Geomechanical Musings

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.

It’s really not important what this is or what it does. The point is that every step of planning, design, and implementation happened in the correct order.

One of our projects achieved a significant milestone on Friday, exactly according to plan. Like most of our projects, it’s interesting construction at a unique site, and there’s no similar recent project to guide design and construction.

We learned recently that the shoring design failed to address a subtle but important detail. Once it was identified, though, it didn’t take long for the team to embrace the need for a rapidly field-engineered solution. Thankfully, strong relationships allowed us to add a ringer of a Structural Engineer to round out our already very strong team. They responded to our design requirements with an absolutely gorgeous 2-sheet drawing package in less than 3 days. We could not have met our deadline without their contribution.

Just because the work was installed before the deadline doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly. Atlas still have equipment stuck in Customs Purgatory at the Canadian border. I dearly hope to receive my 25 ton hydraulic ram back. Collaboration within the team, though, went flawlessly. The crew were able to source replacement equipment and keep us on schedule.

The point of this post is not that we made a pair of little gizmos and installed them in the nick of time, or that our clever little solution avoided a 6-month project delay. The takeaway from this project is that we achieved success using the exact same process that we use to succeed on huge projects. This one was just distilled down to a very compressed timeframe and had no schedule allowance for mis-steps. Every element of a big complicated design was executed on this small complicated one, just really fast and with intense coordination.

  • The project manager established clear lines of responsibility.
  • We wrote up a basis of design and stuck to it.
  • We established concise performance expectations.
  • We sourced locally available materials.
  • We identified a need for and hired specialty expertise.
  • The structural engineer adapted the design on the fly, and
  • The team assured quality.

The design and execution procedure was exactly identical to one used on a much larger project; we just moved through it in 5 days instead of five months or five years.

I feel grateful to be working with such a competent and diverse team on this large, visible, terrifically interesting project. Our project manager gave us about a week to recover, perform maintenance, etc, and then we tackle the next of the three remaining big problems. With the team we’ve assembled I have no doubt we’ll resolve them all with style and grace.

Classic art for a classic management problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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