Geomechanical Musings

Everyone’s strategic plan is blown right now. Each of us is hurriedly scribbling up own version of a 2020 Pandemic Strategic Plan. Despite Atlas’ long-term commitment to strategy, we struggled making an abrupt pivot toward recession-proofing.

Success arrived (finally) after we stopped cataloging our Subject Matter Expertise and Operational Strengths and made a concentrated effort to examine our bedrock-level brand characteristics. Our new Plan came together when we tailored it to the core skills that differentiate Atlas from other firms. These are our meta-skills; the skills that give rise to our more conventional marketing strengths.

My best posts here in the Geomechanical Musing blog are the quirky ones, especially the ones that include a tropical construction-site photo. This is not one of those posts. This one is a reminder to myself about discipline and serious management: Atlas succeeds when our strategic priorities leverage our meta-skills. Especially in lean times we succeed when our projects align with our underlying nature. I’m hopeful that sharing our experience might provoke some conversations with friends about how we all can support each other as we weather the upcoming recession.

What are Meta-Skills?

Each of us are subject matter experts. Some of us are great numerical modelers, some navigate the permitting process better than anyone, and still others know exactly what it should cost to refurbish a Navy wharf. None of these are meta-skills; they are the skills that you’ve developed by virtue of your underlying technical interests and business enthusiasms. These hard-to-identify underlying attributes are your organization’s meta-skills, and understanding them gives you a marketing advantage that increases efficiency and improves happiness.

Meta-skills are independent of the economy; you’re good at the things that you’re good at regardless of how many high-rise condos are planned. They are the strengths upon which you can pivot your business during tumultuous times. The way that you taught yourself how much it costs to shore a deep excavation is evidence of estimating and workflow planning skills that apply equally to all projects. That you prefer shoring projects to straightforward curb-and-gutter construction indicates another meta-skill. These foundational meta-skills are a great place to start planning your 2020 Pandemic strategy.

Identifying Your Organization’s Meta-Skills

Our initial “strengths” roster was superficial at best. It ended up being nothing but a list of perceived Subject Matter Expertise and Management Quirkiness, things that are the product of our underlying abilities, not our abilities themselves.  Apparently, honest self-reflection is not one of our meta-skills.

We found, eventually, after much trial and error, that an elimination process worked best. We started with that superficial inventory of our strengths and subject matter expertise. We added positive feedback from longtime customers and the results of a recent client survey. We grouped them, we looked for common causes, and we cut. And we cut. And still we cut. Eventually, we arrived at three.

Atlas Geotechnical’s Meta-Skills

These are the three core characteristics that our 2020 Pandemic Strategic Plan will leverage. I’m not convinced that we’re done refining, but perceptive readers will notice that our meta-skills indicate that we’re pretty comfortable with constant change, so I guess we should’t be surprised when our plan includes an intent to keep modifying the plan.  Your meta-skills are different, but for the sake of conversation here are Atlas’ top three: 

We’re Enthusiastic

We really like our work. We sink our teeth into our client’s problems and we don’t let go until it’s solved. Sure, we get fatigued by endless Agency review comments just like everyone, which is why we avoid projects that tax our enthusiasm.

We’re executing our strategic plan when we focus on projects that benefit from enthusiasm. Tight deadlines, complicated analyses that require us to locate Journal articles, these are the types of projects where our enthusiasm meta-skill gives Atlas an insurmountable advantage.

We’re Perspicacious

Understanding a problem has always been the first step to solving it, and Atlas is uncommonly good at understanding difficult geotechnical problems. Empathy for our client’s problems is how we identify which limiting assumption to push back against, or which construction process we can re-sequence, or whatever else we do to re-frame and then solve your really unusual problem.

Our 2020 Pandemic Strategy focuses on maintaining communications with our long-standing customers, listening for problems that afflict their work, and stepping in when we can bring solutions that put their projects back on track.

We’re Polymathic

We’re intrinsically motivated to learn new things. And knowing more and more things sets us up for an easier time learning the next thing. The ability to learn new skills is, in my view, the ultimate meta-skill.  It’s like using your first of three wishes to ask the Genie for an infinite number of wishes.

Here at Atlas we seem never to run out of new things that we could learn.  Working on a design that solves a unique problem feels to us like swimming downstream. It keeps us enthusiastic, and makes it fun to put in the extra effort hitting that tough deadline. A love of diverse learning is the meta-skill that ties Atlas Geotechnical’s practice together. Clients that encounter unique problems are our best opportunity during the upcoming lean year, and Atlas’ strategic plan invests in relationships with those clients.

Leveraging Your Own Meta-Skills

Your organization’s meta-skills are totally different from ours. This is as it should be. Large organizations probably have too many meta-skills to form a coherent plan and should plan in sub-groups. How meta would it be for an organization to claim the meta-skill of comfortably managing wide-ranging meta-skills from its different business units. A meta-meta-skill.

The point, though, is to improve your strategic efficiency and focus you on your core competencies. This is going to be a whopper of a recession, and some of our firms may not weather the lean times. Executing a tight strategy improves your changes of emerging strong on the other side. Each of our plans are better when we focus on our fundamental organizational strengths.

This is a message of optimism and hope, of an opportunity long awaited that is finally set to arrive. But you need to read to the end to get to the positive, encouraging part. The next two paragraphs are not comforting at all. If you are already feeling redlined trying to chart a course for your practice and the staff who look to you for leadership, skip a bit, brother, and pick up when I get to the exciting part about Adam Smith and 18th Century economic theory. 

The Bad News

In a few short weeks the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed our healthcare system and crippled our economy. We lack test data, making predictions imprecise, but infections are likely to peak in mid-May. Last Sunday, 8 weeks before mid-May, the Fed flattened interest rates to zero. The stock market in two weeks has effectively given back three years of impressive gains. Nobody is going to start new projects during such uncertain times, regardless of available cheap funding.

There are 8 more weeks, about, until we see evidence that economic activity is getting back to normal. Tax revenue will fall in a way that makes airport expansion projects and new container wharves at the Port of Honolulu unaffordable. I’m not an expert, but I suspect it’ll be August before goods and services are changing hands in a way that allows long-term investment decisions, the types of decisions that put engineers and contractors back to work. Our engineering industry is going to have a lull. Whatever shall we do?

The General Solution

I have a suggestion, but you’ll have to bear with me while I delve briefly into 18th-century economics.  Specifically, groundbreaking thinking in Adam Smith’s classic “The Wealth of Nations.” This is a thick book, a veritable tome. It comes bound in 3 volumes. I’m sure the binding cracks softly when opened to exude a lovely old-book smell. But some of the ideas in it are just as fresh now as they were at the beginning of England’s Industrial Revolution. These ideas are the key to our success as we enter this long-awaited lull. In March 1776, Adam Smith published the general solution to a problem that we all are just about to experience. The details, like every good professor, he left to the reader. But he certainly told us what we need to know in order to do well on the upcoming test.

The key premise is that wealth is created by reinvesting accumulated capital. This applies to your company and to your individual practice just like it does to your nation. As a man of his Industrial Revolution times, Smith focused on reinvestments in labor-saving equipment. He offered as a practical example a hypothetical pin-manufacturing enterprise. By investing some of your pin-selling profits in a better pin-sharpening machine (or whatever, I know nothing about sewing notions), you would be better-faster-cheaper in all of your future pin-making. Thus, your invested capital yields greater wealth. The wealth of nations grows by reinvesting their accumulated capital in ways that achieve greater efficiency.

The pivot from manufacturing to services requires a little discussion:  Knowledge-based companies increase their wealth when they reinvest surplus capital in greater knowledge and efficient service delivery processes. Simply hiring more people grows your top line, sure, and some of that revenue usually flows through wages and benefits to land on your bottom line. Often you can do this through buying a rival firm. The efficiency benefits in these investments are vanishingly small. Some engineering practices, particularly the very large AE’s, then prioritize distributing the slightly expanded profits to shareholders. They do not invest accumulated capital to improve their enterprise. They do not build wealth in the way that Mr. Smith recommends.

The Opportunity

Here’s where this arriving lull transforms from an economic hardship into a rare business opportunity:  Because knowledge and efficiency investments require the knowledge worker’s time, such investments are only economical during a lull. Sure, during fat times we specialist consultants buy new trucks and maybe one of those neet-o robotic total stations, but really, wealth grows when we invest in our staff. We have an opportunity to do that this summer. We can use the slack time during this lull to build shiny new pin-sharpening machines, or whatever. The question that we face, now or in May, once we get our long-awaited slack time, is how best to reinvest so that we increase our wealth? What efficiency improvement should we acquire through judicious application of our time? What pin-sharpening machine (or whatever) will help us deliver services in 2021 better-faster-cheaper than we did through mid-March 2020?

The Commitment

Me? I finally will learn to draw. I’ve been left behind as CAD morphed from a documentation requirement  into a communication and collaboration space. I’m like that old executive we all make fun of, the guy who has his secretary print out his emails and dictates his responses. I’ve been aware of this for several years, but lacked bandwidth to act. I owe Keith MacKenzie at Weeks Marine a debt of gratitude for demonstrating the power of communicating with sketches, and also for treating me kindly when we both realized just how far behind I had lagged. The whole crew at VAK Construction Engineering sets the standard in this kind of collaboration.

By the end of the year I’ll be able to sketch-and-share a pile test setup, a trestle concept, or a dewatering array with clients who are already working with information-dense, collaborative 3d drawings. I will have reinvested some of Atlas’ retained capital in an efficiency improvement that grows our wealth, an investment that I can only afford to make during a lull. A lull is a precious opportunity to finally fulfil Adam Smith’s promise of prosperity through reinvestment. So that begs the question: how will you invest your lull?

The Shared Experiences

You’re going to have slack time; the rest of the year will not resemble the beginning. Just because you lose buyers for your labor does not diminish that labor’s value. Put it to work for yourself and your crew. You will be working for the next few months at growing your future practice. About 25% to 35% of your week will be in service to your future prosperity. Do not waste this lull.I would love to hear back from everyone what investments we make. Better cost tracking that tightens your estimating system? Finally, tearing down and rebuilding that venerable Delmag D30-32 hammer so that it’s more reliable when it goes back to work? Maybe just take a bit of a breather and come back feeling refreshed? The possibilities are endless. The coming lull is real. So is the opportunity to invest in our practices. Do not waste this lull.

Each of us has at least one hilarious-yet-costly story about hitting an underground utility. The one I can contribute is from 1990 and lacks drama, so I mostly tell other people’s stories. Popping the water main in freezing Gillette, Wyoming on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is a popular one. So is that one time the CPT rig successfully located the refinery’s hot crude feed. And I like to tell the one about the train that broke the gas pipeline and burned down the bridge  even though there’s no drill rig involved. The best stories feature spectacular property damage and a complete absence of injuries or fatalities. In reality though, many of these stories do involve injuries or fatalities. They happen, and we know about them, but we don’t tell them. Despite our lighthearted anecdotes, underground utility protection is serious business. Deadly serious.

A recently completed project for our oldest Pacific Northwest client got us thinking about current practices and developing trends in utility protection. Fewer incidents is everyone’s shared goal.  This post organizes some of our thinking about how engineers can protect critical underground infrastructure, and keep everyone safe on the job.

Call Before You Dig

We’re all familiar with 1-call notification requirements, the white-paint-and-a-phone-call exercise we all perform before drilling. Sometimes the engineer and the operator meet up at the site for a chat. But I’m surprised at how few engineers know that a Washington DC based group called the Common Ground Alliance is responsible for publishing the Best Practices Guidelines. In these Guidelines, a1-call notification program is a very small component, and there’s a lot more great guidance available. Common Ground’s current guide contains vast amounts of useful information for operators, engineers, and contractors.  The subtitle is “the definitive guide for underground safety and damage prevention,” and it’s not an exaggeration. I highly recommend that you browse through the other parts of the manual and pick some topics for your next staff meeting. Our topic will be Section 5.19, the Excavation Tolerance Zone.

The Gold Shovel Standard

The Gold Shovel Standard (GSS) is a related industry best practices group working to reduce line strikes.  GSS member firms adhere to the Common Ground Best Practices, so the groups overlap a little and have complementary objectives. Pacific Gas & Electric founded the group as part of their effort to reduce line strikes down from the high in 2011.  This presentation describes how they reduced dig-ins by 38% over less than 3 years.

Right now the GSS is recruiting municipalities to join the Association and start requiring excavation contractors to be Gold Shovel Standard members.  Sacramento embraced this practice and enjoyed immediate success. There’s no doubt in my mind that larger municipalities and State DoT’s will soon require GSS membership in their IDIQ geotechnical services contracts. It’s coming (and it’s a good idea anyway) so we might as well get out ahead of the issue if we can.

Developing Practices

The GSS’s most interesting initiative, to me, is standardizing incident reporting. Standardized data allows statistical analysis. Analyses reveal trends. And trends allows fact-based improvements to best practices. The work of collecting data, analyzing it, and improving practices defines the very kernel of engineering; it’s how the building code came to be and continues to evolve. The GSS is performing foundational work that will lead to standard methods that address utility protection in the same way that ASCE 7 addresses earthquake design.

The Portland Water Bureau’s Utility Protection Plan program may represent the future of excavation planning. It extends water main protection beyond line-strike avoidance to consider structural integrity.  For critical water mains the UPP program requires a math-based, drawn, reviewed, and approved plan for supporting the pipe in the excavation. No longer are we allowed to just open up the street, expose the main, and figure out a plan based on what we see. The UPP manual offers some excellent temporary support examples for a variety of crossing geometries. The Portland BWS has expert knowledge of water pipe vulnerability, and their move to require a detailed UPP’s is evidence that good support planning is critical to digging around buried lines.

Most of the Common Ground, GSS, and UPP practices are familiar to us from work around oil and gas pipelines. Pipeline operators, generally acting individually, have each developed practical risk-reduction standard procedures for working around their lines. Adopting these practices reduces risk, improves operational reliability, and saves money. Further, some of North America’s largest General Contractors self-impose extra requirements on their high-risk excavations.  These programs yield significant return on investment; they’re good ideas that smart operators embrace. We expect that in the next 3 years, especially as the GSS program gains traction, utility protection will have increasing importance to Atlas Geotechnical’s client base.

Drop us a note if your organization is thinking about adopting the Gold Shovel Standard, incorporating Utility Protection Plans in your internal excavation manual, or just generally interested in improving operations by making better plans.  We love these types of conversations.  

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This book will change the way you think.

I have recommended this book to many of you. It was pivotal for my career and yet is specifically not a self-help book. It is filled with facts and observations, but has no advice or recommendations. It sets up the problem; the solution is left to the reader.

The title is just a colorful reference to a Random Walk, a mathematical term for a path comprised of successive random steps. Each next step begins at your current position, but you don’t know which direction you’ll move. There’s no way at all to know where you’ll end up.

The basic premise of the book, at least the way I read it, is that our career paths (and our lives) are strongly influenced by unexpected events, that our paths are far less under our control, than any of us want to admit. I started my career intending to follow my grandfather’s advice: “Plan your work. Work your plan.” It was calming to think that I controlled my destiny. That the actions I took, the decisions I made, controlled where I would end up in my career. What I learned, though, was that the important steps were always the ones that I could never have anticipated. Dr. Mlodinow’s well-selected examples, plus a little math, illustrate how naive I was in my initial plan.

Luck, it turns out, has far more influence than careful planning. I might even postulate that luck is more important than late nights at the office, but that’s a topic for a different essay.

My career path has been nothing if not a random walk filled with lucky happenstance. The 2002 move from Portland to Honolulu was a single step that only happened because my office was across the hall from Sean Ragain’s. All that I learned on the Midway project, the really interesting people I met and the projects we worked together, were steps that could only have happened from the “Midway” place along my walk.

Farther back in 1988, when I left Berkeley for San Diego to see about a girl, there’s no possibility I could have predicted I would be running a construction-focused geostructures shop from Santa Cruz 30 years later. And the 5-year stop on Maui? Really? Who could have planned that? Yet I walked my path, made my decisions, took my opportunities, and ended up right here. While I have some ideas about what happens next, intentions and preferences, my path so far has taught me that I can’t control the next step, nor should I want to. My best priority is to maximize exposure to good fortune for myself and the people I care about.

You all should read the book, think your own thoughts, and see how they pertain to your experience. If you agree with my assessment that increased exposure to good luck can be as important as technical competence or diligence, then making efforts to increase your exposure to good luck is a legitimate career development strategy. Here are my thoughts, refined over about a decade of thinking:

  • Have Good Friends: Embrace relationships with peers and collaborators. Good luck doesn’t happen just to you, it happens to your friends as well. More friends, more good luck. And when it does, they need reliable team members (often right away) to help them maximize their opportunity. We’re working on an important project in Pennsylvania right now because of a friendship I’ve enjoyed since 1997.
  • Just Say Yes: I borrowed this from my son’s Improvisational Comedy work, but it’s good advice for any venue. On 2 April 2002 Sean Ragain leaned out his office door across the hall and asked “Hey Doug, can we run Midway?” Yes, I replied. Just yes.
  • Be Prepared: It worked for Baden Powell, it’ll work for you. Do what you can to prepare for an extraordinary opportunity. Maybe keep a little money in a “war chest” account. Keep your field kit all in one place so it’s ready to go. Have a Council Record so you can get registered in the new state before your report needs stamping. (More here.)
  • Demonstrate Sincere Interest: You can’t be enthusiastic about work you don’t like. Your interest doesn’t need to be about the work itself. Some of my best friends are sincerely committed to time off with family. They’re great at jobs that accommodate more time off. Those jobs have advantages and disadvantages. They’re great at their jobs and achieve their overall goals.
  • Persevere:If you believe that you’re working a fantastic opportunity, rearrange your finances and priorities to make the most of it. Be visible in drumming up support. Speak at conferences. Let people know that you’re got something different to offer.
  • Fail Faster: This is the opposite of perseverance. (There’s no single right way to walk your path, remember?) If you’ve truly given it your best shot, and it’s just not working out like you had hoped, embrace the failure and move on. Put your extra effort into the next great opportunity. But be sure to maintain the relationships that you cultivated.
  • Work in Small Groups: The Law of Large Numbers states that the average value in any data subset tends toward the overall true average as the sample size increases. Engineering ability has an average just like coin tosses. Atlas Geotechnical, with a sample size of 6, has no below-average engineers. We’ve tossed 6 “heads” in a row (well we tossed a “tails” once but quickly corrected.) A company with 5,000 engineers, unavoidably, has about 2,500 below-average engineers.
  • Meet your Commitments: Schedule and quality are the most common commitments, but possibly more important are nuanced commitments that make you unique to your particular client base. Here at Atlas we’re committed to constructability. It’s worked out pretty well for us so far.

The crew at Atlas are working through a strategic exercise with our good friends at Cosmic. They prompt critical thinking, challenge preconceived notions, and bring out the best in businesses. They document the results websites and logos, but the hard work happens at a much deeper level. Organizing my thoughts here is one way I prepare to get the most out of our project. I’m hopeful there might be something equally helpful for some of you.

This is the right way to dig a hole

The best children’s story is Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. About this there can be no debate. It was my favorite story growing up, and it remains pertinent to my work today. You dads and moms can get a copy here: Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne

You’re welcome.

This is Mary Anne’s grandchild

It’s about a hardworking owner-operator named Mike, his stalwart coal-fired excavator Mary Anne, and how together they navigate the difficult transition from steam to hydraulic power in the North American construction industry. There’s a heartwarming ending. I won’t spoil it for you.

Pertinent today is the way that Mike and Mary Anne dig a hole: neat and square. At each stage the hole is manifestly neat and square. When they finish, you guessed it, the hole is neat and square. The book doesn’t emphasize excavation techniques; it’s not a trenching manual. Neat and square is just how Mike, an operator so skilled they wrote a book about him, digs a hole. If you’re not digging like Mike and Mary Anne, you’re probably digging wrong. Read by my parents with great enthusiasm, this story taught 4-year old me the two most important characteristics of an excavation:

  1. Neat
  2. Square.

I have time to write these thoughts on a Friday afternoon as the crew works diligently to wrap up a shoring submittal for a hole that is not square. Not by a long shot. It’s not pear-shaped or anything; but it zig-zags all over Honolulu through some comically soft ground. There are odd-angled corners. Several of them.

The reason that we’re struggling to wrap up the design is because I failed to insist that we dig like Mike. The Contractor, a highly experienced excavator, prefers long stretches of braced sheetpiles with open corners that allow in-trench pipe fusing. The the shoring has angles that are measured in 32nds of a circle. It is not at all square, and our bracing design are far from neat. The level of effort has more than doubled.

To avoid suffering similar difficulties, I encourage you all to stay true to the example of Mike and Mary Anne, a lesson so important that every right-thinking parent reads it over and over again to their budding young engineer-children. Dig your excavations neat and square. Your shoring designs will go smoothly, and your Friday afternoons will be greatly improved.