Tag Archives: Problem Solving April 2022

Any method that we deploy to solve engineering problems is an engineering tool. This is a note about the importance of trust while solving difficult design and construction challenges.

I’ve always aspired to the role of “Trusted Advisor.” The less-bragadocious “Chief Engineer” was a bar I could clear more consistently, so I put that on my business card.  But with our best clients, the contractors who rely on us year after year to keep their excavations safe and their cranes stable, there’s no doubt that Atlas Geotechnical is their trusted advisor.

Trust is the mutual acknowledgement of a shared commitment to project success. Even when we deliver bad news, our clients trust that we have their best interests at heart, and we are engaged in an ongoing collaboration about ways to move the project forward. The types of problems that we solve at Atlas could not be solved without trust: clients know that we’re designing the very best solution, and we know that they will make every weld, perform every required test , and keep us informed about the design’s performance at important milestones. There’s no room in our practice for excessive conservatism, and we won’t do a second job with contractors who cut corners on safety-critical activities.

We’ve had such success engendering trust that apparently I started taking it for granted. That came to an abrupt end last week while sorting out a fill compaction issue beneath a building pad at Camp Blaz, the new Marine Corps base near the northern end of Guam.

The technical solution is not difficult: just build a load path from the foundation bearing grade down to limestone bedrock 6 to 25 feet below. We considered a range of options, analyzed the cost and schedule impacts of each, and selected aggregate piers as the least disruptive. I was proud of the technical solution that we had delivered on short notice. I was particularly proud that our Design-Build team had gelled so easily and had benefited from great mutual trust. And we all know that pride goeth before a fall.

It turns out that the Owner’s engineers didn’t trust us. They don’t know us, they didn’t hire us, and the local contract managers, despite our requests, left them off of the Stakeholders list. They had no opportunity to participate in the problem definition and conceptual design processes, their ideas and opinions were not heard. Once they joined the project with all important decisions made, they immediately departed from Contract procedures with a barrage of informal review comments that focussed on second-guessing design decisions made months before their involvement. It was distracting. My week would have been better if I had done a better job, in September, insisting that their managers get them onto the Stakeholders list. Not because we needed their input. We needed their trust, and letting people know that their contribution is important is one way to engender trust.

This problem is still developing; we’ll know the outcome in June. But I’ll share my technique for getting the team back on track:  Compassion.  I’m doing everything that I can to let these engineers know that I don’t hold the local manager’s mistake against them. Their concerns are valid, even the ones that lack technical merit. I spent time yesterday talking about expansive soils, making sure that they felt heard, before explaining why shrink-swell behavior isn’t pertinent to our fill settlement problem. Compassion, real genuine interest in their inner state and sympathy for why they felt left out, is the most reliable path back to trust.

Even among teams that have disparate goals, trust is crucial to effective problem solving. I’m hopeful that I can reduce my future workload by investing in trust-building behavior to get my Camp Blaz team focused on our shared commitment to project success. I hope that some of you cna have better project outcomes if you can fell compassion for team members that have not yet developed trust.