Geomechanical Musings

Classic art for a classic management problem

2019 started strongly here at Atlas Geotechnical, but almost immediately we found ourselves overwhelmed re-working problems that we thought we had solved. And that re-work distracted us from other commitments, to the point where we nearly landed on one of our project’s critical paths. And of course when we’re working faster than we should small details don’t get checked, like the PE expiration date on a permit drawing, causing more re-work. As soon as we frantically cut off one head, another grows in its place and the project continues to disrupt our workflow. Rinse and repeat. The past 4 weeks have been tough.

It’s increasingly obvious that the problem is not a phase. We’ll never just “get through this;” our workflow is not going to smooth itself out. Something that we are doing, or not doing, in how we approach these fast-paced, complicated problems is preventing solved issues from staying solved. We need to conduct ourselves differently if we want to achieve better outcomes.

Atlas takes on complicated projects. It’s unavoidable that we start our work while data are being collected, and sometimes it’s unavoidable that our partially-complete engineering needs to be set aside in favor of new strategies. Sometimes. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, not always. I’ve noticed that almost all of our frustrating projects never had a credible plan to begin with. We’re re-designing because the initial concept was not fully planned out. “Ready, fire, aim” is not the way to solve complicated problems.

Better, more thorough up-front planning is how we’re going to improve subsequent engineering so that solved issues stay solved, so that the cut-off heads stop growing back and fighting us while we’re trying to do other work.

The oil-and-gas industry, who build some of the most complicated infrastructure in the world, uses an explicit engineering process called Front End Engineering Design (FEED). We’ve participated in a few FEED studies and have seen how investing in up-front planning yields overall cost and schedule savings. Researchers at Delft Technical University wrote up a really excellent overview:

https://repository.tudelft.nl/islandora/object/uuid%3A020b04bf-5ddf-44b7-acf7-2141be505afa

So, we’re going to make an effort to adapt FEED practices to our more interesting projects.

  • We’ll assign ourselves more responsibility in the up-front work.
  • We’re going to exert more leadership over conceptual designs and means-and-methods choices.
  • We’ll host charettes, brainstorming sessions that include the full spectrum of stakeholders and subject matter experts.
  • We’re going to identify the likely problems before our customers order materials and mobilize equipment.

And if we’re successful, our first-try engineering solutions are going to stick and our fallback positions are going to deploy smoothly. We’re going to make a proper plan for killing the hydra all at once so we can stop frantically hacking at solutions during construction.

Look for an update in July for how things are turning out.

The last work week of the year is traditionally given over to strategic thinking. Essentially the workplace version of New Year’s Resolutions, it seems unavoidable that we spend this last week of the year contemplating our choices and planning improvements. Atlas Geotechnical is strongly committed to strategic thinking. Fully acknowledging that this is the most meta of all possible topics, here is our strategy for developing our 2019 strategy.

Three coincidental events prompted this thinking: reflecting on 2018 goals, a collaborator’s success, and feedback from a new friend.

  1.  Reflecting on 2018 Goals: One of our promising young engineers had a fantastic year of professional and personal growth. She performed new tasks that many engineers finish their careers without ever experiencing. She learned new tools. She’s a better writer. 2018 was undeniably a good year. Yet she did not accomplish even one of the “goals and objectives” that she and I together set at this time last year. The fault, if any is due, goes to me; I did not create opportunities for achievement. These goals checked all the SMART boxes, they were good goals. But they were necessarily established before the year had shown us what better experiences were to be had. We were right to take the better opportunities, but goals abandoned are not goals at all. For 2019, Atlas needs to articulate an over-arching framework that guides both goal-setting and goal-revision. We need a system for the adaptiveness that we improvised in 2018.

(I don’t want to bash traditional SMART goals.  They deserve a place in your planning.  Read more here: https://fitsmallbusiness.com/smart-goals-examples/)

  • A Collaborator’s Success: A longtime friend and co-worker shared positive feelings arising from demonstrating great decisiveness in making an important change. Normally contemplative and cautious, he made a good decision quickly and then kept believing in it. Decisiveness like that can’t exist without optimism, the idea that committing to a path will work out well (or can be made to work out well enough, if necessary).  Decisiveness, optimism, and confidence aren’t goals. They’re behaviors that sure do help achieve goals once you set them. I believe that cultivating decisiveness and optimism couldn’t be a precursor step that could unify our 2019 Strategic Plan.
  • Expert Insight:  A new friend described my writing here as “vigorous.”  He earns his living in academia. He’s a professional thinker, a person who illuminates ideas that remain obscure under less-acute inspection.  Vigorous. What an excellent, concise adjective. His comment resonates especially because he is unfamiliar with the details of our work here at Atlas, so he is describing the image that we project rather than the outcome of our work.  It so neatly encapsulates my love for our industry and the importance of our work. All engineers should all strive to be vigorous in our work. My practice, and Atlas more generally, will succeed in 2019 when I expand on an attribute that I already have and approach all our work with even greater vigor.

Eric Resseler, founder of Cosmic and the teamleader who created this website, helped me focus these three experiences into (to me) new line of thinking. The guiding framework for adaptive goal setting is a “theme.” Though not specifically intended for business strategy, consider reading this year-old backgrounder about Themes:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wander-woman/201701/set-your-theme-the-year-you-set-your-goals

Eric has a fresh approach to strategic marketing that I find useful.  Read here: https://designbycosmic.com/insights

Before setting 2019 goals, consider your strategic theme. A young engineer might focus on collecting divers new skills and experiences. My collaborator felt buoyed up by his decisiveness, and more like that might make for greater progress over the course of the year. For me, I want to focus on restoring true vigor to my practice after a couple of wearying years.

Atlas Geotechnical’s 2019 strategic theme is readiness.  This year our goals will focus on honing the knowledge, systems, and resources needed to effectively serve our clients and their projects. 

  1. Atlas will emphasize staff development in all of its forms and will take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
  2. I am optimistic that by September we will have re-established our capacity to support any project anywhere in the world. Confidence in our financial resources facilitates decisiveness in accepting new projects.
  3. Our maturing safety program will assure that we can show up ready-to-work at any site in the world. Investing in safety training during slack times allows focus on logistics and analyses at project kickoff.
  4. Personally, I’ll improve my effectiveness at work by finally taking on restorative breaks.  The first half of 2019 is my time the sharpen my tools, whether in the pool, in the ocean, or in the mountains. Time with family and friends is a part of cultivating greater vigor back at my desk.

I hope that sharing our approach offers something useful as you contemplate your own 2019 goals.  Consider the triumphs and disappointments of 2018, choose a theme to guide you in 2019, and commit to your theme before setting your new goals.

Happy new year. It’s going to be a great one for all of us.

We’re very pleased to be supporting Weeks Marine on a dock-building project in Corpus Christi.  I don’t have a photo pass, so I can’t share with you pictures of the work.  It’s a fantastic site, though. I took this photo looking away from the site at the start of our shift this past weekend and thought it was worth sharing.

I just started work on a piledriving project where the GT of Record provided final tip elevations, based on 16 indicator piles, for the Contractor’s use in casting the design lengths. With the diagram he included a disclaimer that the site is variable, and that many of the piles might be different lengths in order to satisfy the acceptance criteria. The GT, accompanying the final design information, recommends that the Contractor hire another geotechnical engineer to monitor each production pile and make appropriate length adjustments, and also a structural engineer to design splices.  Without intending, I’m sure, the Owner’s engineer has converted the piledriving part of our project from conventional design-bid-build to a contract that relies on the Observational Method.

The Observational Method is extraordinarily effective on challenging sites, but also can be costly to implement. We use it explicitly on dams and tunnels. Ralph Peck’s 1969 Rankine lecture is, in my opinion, the best summary of the method’s origins, the rigor with which it is to be applied, and it’s significant advantages on projects with terribly difficult geotechnical conditions. Like all Rankine lectures, the paper is worth a read.  You can get your own copy here:

https://www.britishgeotech.org/prizes/rankine-lecture

I link to the full catalogue; scroll down to 1969.  Consider browsing a bit while you’re on the site. And yes, the photo that accompanies this post is my preferred headshot of Karl Terzaghi, not the author. Read Prof. Peck’s paper to understand why.

In my practice I find it helpful to recognize when the design team’s RFI responses induct elements of the Observational method into our project. When they do, it’s time to  evaluate whether or not the character of project has changed fundamentally from the project described in the bid documents. A conventionally procured project offers certainty in exchange for hard bid pricing. Other tendering formats are appropriate for projects where final design will be developed as conditions emerge, as is the case with the Observational Method.

It’s necessary to understand the Method in order to recognize unintentional implementations. Here’s a clip from Prof. Peck’s lecture, for those of you with just passing curiosity.

REVIEW OF METHOD

In brief, the complete application of the method embodies the following ingredients.

  • Exploration sufficient to establish at least the general nature, pattern and properties of the deposits, but not necessarily in detail.
  • Assessment of the most probable conditions and the most unfavourable conceivable deviations from these conditions. In this assessment geology often plays a major role.
  • Establishment of the design based on a working hypothesis of behaviour anticipated under the most probable conditions.
  • Selection of quantities to be observed as construction proceeds and calculation of their anticipated values on the basis of the working hypothesis.
  • Calculation of values of the same quantities under the most unfavourable conditions compatible with the available data concerning the subsurface conditions.
  • Selection in advance of a course of action or modification of design for every foreseeable significant deviation of the observational findings from those predicted on the basis of the working hypothesis.
  • Measurement of quantities to be observed and evaluation of actual conditions.
  • Modification of design to suit actual conditions.

The degree to which all these steps can be followed depends on the nature and complexity of the work.

I am particularly fond of that last statement. “It depends.” In the 50 years since those words were penned by one of the giants in our field, consulting geotechnical engineers have yet to address the fact that, really, the right course of action depends on the nature an complexity of the construction. There is always a way forward, of course, eVen in the most difficult conditions. The level of effort, though, depends on the nature and complexity of the work.

 

One benefit of working with friends is the non-work time we spend together, like sharing meals.  Longtime collaborator and good friend Steve Dickenson joined us in San Francisco for a project meeting last week.  While the meeting achieved the intended outcome, the real highlight of the day was the excellent bahn mi sandwich shop that we found on Eddy Street.  L&G Vietnamese Sandwich is a no-nonsense, locally owned, quick service shop. Lunch for the three of us cost less than $20, which surprised me considering we were in the middle of San Francisco.

The bread had the exact right texture, the jalapeno slice on top added the right amount of bite, and the rest of the ingredients were super fresh. There’s no seating in the shop, but there’s plenty of great public space in the neighborhood.  Here’s their website in case any of you guys need to pre-order before your next meeting in the Civic Center neighborhood:  http://orderlandgvietnamesesandwich.com/

The Atlas Geotechnical blog doesn’t really focus on restaurant reviews, but the unique experiences we collect in the course of our work-related travel are a thoroughly satisfying part of our careers. From Seattle seafood to a great hole-in-the-wall yakitori place on Oahu, from proper Kansas City bar-b-que to amazing camp meals in Athabasca, we share a lot of great meals with good friends as a direct result of our unique engineering practice.  Sharing great bahn mi with a good friend in San Francisco is another great memory from a 30-year engineering practice that just keeps getting more and more interesting.