Friday, August 7, 2015

Are You Close Enough to the End Result?

My 17-year-old daughter has decided to become an engineer, but she had no idea which engineering discipline to choose. Since I have connections in the profession, I began setting up appointments for her to meet with different kinds of engineers to see which discipline appealed to her most.

We started with the two that I'm most familiar with—civil and environmental. These engineers did a great job selling their specialty, but none really connected with my daughter. Then one of my clients arranged for her to tour the mechanical engineering department at Virginia Tech. The light came on. She came back with an unexpected amount of enthusiasm (after all, like many engineers, she had been mainly drawn to the profession because she was good at math).

What was it that caught her attention? Well, the robotics laboratory was fascinating, of course. But the attraction went deeper. When she visited the previous engineering offices, they inevitably pulled out plan sets to show her their work. They designed things that others built. In the mechanical engineering lab, students designed, built, tested, and refined their work products. It was much more hands-on.

Now I'm not going to suggest that one field of engineering is better than another. That is a personal preference, and all engineering disciplines do valuable work. But I'm convinced there is added benefit in being closely connected with the desired end result. Ultimately, that's what engineers are hired to deliver. Does that mean that engineers must build what they design in order to be more valuable? No, but I do think many engineers could take a more active role in envisioning and shaping the final outcome.

I have several engineer friends who work in manufacturing. In talking to them about their work, the customer is typically a prominent part of the conversation. This is particularly true among those who make products for other businesses. They have a keen understanding of how their products help their customers succeed. 

Among the engineers I work with in the AEC industry, not so much. Many of them seem disconnected from the ultimate project outcomes. Why is the client doing this? What is the business result that is needed? When I pose these questions, I'm often disappointed how little many engineers in our business understand the answers.

This problem isn't limited to the engineers, by the way. Architects can also be prone to overlooking the client's desired end results. A common client complaint is that many architects seem to favor form over function, emphasizing aesthetic design values over practical priorities (such as staying within the client's budget!). One of my favorite architects once told me that his first responsibility was to create spaces that maximize functionality. Aesthetics take precedent, he said, only when the client has designated that as a critical function of the building.

So how can we do a better job connecting our work with the outcomes that ultimately drive our projects? If you follow this blog, you no doubt recognize that I've touched on this general theme before. I keep revisiting it because I keep seeing evidence that it is needed. So here are a few recommendations on how to make your work more results oriented:

Uncover the strategic drivers behind your projects. A/E projects typically help clients achieve strategic business or mission goals. Do you know what those are? Can you describe specifically how your design or solution will enable the client to fulfill those goals?

Don't overlook the human dimension of your solutions. People are always the primary benefactors of your projects. Yet many technical professionals tend to be more focused on the technical aspects of the work than how people are affected. When working on a technical problem, be sure to consider the human consequences. Your solution should explicitly address both the problem and how it impacts people.

Learn to describe your work in terms of its ultimate outcomes. I often point to our project descriptions as evidence that improvement is needed in this area. What do they describe? Typically the tasks performed. Sometimes the technical problem. Rarely do I read, in specific terms, of how the project helped the client be successful. The same is often true in our conversations with existing or prospective clients. 

Promote greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. One of the most common project delivery problems I encounter is inadequate coordination between disciplines. This is a primary cause of design-related construction claims. But true collaboration across disciplines goes deeper than merely avoiding mistakes. It leverages the different perspectives and strengths of each discipline to deliver a more encompassing, higher value solution—one that looks beyond the details of project execution to achieving the project's ultimate goals.

Follow the project all the way through. Sometimes A/E firms are contracted through construction and even start-up. That enables you to have a more direct role in ensuring the project's ultimate success. But what if the contract ends with the completed design? I urge that you keep in contact with the client, offering advice and answering questions, helping the finished project achieve its stated goals. It's not all that uncommon that design-related problems occur during construction or operation that the design firm is not made aware of. It's best to monitor project progress to the end to be in a position to help and perhaps learn from your mistakes.

The most valuable thing we do in our industry is not engineering and architecture, but helping clients realize their dreams and ambitions. We solve problems that hamper their business performance and create facilities that enable their success. When we get closer to the desired end results, the perceived value of our work increases. Agree or disagree? Do you have other suggestions for how our profession can be more directly involved in delivering business results?

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