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ReEngineering the Engineer: Reasonable Resolutions That Can Last All Year

Douglas Fitzpatrick on March 12, 2018 - in Articles, Column

Historically, I try to use the holiday break as a chance to regroup, reflect on the last year and get prepared to do it all over again for the next 12 months. This year, however, was an unrelenting race right to the bitter end. “Sleeping” projects came back to life at the last minute, and projects in design scrambled to get finished before everyone headed off for the holidays.

Of course, as soon as the Christmas holiday is over, attention turns to the consummate generation of empty promises for the New Year: resolutions. I’ve never been much of a “New Year’s resolution” guy. My take has always been that if you think something needs to change, just do it, whenever. Why suffer through most of a year of pain, when you can make the change midstream and have a better [pick your noun] for the rest of the year?

In this time of immediate gratification, it seems like changing things up when the spirit moves you would be the preferred thing to do. Nonetheless, New Year’s resolutions still get a lot of attention.

So I decided to focus my downtime on digesting the last 12 months. Were there any processes that needed to be improved in our office? Is morale in good shape? Are clients happy? Are there any new opportunities for the New Year that we’re reasonably positioned to leverage? Are there any general trends in our business that require attention?

A Concerning Trend

Schedules have always been paramount for our projects, but the trend during the last few years, particularly since the economy picked up, has escalated the “need for speed” to a point that doesn’t feel sustainable. For the last few months, in particular, most of our clients seem to be in the same boat. Everyone is desperately trying to juggle all their projects and push each one a little further down the road—closer to deadlines and with limited resources.

In my previous column, “Making Way for the Future” (Informed Infrastructure, November/December 2017), I postulated that there’s a large vacuum in midlevel engineers (and architects) due to the Great Recession, yet we now all need project managers to lead our work. So the “Peter Principle” kicks in, and our budding talent gets pushed into project management possibly sooner than ideal. Sometimes throwing folks into the fire is a good teaching practice, but when our work involves the lives of the general public, perhaps that’s not such a good idea.

I had the unfortunate task of meeting with one of our architects the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day to discuss two of our projects. No issues were life threatening, but he was going to have to explain some unnecessary and larger-than-you’d-like change orders to the client. It was somewhat comforting to know we weren’t alone, but it’s a little embarrassing to know our office contributed to the problem.

Communication Issues

When CAD first became popular, I noticed everyone started to “throw their drawings over the fence” and let everyone else hunt for the needle in the haystack: finding what had changed. That was bad enough when it was 2D. Now that hunt is carried out in the 3D world, and the level of difficulty in finding what’s changed feels multiple times more difficult.

The flow of information has become less reliable. Sometimes the person managing a project doesn’t know what information needs to be conveyed, to whom and how fast. One recent issue revolved around very late civil drawings, resulting in footings being out of the ground—fortunately caught before they were built. Another was related to structural revisions not being issued to the contractor, and the steel shop drawings had to be reworked a significant amount. It doesn’t matter where the fault was; information wasn’t flowing.

And although there may be a lot of drawings in a set, sometimes that information is functionally useless, such as vast building sections at small scales, smaller sections with only slightly more detail than the model itself or sections that aren’t generated for areas that really need them. These problems don’t happen on all of our projects, but it feels like there’s an ugly trend in the works.

Finally … The Resolutions

• We can’t do everyone else’s work for them, but we can make sure we’re asking (with appropriate pressure) for the information we need to properly coordinate our projects.

• We can’t assume someone else has accurately represented the other trades in their work—even when they’re supposed to.

• Add a simple extra sentence to the email that sends updated drawings to make sure they forward the update on immediately.

• Study the drawings you get, as the designer on the other end may not have seen all the challenges and problems.

• Ask someone else in your office to help identify areas that are unclear, particularly if you’re a young engineer.

Doing a few extra little things now to help your projects could make 2018 an even better year than 2017.

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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