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Structural Solutions: Picking Partners to Manage Risk

Douglas Fitzpatrick on May 31, 2016 - in Column

In the previous issue of Informed Infrastructure, I wrote about how sometimes things happen in our lives that help us do better and avoid trouble later in life. The scout-leadership training obstacle course I talked about did just that (see “Managing Risk through Careful Planning,” March/April 2016, page 14). A lack of planning by the scouts in my leadership group resulted in a poor outcome, at least for me, and ultimately poor risk management. At my firm, we try to leverage past experiences as we transform the way structural-steel shop drawings are created.

When it comes to risk management, careful planning is critical to having a successful outcome, particularly when sharing structural design data via something more than simple 2D drawings. For internal risk management, we looked to carefully plan and organize the processes in our own company. We made sure all the handoff points were thoroughly vetted, evaluated all the pinch points and carefully scrutinized everything to minimize internal risk.

Questions and Concerns

Now that may solve internal risk, but taking sharing to the next level means actually giving that information to someone. How can I manage our risk after we’ve handed all of that information to someone else? How do I know the recipient will use our data correctly, responsibly or as intended? How do I know they won’t change it and invalidate our design?

These are all excellent, and very legitimate, questions. As we embarked on our journey to develop a more-efficient way to deliver steel buildings, these questions certainly were forefront in our minds, along with a few more. Looking back, the questions and concerns fell into two main categories: 1) getting the information accurately to the receiving party and 2) wondering what happened to it after they received it.

Sharing Information

Getting information to the receiving party required as much research as our internal risk-management efforts. There are many old-school interoperability formats as well as new ones that have spawned from BIM—we looked at most of them. The goal was to find one format that maximized the amount of reliable data to be sent and received via one electronic-based file format. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the solution was not one of the newer BIM formats but rather an older format that has been around for quite some time.

We tested the export from several BIM authoring tools and the subsequent import into several detailing programs. Similar to the risk management we did for our own internal use, we made sure this transfer of data to someone else was just as robust and bulletproof as our own internal processes. We wanted the maximum amount of data to be reliably sent as well as received.

At this point, our risk-management profile was looking pretty good. We had excellent internal processes in place to minimize risk within our office, and we found an electronic solution to transfer data to someone else. Everything we had done had been in our control—internal management and transfer of data. All that was left was the scariest part: handing our data over to someone else.

Achieving Trust

For our firm, there were three main attributes we were looking for in our detailing partner: 1) technical skill, 2) personality for change and 3) trust (probably the most-important attribute).

Technical skill was an obvious first choice. We were trying to minimize risk for this process, so having a detailing partner with experience in the type of projects we design was important. But as we grew and took on new project types, they needed to be able to grow with us. They also needed to be using software that was compatible with the process we had developed and vetted.

Twenty years ago, we might have considered doing the steel-detailing portion inhouse, just figuring it out on our own. However, technology is changing so quickly these days, and the fabrication process has gotten so sophisticated, that we didn’t think “winging it” was a viable option.

Almost as critical as technical skill was the partner firm’s personality. We knew the road to a successful solution was not going to be a smooth ride. We needed a firm that understood there could be some hidden challenges. We needed to be convinced they would be willing to see it through to the end. Our tolerance for risk couldn’t be managed if our partner was going to bail on us when the first hiccup came along.

The final quality we expected from our partner was trust. We had to know they were looking out for us as much as we were looking out for them. We didn’t need someone to just do the shop drawings. We needed someone who was willing to offer input and help us navigate unforeseen challenges. We needed someone to be a true partner with us. We needed someone who would follow our process and help improve it where necessary. And we needed to know they wouldn’t change the design data we sent.

So there you have it: risk management in a nutshell. Complete three pieces of the puzzle—get your internal efficiencies in order, map a path for reliably transferring your data and pick a partner who shares your same tolerance for risk—and you’ll be on your way to adding value to your projects and significantly reducing your risk.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Preparation is key: a great lesson for all of us.

Douglas Fitzpatrick

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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