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I Forge Iron

Snowflakes and the hammer

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As much as it might deflate our sense of importance, an awful lot of business is about doing something obvious. Many firms suffer through "self-caused disasters" in the form of mismanagement, lost productivity, etcetera.


Artistic rendering of mismanagement, lost productivity, etc....

By far the most frequent self-caused disaster in this industry is over-commitment to clients. I'll never tire of reminding people that it's not the job you lose that puts you out of business, but the job you win. Estimators should be ever wary of their firm's abilities and limitations when bidding.


Some people have a tendency to believe that their situation is so unique that normal expectations can't be applied to them. These "snowflakes" inevitably follow patterns of behavior that lead to setbacks, cost/schedule overruns, and angry clients.

Contracts are specifically written to punish failure. If the job falls short, the hammer comes down on the contractor and sometimes their subcontractors. At a business level, it's obvious that anything contributing to failure is a liability. Yet it's incredibly common for problems to persist because key players are snowflakes, kept insulated from the havoc they create.


Enough with the trampoline already  ... Hey what'd you do with Bob and the sled anyway?

Estimators are frequently reminded that their bids are fine in theory but the build team's got real world problems to contend with. That's true because every "snowflake" is unique, fragile, and part of every avalanche. If everyone (estimating included) adhered to best practices and ethical behavior, the real world would look a lot like the estimates.

So what's the solution?

Aristotle once said : "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

That is a roundabout way of saying you can't just demand excellence of snowflakes, and expect them to perform. However establishing a habit of excellence revolves around some very simple concepts.

simple steps

"Yes sir, just five simple steps..."

Every task has a consistent process, with well-defined criteria for successful completion before it starts

Every task has a deadline

Every deadline brings evaluation to correct what's wrong, or reward what's working.

Correct deficits before moving on.

Spot check the work for consistency and quality because the two are absolutely interdependent.

But we're REALLY busy, there's no time for that.

In my experience, firms without quality control are working harder to produce less. These firms will often have someone run ragged just trying to keep all the workers going. Time is spent "putting out fires" that get their start on jobs that were neglected. It doesn't take long for one job's problems to cause systemic failures. Job-sites that are suddenly flooded with manpower indicate an idle job elsewhere. Getting caught up with one client puts them behind with another. As Aristotle would say; "We are what we repeatedly do". Some firms could be described as little more than incorporated arson.


You've gotta love what you do!

Very often the selfsame person run ragged trying to fix problems, is the one who most needs that culture of excellence.   It's my opinion that these efforts only work when promoted from the top and the bottom of the company. At every level, it's crucial to be providing direction, expectation, evaluation, correction, and promotion for the level below.

Intensity can't replace quality

Lots of companies have a demanding culture that attempts to replace quality with intensity. Long hours and excessive workloads are common with these firms. Lacking a cohesive and well-reasoned plan, these firms often burn bridges with clients, contractors, and employees in their haste to make production. A pattern of long hours, "big pushes", and heroic efforts to meet deadlines are indicative of a problem. It is lot less theatrical to reliably knock out profitable wins by working steadily. Don't confuse performance with results. 80 hour work-weeks and dismal hit-rates often go hand in hand.

Evaluation isn't a punishment

We've become a very conflict-averse society which leads people to focus on the negative aspects of evaluation. It's much easier to "catch" someone doing something right, if you're checking often enough, and providing meaningful feedback. Praising success without being critical of failure confuses priorities and leads to mediocrity. Cowardice opposes excellence.


"Excellence has a way of standing out from the crowd..."

If oversight is easy, games will be played

A great deal of project control amounts to an effort to evaluate what's working.   If everything is evaluated "by the numbers" as in audit's, or accounting reports, the natural response for some is to "game" the system. Rigid, formulaic, and quota-driven evaluations are as easy to develop as they are to game. A culture of excellence won't be achieved through "easy" oversight. Managers dressed for golf should take note of where the games are really being played.

You get more of whatever you reward

Quotas can become a factor in decision making even for well-meaning employees. For example, a sudden increase in traffic tickets at the end of a month is hardly indicative of better policing or a sudden surge in crime.   It's merely a pivot from their daily work to get management off their back. Rewarding excellence requires managers who work to cultivate excellence. Bureaucracy is rarely the right tool for cultivating excellence. There are no short-cuts or work-a rounds with something this simple.


"Brian was really big on short-cuts, he's... in a better place now."

Working in cycles is better than running in circles

I've written before about my "one pass" method for takeoffs. Summing it up quickly, I believe a great deal of mistakes come from scanning a page looking for something relevant to a single discipline, detail, or issue. Looking at the information with "filters on" tends to leave out the unique, oddball, and painfully expensive items. People don't miss huge contributing elements of projects too often, but they regularly miss a solitary note for a specialty item. Specialty / oddball stuff gets missed because we're not looking for it. If you're objective is to note everything on the page regardless of discipline, the filters are taken off.

Tied to the one-pass method is the process milestone. "Known-good" points in your process are created by reviewing your information to check for errors. Generally speaking, errors found in these reviews are MUCH easier to fix. There's also the benefit of repeated exposure to your data and your process which further hones your judgment of every successive stage. This is particularly helpful when compiling, transferring, importing, or exporting data from one system to another. "Check the chute" to make sure the data made it from one end to the other without problems. I've found that making sure I've checked each part of a project three different ways substantially cuts down on errors. Plus it lets me sleep at night!

Meetings, the import/export data function of the business world

It may seem odd to put it this way but meetings are often about transferring data from one system of thinking to another. We get used to the shortcomings of computer systems which require data re-formatting, or sorting before they'll work properly. People are often similar yet we've all sat through meetings where one party won't consider the responsibilities, limitations, and motivations of the other party, leading to inevitable communication breakdowns. I had a business professor who recommended that we conclude every meeting with the following three questions;

What are we working on?

Who is it for?

When is it due?

Really basic stuff that rarely happens because we're all so sure that somebody else is going to do it.

Nature abhors a vacuum

Earlier I touched on how conflict-averse society has become. Innovations like email and text-messaging have created opportunities for managers to carefully compose their responses to challenges from the sidelines rather than provide direction face-to-face. A time-stamped record of clearly worded directions can be an especially effective way to lead. However some folks attempt to avoid accountability for problems while maintaining a window to claim credit for successes. The most common tactic is to "play for time" by not responding to an issue or just not addressing the real issue. This leadership vacuum is transparent to all concerned.

behind you

"We know what you're up to back there"

Nature, including human nature, abhors a vacuum. Opportunists will take their chances at extorting whatever they can. Jobs run late, over budget, under-staffed as a result. Some will follow the leaders example and concern themselves with only their posteriors as well. Every snowflake manager who thinks they can hide out until somebody solves their problems will eventually feel the hammer fall on them.

"I didn't act so I could say I didn't know"

"Plausible deny-ability" is a terrible reason to do anything. It's not conflict avoidance, it's premeditated political maneuvering at the obvious cost of doing the right thing. The more contrived, and convoluted the reasons to depart from best practices, the more certain they are to cause things to fail. Anyone who plans to fail in a way that lays the blame elsewhere has effectively chosen to hurt the company to get ahead. Parasites work along the same lines.

I sure hope nobody told you this would be easy!

Often we're in a position to see a leadership failure where professional decorum, contractual relationships, or politics lead to silence. Failure is punished regardless of who's to blame so we all have a vested interest in doing our best to fill leadership shortfalls.

It may be surprising to hear, but Architects spend a great deal of their time running management meetings that were never really addressed in their education. Few Colleges provide robust leadership / management training for Architects. I can't imagine the struggle a new Architect must face learning this stuff as they go along. Knowing this, it's incumbent upon all professionals to aid when they can. Leadership is not always about authority, position, or social status. If you know what you're talking about and speak truthfully, others will hear you.

It can be difficult to admit that jobs go wrong because of choice we make. However the advantage of a solid process and unclouded vision of what's really going on greatly reduces the odds of making a bad call. With strong fundamentals and a good attitude, it's amazing how far you can go. Let excellence become your habit.


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These are all chapters/posts from my blog which is free for anyone to read.  I've toyed with the idea of making it into a book but that wasn't my original intention. 

John, I suspect you're on to something there!

L Smith,  I learned a lot of how not  to do things by working for companies like you mentioned.  I hope you're on to greener pastures.

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Estimating has been a surprisingly applicable topic to businesses across the board.  It's a little like blacksmithing in that a person might only know one aspect of it really well but their knowledge translates to other areas because so much is in common.  I'm really glad that I'm able to share something with you all.

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