Category Archives: Strategy

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.

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.

We’ve got a particularly interesting problem on our desks here at Atlas Geotechnical. There’s a lot at risk, various stakeholders are frustrated with and suspicious of each other, and there’s not enough time. While working this problem through to a pretty tidy conclusion this afternoon, it occurred to me to share the process that we use to achieve a safe, efficient design.

It goes without saying that rigorous project framing is critical to any problem. Define the boundary limits and success factors. Write, refine, and document the basis of design. There’s no point in working really hard late into the night when you haven’t defined the problem you’re trying to solve.

Even when the project is framed and bounded correctly, the juiciest problems always offer sticking points; places where the natural tension between resources, budget, and performance simply don’t allow a path forward. When I get stuck at one of those obstacles, these are the techniques (in order) that I use to crack it:

  • Collect More Data: Usually when moving quickly through a conceptual design you adopt conservative and simplifying assumptions about important parameters. The best way to solve a problem is to collect real data and refine the assumed parameters. This is the most self-contained and linear problem solving technique.
  • Challenge Your Assumptions: Sometimes you’re limiting yourself. A classic is that soils are normally consolidated, when really there’s a desiccated crust and settlement will be less. The always-dependable Mohr-Coulomb constitutive model is another bountiful source of limiting assumptions embedded in our most useful analytical tools. Engineers in my office call this “doing it the hard way” but if it solves the problem, and nothing else would, how hard was it, really?
  • Push Back on External Constraints: This one is particularly effective here at Atlas, but you need to understand the discipline that you’re challenging along with the hopes and dreams (and fears) of the team member who imposed the limit. Someone tells you that you can’t drill through a pilecap? Can’t tolerate more than an inch of differential settlement? Can’t pump more than 150 gpm? Discover the simplifying assumptions embedded in that limit; perform Steps 1 and 2 on someone else’s work, and find a way to preserve project performance without complying with a simplistic limit.
  • Call a Friend: I can’t tell you the number of times that this one has saved my bacon. If I weren’t so proud it would be higher on my list. Clever engineers have been solving problems for millennia; one of my friends has, almost certainly, previously solved the problem that has puzzled me for an afternoon. This one can be humbling; try to be gracious. The corollary to this technique is “try to have clever friends.” I’m good friends with several old guys who’ve been everywhere, done everything, and shoots do they ever help me crack troublesome problems
  • Hold a Meeting: Just kidding. Meetings never solve problems.
  • Get Away from the Problem: Irv Olsen used to go see a movie; one of my best friends, an astonishingly effective engineer, hikes like a maniac; I thought up this post while swimming laps. You serve your clients best when you’re thinking creatively and clearly. Don’t stay at your desk putting on a show of hard work when really you should stretch your legs, clear your mind, and actually perform engineering. Sure, you’ll need to start again with Step 1 once you’ve blown the cobwebs out, but you already got down to this last step once without solving the problem, so what other choice do you have?

I’m considering distributing laminated cards to the younger engineers here at Atlas outlining these four steps. That or hardhat stickers.

While not a panacea, I’ve found that there are very few intractable problems when clever engineers, given a clear mandate through good project framing, apply themselves vigorously and enthusiastically.

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.

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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