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Structural Solutions: Managing Risk through Careful Planning

Douglas Fitzpatrick on April 3, 2016 - in Column

In my later years in the Boy Scouts, the senior leaders took us older scouts on a leadership-training obstacle course—the equivalent of some of today’s office teamwork outings. One particularly memorable obstacle had two telephone pole uprights about six feet apart, a low bar about four feet off the ground wrapped with barbed wire that hung to the ground, a high steel pipe about eight to nine feet off the ground, and a gym rope with a loop in one end.

You couldn’t go around. You couldn’t go under. You had to go over the low bar (it was too high to jump over), and you couldn’t touch any of the obstacle parts other than the rope. You had to get your entire group of eight scouts over the obstacle.

Someone quickly threw the loop of the rope over the top bar, put the loose end through the loop and pulled it tight. Now we had a rope that could act like a pendulum to swing people over, right? As we stood there for 10 minutes scratching our heads, it became obvious that solution wasn’t going to work, and we needed to start over.

I volunteered (I’m not sure why, because I wasn’t exactly the fittest of the bunch) to climb the rope and undo what we had done. The idea was to hang from the loop and slide back down to the ground as the loose end of the rope slides through the loop, with someone guiding my feet so they didn’t touch the lower bar. Unfortunately, we didn’t know much about friction at 12 years old. I shinnied up the rope, grabbed the loop, a buddy grabbed my feet … and nothing happened. The loose end didn’t start sliding through the loop. The first (logical?) thing that came to my buddy’s mind was to pull.

Of course, we know how this is going to end. As my hands got ripped from the loop, I remember looking down (in slow motion) at the low bar, thinking the barbed wire was going to do a pretty good number on my rear end. Just when I was about to land on the lower bar, the geometry of all the pulling and angles kicked in. My buddy fell over backwards, and I was pulled clear of the low bar but landed flat on my back. I came to with my buddies standing over me as I struggled to get my wind back.

Awareness of Risk

Risk management wasn’t on anyone’s mind that day, especially mine. But now that I’ve grown up and have my own firm, it’s on my mind all the time.

In previous columns, I looked at how technology has made our individual businesses better but left unfulfilled gaps between team members. The economy and shrinking fees have forced us to reduce services, but I identified some opportunities that involve BIM. I wrote about adding value and finding some way to improve your projects in a measurable way that helps you get more work by leveraging the strengths of your firm. The opportunities are there for the taking, but they most likely mean sharing design data in a meaningful way—not just 2D paper drawings—and that’s definitely risky.

In the January/February 2016 issue, I looked to the Wallenda family for some ideas: practice like you mean it. Practice as if each session is the real thing. For engineers, that can translate to modeling, especially since BIM has become such an important vehicle in our workflows. Model as if you’re always expecting to share good data, not just when the project requires it. And, of course, model accurately.

The good news is this new way of thinking and, more importantly, acting doesn’t have to happen overnight. It can, and should, be calculated, deliberate and incremental in its development. Careful planning is converted directly into less risk.

Identifying Efficiency

The first obvious place to start is with internal corporate processes. Work on getting everything in your office working efficiently. Minimize the amount of human intervention and manual handoff or recreation of data. Make it as electronic as possible.

Engineers like to think they don’t make mistakes, but they’re human after all. Whether you use spreadsheets, macros or custom programs written for specific tasks, let the “0s and 1s” do as much heavy lifting as possible. Computer modeling and analysis reduce mistakes and significantly help minimize risk.

Because design data have the most value, check the handoff of design data to BIM thoroughly. Test to make sure the transfer of data are as flawless as possible through the entire process. Identify what you’re able to transfer from analysis and design, and, perhaps as importantly, what you’re not able to transfer. Don’t let any software vendor’s marketing pitch lead you to think you have nothing to worry about, and they have it all under control. You must check it all yourself.

If you perform due diligence up front, the risk in sharing data drops significantly. Because this is all internal, you have plenty of control in determining the outcome. Don’t rush to a solution, like my scout buddies did, and have to suffer the consequences. Careful planning will go a long way toward managing the risk of sharing data, and you have some great information to share with the design team to add value to your projects.

About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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