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ReEngineering the Engineer: Seeking ‘Five Reasons’ for Problems

Douglas Fitzpatrick on April 28, 2022 - in Articles, Column

One of our integrated project delivery (IPD) projects finished at the end of 2021. It survived a COVID-19 shutdown, reduced productivity due to restrictions of personnel onsite, cost increases and material-procurement challenges. Everyone was looking forward to getting this one over the finish line.

The project included some health-care-related components and required some final inspections by a governing authority. Through several months, the owner had planned grand-opening activities right on the heels of inspection approvals. Inspections would happen the second week of December, the holidays would pass, and the owner could hit the ground running beginning in January.

The inspection was scheduled to take most of a day. However, after only an hour or two, the inspector terminated his inspection due to a recurring theme of failing items. He left his partial list of failures and told the team to call him when the issues were remedied. To make matters worse, the inspection team takes the entire two weeks off between Christmas and New Year’s Day. That left a little more than one week to get things fixed and get the inspector rescheduled, which is difficult in the first place.

The team recognized the severity of the predicament. They were able to reschedule the inspection for a week later, but everything had to be perfect. If not, it would be well into January before they could come back out, and the owner’s plans would be jeopardized. You can imagine the effort by everyone to get this all correct the next time.

There were inspections, inspections on inspections, inspections by third-party consultants, inspections by the first crew a second time, defect-tracking spreadsheets and team meetings every morning at 7 a.m. until the work was finalized. In the end, the governing authority approved the project on their next inspection. It wasn’t lost on anyone that there was added cost and a significant amount of unnecessary stress.

Take Time to Troubleshoot

After the smoke cleared, the general contractor (GC) invited the team to participate in a troubleshooting session—some honest self-reflection—on why things went sideways on this inspection. They distributed a template they use internally that promotes a deeper understanding of the reasons something didn’t go well. The goal is to develop five reasons for the cause of an issue and ultimately develop better processes.

None of the items we discussed were life-threatening per se, nothing like negligent designs. However, there were some common themes. They were the types of things that keep me up at night, especially given the frenetic pace we’ve all been asked to work these last few months.

Three take-away items stood out to me:

1. Sequencing of work. Several areas had been “completed,” and then another trade came in behind them to finish their work, damaging the first.

2. Training. Some of the folks doing the work hadn’t been properly instructed on how to perform their task.

3. Accountability. There wasn’t one experienced person who was responsible for the “big picture.”

Unfortunately, I think we engineers can relate to all of these challenges.

Our design work is complicated, and almost every aspect of it affects life and safety. So we look for the logical linear approach to sequencing the design of our buildings: do this first, then this, then that, with no changes. We all know that’s not possible. Things are going to change after folks have some time to think about it. And it’s not always our design partners; we can be just as guilty.

We need to find our way—our individual process—to try to keep design work as linear as we can so we get everything covered, but it’s difficult. For me, I keep a pad of paper handy to jot down things that pop into my head or come from the interrupting phone call that changes something I’m not working on. That helps me 1) capture it quickly and 2) not interrupt my current train of thought. After I get to a stopping place, I can revisit the list.

Know Why

Training (or education) is, and should be, an ongoing activity for all of us. One thing I’ve noticed with young engineers, in particular, is they’re anxious to learn the “how.” They want to hone that “how” skill so they’re efficient and feel like they’re contributing. That’s a good thing.

However, if we fail to arm them with the “why” we do something, we’re missing an opportunity to give them real knowledge. Explaining the “why” helps them recognize when their “how” doesn’t apply anymore, and it’s time to regroup. If you’re explaining a “how,” be sure to give the “why.” If you’re learning a “how,” be sure to get the “why.”

Finally, having one person accountable for our designs is baked into our profession. You need experience doing design work for at least four years before you’re even considered for getting your P.E. license. That’s why they call it “responsible charge.” But we have to find the time to look over our projects and make sure they’re complete.

Going back to add fire caulk around a sleeved penetration isn’t that big a deal, but trying to recover from an injury due to your design is a very different problem. Keeping these three ideas in mind will help ensure we have good processes in place to produce thorough designs and avoid the failed inspection.

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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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