Category Archives: Uncategorized

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 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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it just us, or does it seem like earthquake activity has been particularly high this summer? Even while I’m writing to talk about a fascinating photograph of slope failures in Hokkaido, but also this morning was another major event near Fiji.

For those of you just interested in the photo, here’s a quick link:

Mudslides in a wide range by magnitude 6.7 earthquake(Atsuma, Hokkaido, Japan) from CatastrophicFailure

Here’s the link to an article about the Hokkaido event and also, I believe, the photo’s source:

http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0004713745

None of those failure are on the scale of the Oso landslide in Washington, but the cumulative volume is quite considerable. Thankfully the terrain is so steep that the area is sparsely populated.

So far this summer damage has been generally modest despite some of the earthquakes being quite large. Let’s just hope that it continues that way.

 

I spent a very pleasant Saturday morning with the GeoStabilization crew as they wrapped up shotcreting the face of their Lower San Antonio Road landslide repair while I ran the nail capacity performance test.  The site is surprisingly far east to still be in Santa Clara County, past Lick Observatory by almost an hour on a beautifully scenic winding road. The test setup is pretty simple, as you can see above, and the loads are modest enough that simple cribbing on soil provides enough reaction force.  We’re really enjoying this on-call collaboration with GSI and I’m angling for a way that I can cover the next testing assignment.

This morning I learned something very interesting about the NCEES Council Record program. Many of you carry a Council Record for rapidly securing a PE registration when your practice takes you to a new state. A few of you, I’m sure, have had the unpleasant surprise of learning that NCEES invalidated our 20+ year old records lat year when they upgraded to a new digital system (which is a delight to use, by the way).

This morning, as I worked my way through the process of refreshing my Texas PE, I saw that my work experience was incomplete after October 2016, which was coincidentally (?) the time that I finally finished restoring my record into the new system. Neither my employment nor the nature of my practice have changed in the past 10 months, so it was another unpleasant surprise that my record could not be transmitted to Texas.

I learned from the very responsive staff at NCEES that the new system requires work experience updates every 6 months. So after I described all the interesting stuff we did in the past 11 months, I set a reminder to re-submit in February and August every year for the remainder for my career. And now that you guys know too, I suggest you do so as well.

I’m a huge proponent of the NCEES program, and want very much to take full advantage of the service they provide. It occurs to me, though, that I will now be hitting you all up for experience confirmations twice as often, which gives us all a chance to keep in touch. I’m hopeful that the review process can be completed quickly and I can get my Texas PE reinstated before the floodwaters start to recede and it’s time to go to work repairing the damage.