I’m Too Busy!

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this in my 30 years in the AEC (Architecture/Engineering/Construction) Industry, I would be a very rich woman.  Very rich!

According to AIA Best Practices “Quality Control: Managing the Top 5 Risks

“No matter how desirable a program of in-house loss prevention might be, such a program will not function if it imposes unrealistic burdens or unobtainable goalsIt must, therefore, be implemented with little or no increase in general overhead expenses.”

This original article was published by Schinnerer & Co. in 1973.  Since that time, the five areas within architecture practice that most frequently give rise to claims have remained the same.

  1. Failure to supervise inexperienced employees.
  2. Inadequate project coordination and in-house coordination.
  3. Failure to communicate between the prime professional and the consultants.
  4. Lack of quality control on design changes.
  5. Poorly worded contract documents.

Seriously?  41 YEARS and we still haven’t found a way to knock these items off the list.  Why?  Because we are too busy!  Sorry, sounds like an excuse (and a poor one) to me.

In my humble opinion, we have to make the time.  We can’t afford not to.  In the long run we make it up tenfold in the often challenging construction phase of the project.

In my experience, most design contracts are front loaded.  Most of the fees are received by the design team by the end of construction documents.  The construction phase portion of the fee (typically 20% to 25%) is spread over the length of the construction period.  This can be a long time to break up a very small portion of the fee.  Most design firms can’t financially survive unless they have projects in design at the same time they have projects in construction. There is just not enough money coming in during construction to pay the bills.  

Anyone in this business who has been around for a while will know this.  Yet, we continue to operate in way that expose us to this risk.  Why?  I will go out on a limb with this one and say it is because it is easier to do what we have always done rather than find new methods.  Change is hard, it takes work and nobody has time to learn to do it a different way.  At least that is the excuse I hear.

If you haven’t read my blog before, you should know I have worked for a general contractor, many years for an architect and now work at an MEP engineering firm.  The short story is that I have seen these issues from multiple viewpoints. 

Some of my personal observations on these items of risk:

Failure to Supervise Inexperienced Employees

I can’t count how many times I have seen a senior person hand off work to a junior person and then never check it.  If you are not going to use that opportunity to train and mentor your junior staff (in conjunction with your design process) or you do not have a solid QC process in place, you are asking to lose time and money during the construction phase and you are exposing yourself to potential disputes.  You are also setting up an environment for that junior staff member to make the same mistakes again. 

You cannot afford to lose the time dealing with the mistakes during construction.  Unless you are putting away extra money during the heavy payment period of your contract to deal with these issues later (which nobody does) you are going to lose your    ass during construction which will affect your overall profitability, likely your E&O premiums and potentially the health of your firm. 

Those few extra hours you spend with inexperienced staff during design will always come out in your favor in the end.

Inadequate Project Coordination and In-house Coordination

If we can’t talk to each other in our own firms to be sure we are on the same page, imagine the breakdown when information needs to get to other members of the project team outside of our firm. 

Why do we have this issue?  Is it because we are largely a community of introverts and it is just easier to do the work and get it out?  Is it ego?  Is it fear of holding our work up in front of our peers?  I don’t know exactly but it is a problem that needs to be fixed. 

If you don’t have them already, start implementing processes, checklists and team meetings at key milestone points in your project.  If you are not telling them, they likely don’t know.  Fix it.

Failure to Communicate between the Prime Professional and the Consultants

This one is a serious pet peeve of mine.  Until I moved to the engineering side of the fence, I never realized just how little of the project requirements are shared with the consultants.  

I will totally own the fact that while at my old architectural firm I did not even think to share a lot of the requirements that were outside of the actual design with the consultants.  I just ASSUMED (how I hate that word, especially when I do it) that consultants had all the same training that I did and knew where to get and how to incorporate that information.  Boy was I a dummy! 

Consultants get ZERO real world contract documents training at school and next to none on the job.  Because it is not their responsibility to coordinate the whole of the project (that is you Architects), these requirements rarely fall on their radar.  Hence all the stuff we see in consultant documents where it does not belong.

Send them a list.  Ask your consultants to get CSI project delivery and contract documents training.  Have a meeting to go over the requirements that are most often a point of conflict.  Ask for early copies of their documents and actually look them over.  Each time you help your consultants do a better job on their documents, the less conflicts you are likely to see in the projects they help you design.

Lack of Quality Control on Design Changes

One piece of my current job description is administering our QA/QC program.  This was a new endeavor for me.  Our firm consists of around 200 people in five offices around the country.  My task was to come up with efficient procedures that would result in every single project getting a QC by fresh, experienced eyes before that project went out the door.  This has been a daunting task that I have spent the last 2-1/2 years making successful.  In order to come up with ideas, I did research and had many conversations with my connections in other firms and CSI.  My question was “Do you have a QC process and does it work?” 

Many did not have a defined process.  The typical answer was “Yeah, I look them over before they go out.”   The answer from the people who worked in a firm with a process was typically “We try to get them done but it is hit and miss.”  I did not have one conversation with a firm who QC’d 100% of their projects.

This is a real problem.  No matter how good you are, if you stare at the same drawings and documents for months at a time, you are going to stop seeing some things.

So, back to the quote above “It must, therefore, be implemented with little or no increase in general overhead expenses.” 

This can be done!  It requires solid processes, good staff training and a very organized system to track every project at key points.  It will not work if you procrastinate (not that we have any of that in this industry) and leave the QC to the last possible minute.  It takes planning and effort but is a beautiful thing to see when it works.  Even small mistakes can equate to a lot of time and big dollars during construction.  I guarantee, even though you will have to add a few hours into your project budget for QC you will see a remarkable increase in profitability and a notable decrease in time spent during the construction phase by your staff.

Poorly worded Contract Documents

The fact is, there is either inadequate or no education in college for contract document practices.  It doesn’t make sense to me but that is just the way it is. 

When you hit the real world, if you are a design professional, you may work on drawings but do not typically get your hands dirty in specs or contracts for a number of years.  When the time rolls around to venture into this arena, my experience has been that it is a trial by fire with almost no training or mentoring.  “Here, edit this spec.”  Now let’s watch the RFI’s roll in.

I could write a novel on this topic alone about why this is dangerous.  The drawings and specs are THE CONTRACT.  You would not sign a business or personal contract (hopefully) without an experienced review yet we let inexperienced staff go to town in our Contract Documents.

For the sake of brevity (of which this blog has none) this is an easy fix.  CSI offers the most affordable and time efficient education and training in contract documents and project delivery practices out there.  They offer it in a number of formats from classes at the local chapter to pre-recorded webinars.  There are a number of free practice groups for members every month to continue learning.  I have not found another organization where you can get anywhere close to this level of education needed to do your job right.  There are many ways to institute this education with your staff, all very cost effective.  You do not have to be a member to use this valuable resource (although I would strongly encourage it.)

I am sure I have not shared any big epiphanies here for experienced design professionals but I am hoping that this blog will get you rethinking this issue and how to improve.

If we have not managed to improve on the top five risk areas in our industry in 41 years, especially in light of how much change we have seen in the way we work during that time, then we have a real problem and we need to change.

Improving even one item above will make a difference in your project quality and profitability.

         Is change really that hard?  I think not. 

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