project went smoothly, and there’s no other reason why we wouldn’t market to them, we reach out, thank the client, and ask for a review.
On that note, don’t ask for a public review if you know the project didn’t go well. Just make a note of it and move on. Not every project will be a win, and that’s okay.
What You Learned
Once you record the numbers and the results, it’s time to start looking at the project more conceptually. What did you learn from the project?
Some of that comes down to numbers. Are your gross margins where they need to be in order to sustain your business? Do you make more money on some products than others? Can you sell more of these products? How would you encourage that?
But some of it is more abstract. Think about staff interactions. Are there noticeable patterns, good or bad, with your sales team, with your install team, with any employee in particular?
For example, does one sales rep have many more pricing mistakes, measuring mistakes? Does one installer have more call-back installs? Does one installer have consistently better reviews than others?
As the owner, do you need to take any actions? Do you need to sit with your sales or design team? Do you need to address any training issues? Do you need to do some ride alongs?
Next, review the marketing and what you learned from it. Are the dollars and time you are investing in marketing producing results? Do you need to lean into some places more, pull back in others?
Are you spending money in areas that are not producing results or just not producing enough results to justify the expenditure?
Also, think about the project itself— the geographic area, client demographic, product mix, and client type. You’ll use this information to evaluate the kinds of projects you are doing.
Maybe you love doing bathroom renovations but by doing the autopsy you learn that these do not make you nearly the same margin as design and décor jobs. With this info, you either change the pricing or you start to say no to those projects.
The Autopsy from the Perspective of a Designer
In this particular post, I laid out my own process, which means it comes from the perspective of window treatment professionals.
In all honesty, it’s probably easier for us to complete these autopsies than it is for full-service interior designers.
The larger the scale of the project, the more complicated the autopsy will be. When you’re juggling months and hours and complexities it can get overwhelming.
However, I think it is essential for designers to do an autopsy.
Even though it’s more complicated (the more moving parts, the more things can get lost in the shuffle) it’s crucial that you take a deep look at projects and determine what’s going right and what type of projects are the most profitable.
In fact, every business owner—photographers, web developers, architects, bloggers—all need to review projects for profitability, deficiencies, processes, and client satisfaction. It’s always important.
Adapting the Autopsy for Design
If you are a designer, there are some adaptations to the autopsy project that you might consider.
Digging Deep with the Trade
Set up debriefs with your key trades—especially at the completion of larger size projects.
Just like we get the feedback from our installers, you can ask your general contractor or the builder, the window treatment professional, the electrician, and the plumber.
Find out their perspective on what went well, what helped them do their job efficiently, and what else you could have done better.
Ask if there are ways to improve communication between your two companies, the workflow schedules, or the experience of working with your firm in general.
I often think that if designers would ask us these questions, they could gain so much valuable information.
Trusted, respected trade professionals have a gold mine of suggestions if only you are willing to ask.
In all my years of business, I have only ever had one design principal in all my years in business ask me: Is there anything we can do on our end to create efficiencies between our companies that maybe I have not considered?
No surprise, that one designer was Sandra Funk of House of Funk. She’s always looking for improvements in her processes, and she uncovers areas of improvement by actually seeking the information out.
If you are doing the autopsy correctly, you should be uncovering areas of improvement. Just don’t be afraid to dig deep.
For example, if during the review of the project you learn that the tile was not delivered to the job site on time, take it further. Why wasn’t it on time? Was it back-ordered, or was it not ordered, or was there a mistake? Was the mistake with the tile company, or do you discover that this is the tenth time that a junior designer has not closed the loop on a detail with a trade?
You see, if you are not examining everything, you sometimes don’t learn everything. You only learn what gets caught, not what could have been avoided.
Digging Deep with Clients
The other aspect of the autopsy you need to adapt as a design firm is to ask your client how you did, in a personal, meaningful way.
As a window treatment professional, I might just ask for a review. But as a designer, your relationship is more long-standing and needs to be handled more delicately.
One of the things she did was take her client to lunch or dinner and invite them to share with her what they liked, what they didn’t like, and any suggestions for improvement.
That initiative goes a long way in building trust, and it also gives you the chance to hear valuable feedback you might otherwise never hear.
As a designer, your job is hard. You have so many moving parts, so many details, and so many steps in what you do.
But if you can build an outstanding client experience, have strong mutually respectful relationships with your trades, and make a sustainable, healthy profit and living for yourself, you’re doing something admirable.
Growth and learning and excellence come from reviewing what you do, how you do it, and who you do it for.
We need to take the time to evaluate, not just keep barreling forward. The autopsy is about finding that the engine needs oil or the brakes need to be replaced before the engine seizes or the brakes give out.
Be proactive, be informed, be the smart, knowledgeable steward of your company.
Evaluate, learn, change, improve, make a profit. If you develop an autopsy process that addresses and accomplishes these things, you’ll be doing just fine.