I Don’t Have Enough Time

My biggest pet peeve, actually I have a few, but one that always gets me going is hearing, “I don’t have enough time.” This sentence to me is like nails on a chalkboard. I cringe every time I hear it. This phrase is nonsense and I’ll tell you why. When I first started as a spec coordinator, I’ll be honest, I used this phrase quite often, not just at work, but at home as well. As I continued working and learning, I realized how ridiculous this phrase is. I completely cut it out of vocabulary at work and at home. Let me say, it has made a difference. I no longer look at my tasks in a general sense. I break them down by how long each task takes and go from there. Yes, we all wish for more hours in a day, but that doesn’t excuse poor time management skills or being over worked. Projects suffer, teams suffer, and individuals suffer, mentally and physically.

When I hear this phrase now, it is almost always in regard to specs and if the team has reviewed them. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You have a submittal next week, did you get a chance to review the project manual?

Project Team Member: No, sorry, I haven’t. I don’t have the time and been too busy with other items.

Me: Okay, but they will need to be reviewed.

Project Team Member: Yes, I will go ahead and review those this weekend or next week.

Me: (thinking in my head) That only gives me like a day to turn the markups AROUND!!

Those markups never come, most of the time.

This is in regards to specs, 50% of the Contract Documents!! How is it that people/teams do not have enough time to review the specs to ensure for a well coordinated project manual? Drawings are not everything. Specs are the first thing lawyers look at. They are exact and almost always have one interpretation.

Side track…

I have come to the conclusion that there are two reasons for this phrase:

1. The person is being overworked and needs help.

2. The person has poor time management.

I usually give people the credit, and think they are overworked and trying the best the can. If it happens over and over, then I start to think they can’t manage their time properly. So, for those that have trouble with this, here are some tips:

1. Write out a daily or weekly agenda in terms of priorities, i.e., due dates.

2. Figure out how long it takes to do your most common tasks and improve those times.

3. Focus on the complicated tasks first, those usually take the most time.

4. Take breaks to refresh the mind

Using these simple tips will certainly help you. It might not solve the full picture, but it’s steps in the right direction. I was trained to look for inefficiencies in production and management. I constantly do that. It is one way I improve myself. If I feel like hours are running short, I look back on what I could have done faster, better, and more accurate. I recently heard a podcast where the speaker was talking about wasted time on a job site and boiled it down to walking. He realized if you are walking, you are not “working”, you are not making money. One day, if unions ever allowed, everyone will wear ankle bracelets like Amazon to track movement. The same could be said for those who sit at a desk, like me, but instead of tracking movement, it would track mouse movement and keyboard strokes. Productivity is everything, and it comes down to how well a person manages their time.

Back to specs…

Specs are so important. In my mind, and I tell everyone this, “It’s not your job to worry about specs, you still have to think about them, but it’s my job to worry about them.” I try to make their lives better. Making specification writers more integrated with project teams is something I am striving for. Not to just help me, but to also help everyone else. So that these people can say to me one day, “Yes, I did look at and review the specs.”

I don’t know when specs became so, I hate to say it, but pushed aside or neglected. I know this is not a local topic, but a topic many larger firms have. I think, partly it boils down to education and what people know or don’t know about specs (future post). If everyone had more knowledge and understood fully the ramifications of not having a coordinated project manual, I wouldn’t be typing this post…

I am hearing this phrase less at my firm. The specs… well… It is getting better! Change takes time as I am learning, and so will getting everyone to stop using this phrase. If I can accomplish one goal this year, it would be to help those that feel they don’t have enough time to teach them time management or help them in tasks so they are not overworked or feel so overworked.

We are all on the same team, working towards the same goal.

It Takes Two…

In college I wrote a basic research paper on Community Policing. For those that don’t know what Community Policing is, it is a theory, in short, that states police officers should be proactive and engage the communities they police because it will lessen crime. It’s what every large (50+) police department practices, or so they say they practice. This practice is taught from departments like the NYPD, LAPD to the Fargo, ND police department. When police officers are proactive and engage their communities, crime is theoretically lessened, and this can be proven all across the country. However, in my paper, I found that the community has to accept the police officers role in the practice of community policing, and the police officer has to accept and respect the community or the whole thing doesn’t work. One side can be as proactive as possible, but if the other side doesn’t care or isn’t willing to understand and accept the other, community policing fails. If you are asking how this relates to specs, keep reading.

Last year, my firm invited a spec guru, many of you might know her, Cherise Lakeside, to help revamp our specification process. It was an amazing experience that brought a new spec process, from start to finish, that allowed the spec writers to be more proactive with the teams and allowed the project teams to be more engaged in the project specifications. It has been about 1 year since the implementation of this new process, and can say this process is much better, but still has its obstacles.

One of these obstacles is getting the project teams engaged with the specifications writer. By this I mean, no matter how proactive the specifications writer is in the process, if the project team doesn’t want it, it’s not going to happen. Engaging project teams early on my side, communicating with them often, teaching them, not just telling them, about items I am discussing, and making my work transparent are all tactics I have done to try and kickstart their engagement. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and when it doesn’t, the specs suffer and the project suffers. I see the issues start to come in during constructability reviews or construction when we both fail to get things done.

Having a proactive specifications writer was something our old process lacked. We were very reactive, and it didn’t help the process or the project. We integrated BIM, we got rid of our old project spec checklist, and made it so the specs department was transparent and communicated in a way that was helpful to everyone. It was a totally shift, a 180 degree shift, from the old 20+ year process.

I believe our new process is a two way street between the specifications writer and the project team. Without one, the other one cannot do its’ jobs properly. When teams do not engage, I don’t put the blame on them, I “blame” myself for not trying harder or thinking of something else to get them engaged. After a while, I tend to just let the project ride out, but not without disappointment because I know it could have been better. For the next project with those project teams, I try harder or implement new items to get them engaged. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I won’t not do my job because of the communication breakdown or lack of engagement.

I’m not asking for the world, all I want are the project teams to take ownership of their project specifications and read them, review them, and mark them up. I am open to meetings, discussions, teaching, etc. whatever it takes to get a well coordinated project manual, I am willing to do. This isn’t with all teams either, I would say about 80% of the projects, I get good engagement from the team, it’s only about 20% where I don’t. The new process works, it has been proven to work. A more proactive spec writer leads to a better end result for the project specifications.

Bringing this back to community policing, if the project teams won’t accept the specifications writers role, just like if a community doesn’t accept the police officers role, things won’t change and vice versa. Both sides have to be accepting and understanding of their respective roles and be willing to work together for the better end result. It is a daily struggle with some teams and ultimately, I am not sure if I will ever get through. I understand the challenges of working with 200+ people across two states and understand that it takes time for change to happen. Hopefully, this time next year I can report better results. For now, I won’t give up on those 20% and I will continue to make those 80% even better, #goals.

Why a well edited specification matters.

In an era where Drawings are just not as good as they used to be, specifications need to be better and tighter. The Contractors know where to look to make their money, they have it down to a science. Yet, is the Architecture industry adopting to this? In my mind no, the industry is more focused on technology to help production and save cost on the front end, than by producing quality construction documents to save costly change orders on the backend. I believe they think this effort will save time on production and thus create the time needed for better coordinated documents. This isn’t the case. As I have heard several times, “They will just figure it out in the field.” Well that mentality produced a $40,000 dollar change order because the team did not want to spend the time to figure it out, which would have been a fraction of the cost if they would have figured it out. So when the Drawings are lacking, I feel it’s the responsibility of the spec writer to produce a project manual, to the best of THEIR ability, in order to help out other lacking areas.

In one particular case, a project manual went out on a substantially large project. The team did a fairly good job coordinating with the spec writer and vice versa, or so I thought. I worked on several addenda and realized how uncoordinated the project manual was to the Drawings. I did the best to my ability to help out, and made quite a few changes. About a month ago, I received and RFI on intumescent fireproofing. The quest was if the product specified was fine to use on the exterior. When I looked at the specification, Part 1 said “solvent” which was a good start, then I went down to Part 2, and that is where the problem was. The spec writer failed to edit the specification correctly and listed, among many other wrong items, solvent based and water based products were both listed for interior and exterior applications. It was a mess…

I replied back to the project team saying water based product with a high end architectural finish was acceptable, although not ideal in my mind, for the interior applications. The exterior needed to be solvent based as they hold up better against weather. The team took this response back to the contractor. A few weeks later I heard a response from the team. The contractor stated they bid the water based products for both applications, and rightly so as it was the cheaper, easier product to work with. Looking back at the spec, there wasn’t much that could be done. We could issue an ASI or CCD with a revised spec, but there would be a cost impact, about a $30,000 impact. This isn’t to get into the better option of product here, but show the following:

1. The time it took for the entire project team to review and respond to the RFI.

2. The potential for a change order if the product was changed.

3. Because the specification was not tight or edited correctly, time and money was spent to review something that could have been avoided.

This is a good example of what happens when the specs are not tight or edited correctly. It’s tough for the team to understand everything, and that is where the spec writer comes in. I have heard a term, “information manager”, to describe the new, future role that specification writers are taking. This is interesting, as it’s shifting the role of the specifications manager. Not one person knows everything, but I feel as a spec writer, it is our duty to at least know something about everything or have to tools to gain the information necessary. In the case above, the team probably had no idea about the two types of intumescent fireproofing, and that is where the spec writer should have stepped in and explained the pros and cons of both to the team, so the specification could have been edited correctly. This is where the spec writer should have been the information manager…

As spec writers we need to help project teams out by managing the information related to the project, products, or firm standards. Together as a team, all of this information can be utilized to create solid specs and drawings. Again, the project manual can only be what is put into it. The spec writer needs input from the team and the team needs feedback from the spec writer in order to create well coordinated documents.

Where did the good drawings go?

I recently was listening to a construction podcast where one of the topics briefly discussed was how terrible drawings have become. More like copy and paste, drag and drop type documents. This isn’t the first I have heard this, but this time, I stopped to think why. Why has an industry that was known for perfection and being detailed oriented now being referred to by a Contractor of almost the opposite? Well, personally I think it comes down to several areas where Architecture has failed.

The first, and probably, the most unpopular, as I’ll get some disagreement across the board is with Architecture school programs. Note, I am addressing what I see comes out of the local college Architecture programs, not everyone single one. I also didn’t go through an Architecture program, but I see what it is and what it focuses on and what it doesn’t focus on. Architecture school focuses on design and theory where students are almost suffocated with the amount of work they have to do. All the interns and recent new hires I ask, say they get about one semester of professional practice, but that no one pays attention because it doesn’t matter and they have to spend more time on their design classes. Now design is great, it needs to be taught, it needs to be understood, because design gets you the “W”. If a firm puts out crappy designs, they are not getting Work. So design is a huge component.

However, I think the technical aspect of the profession is missing and contributing to the overall thought that construction drawings are terrible. These young students come out of school with no technical training. They are expected to learn this technical training, which is a huge part of the job, on the job from others. I have had conversations with PM level employees or employees who have been in this industry for a long time that don’t know what specs are, how to read them, or how they relate to their drawings!!! Are you kidding me!!!?? We expect these young professionals to be the production and the Project Architect to direct the technical aspects of the project, but what if the Project Architect has no idea either or is a poor teacher? How are these young professionals supposed to learn!? Many firms don’t invest in the training needed to learn and fully understand the implications of their Work. They have no idea that one simple mislabeled keynote could cost their firm thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Personally, I think Architecture school should have two tracts. Those who are more design driven, and those who are more technical. I didn’t consider Architecture school because I am no artist, I can’t draw, I am a technical person. Now that I know what Architecture is, I would have thrived on a technical path, if it existed. This would partially solve the problem. It would teach those technical aspects of the profession and make it more real world. Especially when it comes to risk management. Something they also don’t learn until they get burned.

Second, we are in a transition period where the baby boomers are retiring with all this knowledge. Once they are gone, that knowledge of 30+ years is gone forever. As a profession, I think we are stuck trying to find out how to capture that knowledge so it can be kept and passed down. The world is moving digital, so how do we get all of this information and knowledge from human minds and documents from the last thirty years? I believe it starts with an information management system. Where communication between people can occur, documents can be kept and tracked, and all of this is search for future generations. I am not sure how many firms have a system like this, but it is one that my firm is attempting to do. It’s tough to get people on board, because there is no immediate reward. It is a reward that comes later, and probably to someone else looking for the answer.

Without all this information stored from these career professionals, we could loose a decades of it. That’s why, we as younger professionals need to engage and learn. It is on us to ask the questions, not for them to just give answers. We need to take the time to learn and understand, rather than be told the answer without understanding it. The younger professionals need to take advantage of these more knowledgeable people, because one day, they might not be there… and then what? Where do we go for information… GOOGLE.

GOOGLE, believe it or not, is an information storage system that is searchable. It has all the answers right! Most times I am never let down by the power of GOOGLE. So why are we, younger professionals, not setting up our own GOOGLE within our firms that is SPECIFIC to our firm and its’ history. GOOGLE doesn’t know why we don’t use a certain product, but someone at our firm does, and we need those answers. What if we use a product or detail that ends up in a lawsuit? In which, we have had history with that product or detail and didn’t use it for certain reasons. How are we supposed to know this? By capturing knowledge and information on a firm specific information management system.

Third, understanding the cost of a mistake. One simple word, such as “galvanized”, being omitted can have huge ramifications on a project. I think young professionals need to understand that the production work they are doing can have a huge negative cost attached to it if done incorrectly. Yes, QA/QC procedures are there for a reason, to check the work, but nobody is perfect.

If people don’t understand the costs of mistakes, then the thought process of, oh they will just figure it out in the field. The contractors and tradesmen / tradeswomen are experts at putting it together, so they will know, or they will ask an RFI. Let me tell you, if that is the case, figure it out on the field, it costs a lot more money to answer an RFI or receive and approve a Change Order, than figuring it out during DD or CD and having it detailed and specified correctly.

Most production level professionals don’t see the bottom line, they don’t see the change order costs or the average cost to process an RFI. They should, so it scares them, and shows them the importance of their work and also gives them a sense of responsibility. It Holds them and everyone on the project team accountable for a good set of contract documents.

Finally, better training. Young professionals coming out of school get training from more experienced staff, but what if this more experienced staff is not a good teacher or teaches bad habits? I firmly agree that all young professionals should have a mentor and go through a training program at their firm. The more experienced and knowledgeable staff need to step up and train the younger generations to be just as capable as they are.

My firm recognized this, and has invested in training programs. It’s something that every firm should do, if it can afford to. We want to fix this industry, but we can do it if we don’t train. Otherwise, Architects will lose their grip even more, and Contractors will take advantage of our mistakes more often with greater cost.

Are there other reasons why drawings suck, yes most likely, but I firmly believe in these four. These four contribute in some capacity, no doubt in my mind. No matter how popular or unpopular some of my thoughts are above, we all have to recognize that drawings or simply contract document are not what they used to be. It will take time, but together, as an industry, can change this perception.

Specs + Data = ?

The AEC industry is finally recognizing their treasure chest of data. It’s like the explosion of analytics with baseball, it took over 100 years for baseball to realize what data chest they had and how to implement it. The same event is happening within the AEC industry and you better hop on the train now because it’s moving fast. Everything from the design of the building to the construction of the building is using data now in some capacity, but what about the specs, how can data assist or improve the role of specifications? The answer is probably not what you think…

When I realized the treasure chest of spec data I was sitting on, I work with a software where everything is stored on a server, my mind literally had one of those light bulb moments. Initially, from our project history in the server, I was able to figure the most commonly used sections and do two things. First, I cut down our 100 page specifications checklist to 40 pages, and finally to what is now 10 pages, of all the common sections for selections. Second, I created a historical archive where we keep those sections that have only been used once or twice in the past 4 years to be stored. My mind was blown, the possibilities where endless. I got amazing reviews for the two items above, and had so many other ideas on how to extract specification data and analyze it, but was going in the wrong direction until…

A few months later, I had another light bulb moment. There is such a thing as good data and bad/useless data. I was moving into the bad/useless data realm. For one example I wanted to figure or set up a template project with the top X amount of sections. Because every good size project has the same basic sections, it would be easy to set up and save time, but this conflicted with the Revit Model and how we bring specifications into our software. Which essentially does the same thing as a template project, although much quicker and smarter. Then, what would I do on small projects or much larger projects? This wasn’t the solution I was looking for on my data set.

My next train of thought took me down some exciting new avenues on how we can leverage data with specifications…. product use and production. Product use is extremely important and I simply define it as “a product specified on a project that was installed”, pretty simple. Why is this important? Because if I am specifying Product A on 85% of my projects, yet on 75% of those projects, the Contractor is substituting for Product B… Why am I specifying this product? Why is the Contractor substituting? Is it because Product A cost more, harder on labor? Is it a regional item where Contractors in a specific region want Product B? Is my firm specifying old technology? Is one office favoring Product A over Product B? As you can see many questions arise, but the big ones are …

If I am specifying Product A and it’s being substituted X amount of time, that COSTS the team time and money every single time. What about RFI’s? The same goes for RFI’s. If we get X percentage of RFI’s on a certain product is it because we are specifying it wrong, detailing it wrong, what is the case? I have heard that it costs my firm over $700 to review an RFI. That was a few years back, so it could have changed, but it just shows the impact RFI’s have. I’m not saying that this data is the answer for all substitutions or RFI’s, but it probably will eliminate a solid portion.

The second data set that is available is production on the specifier side. I’m not talking about the Amazon ankle bracelet monitoring of how much time someone is billing or how much work they are getting done, but in theory one could find the “true” time spent in every section on a server based spec software. What I’m talking about here is this… How long is someone spending in each section editing it down to the project requirements? If a section is consistently taking a long time to edit, why is that the case? Are we specifying older products? Are certain regional offices changing products? All these questions, plus manny, many more can be answered by looking deeply at the software server. From this a specifications writer can appropriately manage work time for a given project, correctly specify the right product, and update masters accordingly.

Unfortunately, the software doesn’t exist for the first data set, product use. The data is there in firm archives, but it would take a huge effort for someone to manually get this data. For the production data set, the software companies would have to enable this feature on their program. The data is there, but would need some configuration by the software company. A simple program, if one doesn’t know SQL, would be Power BI to extract and analyze the data set.

Specs, in this data revolution, seem to be an after thought because these are just word documents. How can you get data from word documents? Well, the two examples above show you how to get specifications into the 21st century and make them a part of this revolution. Right now I am using some of this data to help reorganize and refocus my firms master specification library. By taking the most common sections used, I shortened our project checklist, which enabled us to actually meet with the project teams to discuss the initial spec edits. This has added better coordination and added more overall “value” to the spec writer and Design Development Project Manual.

I was also able to set up the specifications software to conduct or automate basic edits based on soft data. I didn’t have hard data, but I have worked on over 300 projects in the past 4 years, so I know what is specified and what is not. I used that soft data and set the sections up in our software program, so now the software does a majority of the initial edits when the sections are brought in from the Revit model. This has cut down my editing time from about 10-15 minutes per section to under 5 minutes per section on the initial pass through. Where I was spending over 9 hours on 90+ sections, I can now say I spend about half the time on the same amount of sections.

To answer my equation above in the title “specs + data = better overall management”. The data in specs can cut down cost, time, energy, and assist in better management of the projects and master libraries. Once the big software companies come around to product use and production data, the benefits will be even greater, and specifications will truly be in this conversation of data and earn a right to stay in it. It will take some work, but it will revolution not just the project manual, but also how products are selected. Data is everything, we just need to leverage it. We should be working proactively towards a better, more predictable future, not reacting to the past.