Monday, June 28, 2010

Stormwater Management: A Key Area to Streamline Project Development Process and Increase Revenues

By now it's fairly obvious that the economic downturn's duration and expected slow recovery has caused many civil engineering firms (and agencies) to among other efforts, re-assess their project development processes, for various reasons. The lack of funding and available projects have driven many firms to look inward and find where and/or how more revenues can be realized after cutting back personnel, hours and benefits, and still remain in business. This applies to both private and public sectors, as civil engineering projects really involve both in some manner and are interconnected as far as their availability. Funding of these projects may be obtained in different ways, but the bottom line is that if the state or local agencies do not have funds for infrastructure projects (nor the personnel to execute them), and developers/investors do not have access to funds to invest, the results are less projects available for the civil engineering industry to assist with. Less projects, less firms, less staff........you get it.

In speaking with industry colleagues, friends, agency officials, and other engineers that keep abreast with the latest trends, forecasts and news, those that have been around for a while express a common observation, and that is that in their entire careers (some of these professionals have been around for more than thirty years), they have never experienced such depressed conditions in the civil engineering field. A somewhat sobering remark that usually follows is that they aren't really sure if and when or how fast a true recovery can be expected.

In a relatively recent Civil Engineering Magazine report titled "A Rocky Road Ahead" (March 2010, Laurie A. Shuster), the results of a survey conducted by Zweig White in late 2009 of one hundred seven executives of the architecture, engineering, and construction (A/E/C) industry are presented. In the survey, the participants were asked about their expectations of the ten most important challenges in the year 2010 for the A/E/C industry. The results are interestingly prioritized. Not surprisingly, the number one concern is the lackluster performance of the U.S. Economy. By most accounts, the A/E/C part of the economy is predicted to lag whatever recovery there may be now in other segments, if any.

However, a not too distant number two is "increased competition". Translation (mine): keep your current clients happy, and you may keep your current clients. The competition is certainly watching to see when "unexpected opportunities" may arise at any particular time with a particular client or prospect. "Excellent Customer Service" is the new silver bullet shredding paths across all major industries and service providers.

"On-Budget and On-Time" may have become a cliche in our industry a while back, but it still makes, and more importantly, it keeps clients happy. It increases their bottom line. Whatever that may be. Client satisfaction and retention are of paramount importance now more than ever, as business development, marketing techniques and models have changed with the economic challenges our nation and globe are facing, and will most likely continue to face in the future.

In my experience practicing civil engineering in Florida in the public and private sectors (including a regional water management district), I observed that more often than not, executive managers (both private and public) under-estimated the importance and timing of having a properly designed and permittable SWM system and the correlation to increased revenues and profits regarding any particular project.

Not having a properly designed (and thus permittable) SWM system completed by project schedule is costly, not only in the time and money needed to try to "fix" or "address" administrative and/or technical issues at the tail (or design) end of the project, but it can become one of the more "frustrating" reasons a client is not able to start construction according to his/her schedule. I know. Both as a project engineer and manager, this is the one area that clients are not shy in expressing their disappointment. And by "clients" here I include local, city, county, regional and state agency officials, the public's interest, as well as the traditional developer, owner, private entity, business, etc. This is one of the areas where firms and/or agencies which are re-examining their project development processes can, if they choose to, implement an organizational culture that will lead to delivering projects "On-Budget, On-Time", every time. It is possible! Profits anyone?

The approach to being able to meet schedules and budgets time after time regarding SWM systems design completion (and state of permibility) is to avoid falling into what I call the three main pitfall areas, 1) Lack of Preparation, 2) Lack of Information, and 3) Lack of Determination. There are various simple actions that can, and should be taken, every time an engineer has to design a SWM system for any land use project, as well as preparing the corresponding permit application packages. These actions require a bit of work up-front, and this is where usually inexperienced (or improperly motivated) engineers, and eager (but not able to look past the particular quarter's performance for their own reasons) executive managers run into shortfalls.

I've learned that there are various simple actions that should be taken before actually getting into the project's main schedule, that if applied, will lead to meeting and/or exceeding established project goals. Although they are simple, they require some thought, permitting strategy, initiative, research, willingness to take ownership of the task/project, explicit communications, the ability to look at the project's big picture, effectively interact with other team members, and so on. For instance, holding the "pre-application" meeting, discussing potential challenging design issues or criteria with appropriate agency staff, obtaining the correct design criteria (which set controls?), coordinating with other design staff members, visiting the site, reading the due-diligence report, actually reading the geotechnical investigation report (if available), looking at FEMA and zoning maps, USGS quadrangle maps, researching permit files, adjacent sites, interviewing various people of interest, including the project owner, and others are among teachable tasks that will diminish the number of request for additional information (RAI) letters received after application submittal or eliminate them all together. Permit applications should be expected to be submitted "deemed complete" and ready for approval the first time. Every time. That's the playbook all of the team's members must be on from the time the project is a concept, if not before. With the proper preparation, information and determination at the right time, budgets and schedules not only can be met, they can be exceeded. Revenue retention can be increased, a higher profit margin realized, and let's not forget about the next project, our clients will be happy.

On a side note, there should also be a system in place at the end of the process before final plans are printed and applications are submitted. And that is a pragmatic, daily QA/QC system that is adhered to under the most challenging of deadlines. So many errors and omissions can be corrected if this is utilized routinely. But I have seen this process break down too many times and for the wrong (short-sighted) reasons. Eventually, the QA/QC process is applied when there is enough time or the appropriate peer review staff members are available or a particular project is considered "important" enough. This is the kind of organizational behavior that needs to be avoided, corrected, or eliminated.

The above approach is also applicable to other design areas, such as residential/commercial sites, roadways, bridges, trails, parks, airports, and so on. What changes are the actions (different skill/knowledge sets) that need to be taken up-front for each type of project. This applies from simple tasks to complete project management. So keeping information, preparation, and determination in mind will always be useful when commencing any type of new task or project. With enough emphasis, mentoring and patience, this approach can be cultivated among staff members. If consistently repeated for each new task and/or project, the project "team" eventually embraces the disciplined approach and comes to prefer it. I'll summarize with a couple of more cliches. "Do it right the first time", "Don't leave for tomorrow what you can do today", and "don't underestimate what changes you can effect as an individual" (this last one is mine, sort of).

It is said that "engineering" is the science of taking complex problems and breaking them down into smaller tasks that are focused-based, interconnected and solvable. If this is so, what could the "art" of engineering be?

Juan A. Chan, P.E.

What is your firm or agency doing to prepare itself for the remainder of 2010, 2011, and beyond?

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