Category Archives: Strategy

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.

The past 6 months at Atlas Geotechnical brought huge changes, both internal and external, to our practice.  Not on purpose, we seem to have executed our “rapid growth” strategy like a classic Vaudeville quick-change act, ducking behind a curtain briefly and popping back out looking very different.  (And yes, I used an America’s Got Talent gif instead of a sepia-toned, jumpy Vaudeville clip, but you get the idea )

America'S Got Talent GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There are 10 of us now, up from 3 about a year ago. We took photos for the Crew page this past week, which we will post up shortly. All of our financial services providers, particularly Terra Insurance and Santa Cruz County Bank, have been very supportive in covering a tripling of our business volume. It is literally impossible to overstate the importance of personal relationships with your collaborators.

Our client base is larger but essentially unchanged in its balanced composition: Heavy infrastructure contractors, specialty foundation and ground improvement contractors, petroleum operators, and the occasional architect or civil engineering firm who are tackling a particularly unusual problem. Our quality control expertise has grown over the past few months, a companion service to the field engineering that has always been our hallmark at Atlas Geotechnical.

Geographically, on the last weekend of May 2017, we have staff on projects in Pearl Harbor and Hilo Harbor, around the Bay Area, up through Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver BC, and out to upstate New York. Projects in the upper Midwest and Alberta are winding down, but there seems to be future opportunities there as well. There’s also talk of projects in San Diego and Santa Barbara, which would require us to continue our run of rapid growth.

Big projects that we expect to start this summer include liquefaction mitigation design for a near-record length pipeline crossing, designing safe access for landslide repair crews in coastal California, and a seemingly endless stream of shoring designs in Seattle and Portland. We had an opportunity to support Caltrans at the Mud Creek slide on the Monterey Coast but were called off because the landslide accelerated (during dry weather, go figure) and there was really no possibility of restoring access until it reverts to a quasi-stable state. We are hopeful that this opportunity will come our way again later this summer.

Not every step in the rapid growth has been smooth and well considered. The crew has stepped up their efforts where necessary, and our clients have worked with us to sort out schedule adjustments where we found ourselves overcommitted. We expect to clear our office-work backlog by the end of June and be ready to kick off at least one of those larger new projects by mid-July.

It’s been an exciting time here at Atlas Geotechnical, and we’re very optimistic about the next months and years. Our particular brand of practical, muddy boots engineering is resonating with clients who tackle and overcome very difficult infrastructure challenges. The next few months, hopefully, will be a bit calmer, but by, no means will it be uninteresting.

You never know what’s about to happen when you answer a call from one of your best clients at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. Some consultants (some of you who read these musings) avoid those calls on the statistically valid basis that nothing good will come of it, and whatever it is should be pushed off until Monday. Here at Atlas, though, we have a very different perspective. Our clients are capable, thoughtful, effective engineers and contractors. If one of them is calling on a Friday afternoon, they’re bound to have a pretty interesting problem. I answer those calls because I can’t stand the suspense of not knowing about interesting problems that need to be solved quickly.

Working through an 8-day shoring design in downtown Seattle reminded me how rapidly Atlas has grown because we embrace unexpected opportunities. We’re a strategic firm, but we use unconventional strategies that differentiate our practice from mainstream consultancies. Preparing to respond quickly to unexpected assignments is a strategic activity that facilitates opportunism, which we’ve shorthanded to Strategic Opportunism. The basic idea is that Atlas is always prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that our good clients bring.  We always say yes, and we can always make good on these commitments. A great deal of planning and preparation goes into making us so capable on short notice.

The Boy Scouts are another organization that values preparedness as a component of having great adventures. The quote below, from the founder of Scouting, applies equally to all aspects of everyone’s lives, not just High Sierra backpacking trips. If you want to succeed under unique circumstances, you need to go into those adventures prepared.

Be Prepared

  • Taking a cue from the “10 essentials” that the Scouts use as their totem for preparedness, it seems that there might be a list of attributes or resources that indicate preparedness for engineering adventures.  Here is my list of 5 essential things to cultivate or acquire in moments of calm so that you have the wherewithal to seize strategic opportunities when they arise.Financial Resources: It takes money to mobilize staff, acquire equipment, carry payroll costs, and generally produce solutions. Even our best clients take 15 days to pay our bills, and for some projects we can be $30,000 into a project in those first 2 weeks. Cash in the bank, headspace on the line of credit, and a personal relationship with a (local) banker make it possible for Atlas to start huge efforts right away.
  • Open-ended Contracts: Contract negotiation distracts from working the project. We establish fair terms and conditions during calm periods so that we aren’t distracted by administrative functions when more interesting project work demands our attention.
  • Collaborators Network: Most interesting assignments are multidisciplinary, and forming teams takes time. More importantly, established and durable relationships facilitate better designs and a tighter delivery schedule.  Atlas has on-call contracts with an extensive network of collaborators having all manner of expertise.  From map-makers to structural engineers, hardhat divers to corrosion specialists, We can form a team in an afternoon and all be at work the next morning.
  • The Right Tools:  Software is cheap these days compared to the cost of delay. So is sampling equipment. Invest in the tools that you need before you need them, and invest in training staff so they have the skill to execute their work when they’re most needed.
  • Broad Industry Knowledge: This one is the most difficult. You need to understand your client’s priorities and concerns so that you can develop and implement their best solution in one go-round. Strategic opportunities are always unique; if they were mundane they wouldn’t be strategic, and some big A/E would be slowly grinding out whatever conventional design was required. Consistent interest in your clients businesses, collecting the knowledge that you need and becoming a valued team member, is time consuming and also the most valuable of these 5 essentials.

 

The Scout’s 10 essentials can be purchased in an afternoon, faster if there’s a Long’s Drugs next door to your nearest REI. And once they’re in your backpack you have them forever. The 5 essentials to being prepared for interesting engineering projects are not as simple, unfortunately, and require consistent investment. Making that investment has proven very valuable to Atlas, and I encourage everyone to adopt whatever aspects of this might best benefit your individual practices.

 

The Porter Hotel, Portland, OregonIt’s an exciting time here at Atlas Geotechnical world headquarters. Our decade-long commitment to extraordinary customer service earned us a number of new assignments , seemingly all-of-a-sudden.  We’re leveraging these projects into very rapid growth that requires fundamental changes to our operating systems.  The obvious signs of change: new equipment, robust collaboration technologies, geographic expansion, are all being undertaken in support of preserving, even improving, our earned reputation for responsiveness, innovation, and technical excellence.

You’ll notice over on the Crew page that we have two new Team Atlas members:

  • Jonathan Nasr is completing his Master’s degree in geotechnical engineering at Portland State while working days on geotechnical design and construction monitoring assignments. His initial assignments mainly consisted of developing site characterization models and designing shoring. Presently he’s testing tiebacks at The Porter Hotel project in downtown Portland. While we’re very glad that he’s having the experience of digging a big hole in the middle of the city, we’re sorely missing his office contribution.
  • Wes Miller will join us in mid-March after relocating from the Bay Area to Bend.  Wes has a background in water resources and municipal infrastructure, adding much-needed diversity to our longstanding crew of gearhead geotechs.  Wes is an avid outdoorsman and adventurer, and you can expect to see him on some of the remote projects that are stacking up in our backlog.

There are other changes to the Atlas website, including a number of project descriptions that are long overdue for publication.  The next batch of projects, the ones that we are working on right now, will be even more interesting.

As I write this we have active projects in Guam, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Vancouver BC, northern Alberta, and Michigan. We are solving really challenging problems in nearshore marine construction, ground improvement, storage tanks, impact barriers, and deep excavations. The projects are varied and interesting, our clients are always a delight, and our expanded team is already working seamlessly. In the 12-year history of the company we’ve never had so much new and interesting work. This upcoming 12 months is going to be very exciting indeed.

 

14_03-Oso-8Here at Atlas World Headquarters we’re learning as much as we can about the circumstances leading up to the tragic Oso mudslide. Disasters like that are newsworthy in the US precisely because they are infrequent. We learned hard lessons about floods and fires in the early stages of settling the continent, before our population was so large and had decided to live so deeply in the wilderness. From those experiences, and with engineering input, we created regulations that, most of the time, protect most of the population from natural disasters.

The main problem with this American, reactive approach to safety regulations is that useful safety improvements almost always are adopted after a major disaster, when  death and destruction has already visited a community.  Seismic design provisions in the building code were finally considered after the 1906 San Francisco event, but weren’t adopted in California until 1933.  Double-hulled oil tankers after Exxon Valdez, inspect and repair your levees after Katrina, the pattern is obvious and tragic. In each case there are qualified experts, rational men of science, well aware that tragedy is only a matter of time but who are not taken seriously by the people’s representatives until the “likelihood” of disaster turns into a horrible certainty.

The Oso landslide follows this typical pattern. The hill across the river  is called Landslide Hill, for Pete’s sake. This landslide has expanded in six documented episodes since 1949 and almost certainly predates development in the area. Reasonable people could disagree whether the data foretold  an event like the one that occurred, a 2-stage rotational failure that forced a mudflow across the river to bury the neighborhood. The hazard was known but not with the certainty that could force land use changes that would have saved lives. Snohomish County approved building permits at houses that were plainly in harm’s way and are now under the mud, and the Washington DNR has permitted logging above the slide with only nominal and, likely, ineffective restrictions.

My consulting practice is showing signs that this will change. Sophisticated landowners are now considering the long-term benefits of incident avoidance as a method of slowing regulatory expansion. The political process is not orderly at the best of times and is particularly unpredictable in the face of disaster, when the non-technical electorate is demanding that “someone do something.” Hastily adopted, reactive regulations often overshoot the mark. Since the new regulations cover the entire industry, the entire state, the entire business operation, the cost of compliance usually far exceeds the cost of self-imposed operational improvements that might have avoided the incident and prevented the regulatory expansion.

At Oso, the landowner is a small forest resources company with very low profile, not the group you would expect to lead the industry in operational improvements. They cut timber because the regulations permitted it and they are in the business of cutting timber where permitted. The larger forest products companies in Washington, though, have adopted practices that may have prevented logging above a place called Landslide Hill. Their practices are unlikely, now, to be considered as Washington adopts new logging regulations.

Atlas works in a number of industries with such systemic regulated risk. Liquid and gas pipelines, rockfall, power plants, high-profile infrastructure with significant risk. We evaluate the whole cost of incidents, including natural hazard risk, as it affects our client’s reputation and their operational flexibility. An incident on your line, or even in your industry, has huge implications on new permit applications. The two main Canadian liquid petroleum pipeline operators are managing exactly this risk as they apply for major permits to move crude to market from Alberta. Those pipelines can be built and operated safely, and it would be nothing but bad luck if a small operator with a shoddy record had a preventable incident that, in the view of the non-technical electorate, gave the entire pipeline industry a black eye.

There are other aspects of the Oso disaster that bear further analysis, and we’ll organize our thoughts in a future post. For now, we hope that the responders stay safe through the difficult, muddy clean up, that the community recovers and the road re-opens, and that the forest products industry maintains its voice in the unavoidable evolution of Washington’s logging rules.

14_03-Oso-9

Oso Landslide Overview

For those of you with more interest, the AGU Landslide Blog has excellent technical coverage of this event.

http://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/

The first hint of logging regulation changes that are, now, almost inevitable in Washington is here:

http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2014/03/27/is-there-a-connection-between-the-mudslide-and-our-states-historical-mishmash-of-logging-regulations

And those of you interested in model regulations would do well to be aware of Oregon’s excellent Forest Practices Act, which can be accessed here:

http://www.oregon.gov/odf/PUBS/docs/Forest_Facts/FF-LandslidesDebris%20Flows2013.pdf

 

We’re buried under a mountain of work here at Atlas Geotechnical World Headquarters, but you all know I advocate for action (or as our good friend Andreas says “MSH, man, make s*%# happen.”) One aspect of  busy times in the office is that always there remain nooks and crannies in your schedule for brief tasks.  So, I’ve been meaning to put this out to you all for some time, and now seems to be my best opportunity.

This post involves a bit of Bay Area folklore, a distilled version of the management philosophy of the seminal high-tech firm and it;s two founders who left an indelible mark on every discipline of engineering : Bill Hewlitt and Dave Packard. In 1935 both graduated with EE degrees from Stanford (the “junior university” across the tracks from Cal, from whence all good engineering emanates…). Despite these meager origins (joking – all in jest) four years later they formed a partnership that they named, by coin-toss, Hewlett-Packard. Their original premises were the 1-car garage at 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto. Their success at that location created the epicenter of what we now call the Silicon Valley.

Wikipedia tells the story better than I ever could: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HP_Garage

The part of the story that I want to emphasize are the “Rules of the Garage.” I have no knowledge about how the Rules were developed or by whom. All I know is that these are the Rules, and that we all would do well to adhere to them.

garage 2

I suggest that you all follow the Rules.  They’re widely publicized because they work, and not just for high-tech startups (which is what HP would have been called if such a thing existed in 1939).  Of the 11, these are the three that I keep close to my heart:

1.  Believe you can change the world

4.  Share – Tools, ideas. Trust your colleagues.

7.  Radical ideas are not bad ideas.

Each of the Rules is important to your practice.  Customer satisfaction, innovation, collaboration.; these are the hallmarks of successful consultancy.  Clip that photo and refer back to it while you’re revising your strategic plan or deciding to branch out into new fields.  Positive and innovative thinking is crucial to success, and the Rules that Hewlett and Packard formulated for us are a  beacon on our roads to success.

More information about the actual structure and HP’s commitment to preserving the birthplace of Silicon Valley is here: http://www8.hp.com/us/en/hp-information/about-hp/history/hp-garage/hp-garage.html

Goooaaal_906We’re celebrating an unexpectedly early strategic success here at Atlas World Headquarters, winning our first project from a client that we had targeted in our 2014 strategic plan.  It wasn’t much of a project, and by no means are we assured of continued success.  But one thing is clear from our track record: once somebody with interesting problems starts working with Atlas, that nascent relationship almost always grows stronger, more durable, and more valuable to both parties.

Unexpected success causes interesting problems to an organization like Atlas, so dedicated to methodical plan-and-execute efforts. Strategic goals need to be adaptable to developing conditions, especially changes required by success. In this case, we simply modified our plan from “Win our first project with…” to “Win three new projects with…”  We assigned more budget to this initiative as well, necessarily downrating other  parts of the plan, but parts that had not yet borne fruit.

Atlas has another strategic initiative from 2013, an opportunity that fell out of the sky in the second half of the year (through a longstanding, durable relationship, of course). Succeeding at that initiative could very likely require us to grow the company. And yes, our strategic plan includes a contingency plan for such rapid growth that we can implement on short notice, so that we maintain focus on the project and the client.

I hope that you all achieve some strategic milestone early in 2014. It’s a good feeling, knowing that your plan is effective enough to force modifications in the plan. And if you don’t already have an explicit strategic plan for your practice, I encourage you to set aside a half-day to begin one.  Make your first goal nothing more than to adopt a strategic plan in Q1 2014.  Drop me a note when you achieve it, and I’ll send you a congratulatory message. Go.  Start.  Have a great week, everyone.