The Association for the Capital Projects Engineering & Construction Community.

Embrace the #2 Pencil

June 24, 2015

By J.D. Slaughter, ECC Executive Advisory Committee

It still amazes me how fast technology changes. Improvements seem to be happening constantly. It has been said the only things certain in this world are death, taxes and an inconvenient software update. Our industry is not immune to this, of course. The programs we use are in a constant state of improvement. By the time we get the latest version of PowerPoint or a Pipe Design platform figured out it changes “for the better”. And I often wonder, have things really improved?

I still recall not that long ago my father asking me if this “email fad” had legs and if we as a company should implement the tool. I like to think we’ve been a very aggressive company from an internal software development standpoint, so I was originally taken aback by the question. Why wouldn’t we want to move boldly towards the 21st century? Back in my father’s and grandfather’s day, before Bill Gates even owned a garage, projects were executed very differently. Drawings were done by hand on drafting boards and included such antiquated (but sorely missed) concepts like Plans and Sections. Calculations were also done by hand with a slide rule and eventually with calculators that you can now get at Walgreens for $1. The Big Chief tablet and #2 pencil market was robust. Communication was done mostly in person or by this amazing thing called a typed-memo. Imagine if all of your current email communication was done by hand? Can you imagine sitting at your desk plunking out on a typewriter the volume of words you liberally use to convey what should be a simple and direct message? I often think while sitting in my office poring through hundreds of emails that my father might have been right to question its implementation.

Have we really gotten more efficient as an industry with all of the technical advancements? According to a presentation by IPA’s Ed Merrow, projects are still failing to meet expectations at a clip of around 30-40%, and mega projects are failing at over 60%. The data I’ve seen presented at ECC and CII events are even less optimistic. Talking to an owner executive recently about this issue, his position was clear. He felt modern engineering/design software had not improved project efficiency. It was not that the tools themselves are inefficient but that the tools enable poor behavior by allowing change to occur too easily. His point was that improved technology reduced project execution discipline; being thoughtful and careful was no longer as necessary. I was reflecting on this point recently in a meeting while a host’s IT department tried unsuccessfully for 15 minutes to get the wireless high-efficiency HD projector to work. I think I saw the flip chart in the corner shed a tear.

Maybe it is time to embrace old-school, strip ourselves from the burdens of verbose email scribing, take back control of the computers/tablets/smartphones that currently control us, and charge forward into the future of increased human face-to-face interaction. But what about the employee of the future? Aren’t they the masters of multi-tasking? Would reducing your corporate electronic footprint drive away the electronically addicted? I say do it for their sake. My 14 year old daughter noted the other day that she rarely speaks through a telephone and was amazed how deftly her parents navigate the treacherous waters of human telephonic interaction. I have four teenagers, and I don’t think any of them have actual non-electronic conversations with their peers. I used to say that in a conversation, an extroverted engineer is one that looks at your shoes rather than his or her own. Now I’m starting to think all pre-adults will have this problem.

OK, J.D., so I’ll walk down the hall and have an awkward conversation with my teammate instead of spamming his inbox, but what about cool stuff like RFID-enabled materials management? Isn’t being able to find that control valve out in the laydown yard with an iPad, like, the coolest thing ever? Nonsense. If you plan and manage your materials right in the first place you wouldn’t need a GPS to find stuff.

I suggest we all take an honest look at the electronic norms we have created in our industry. Let’s focus on the fundamentals of excellence in project planning and execution. Take a moment on your current project and consider what time, effort or opportunity is wasted due to technology. How about choosing the technology that works well and shunning the unnecessary. Attempt to have a meeting with a handwritten agenda and no <gasp> PowerPoint slides. Go analog.