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Determining Standards

Standardization is a wonderful tool. Too many alternatives means nothing can work together as a system and quality has no standard for measurement. A monopoly requires and influences the creation of standards. The biggest player gets to make the most rules.

What I see happen is that sometimes standardized operation policy and rules gets out of touch with special needs.

I worked 17 years for a Texas, USA manufacturing/installation corporation that while I was there, was bought out several times by very successful and larger non-USA corporations. Largely because of the highly successful construction (installation) division in which I was among many titles, a construction manager. The new foreign owners in each acquisition were product manufactures expanding their market, who wanted a U.S. construction division to install their products. Our original U.S. product line was a secondary interest.

The ISO quality process

The senior management in every case, were bred and trained in a world of product manufacturing. They hung their souls on assembly line manufacturing quality process standards such as I.S.O,. It was good international MARKETING to say a product is I.S.O. quality manufacturing compliant. Our U.S. product division had an established I.S.O. standard long before I arrived.

U.S. management wanted to create a similar set of strict quality rules on the process, procedures, and methods used in our product installation / construction projects. Construction I.S.O. was just getting started when I started. We had to modify I.S.O. product based guidelines to fit the construction processes.

I.S.O. does not judge the product, only the quality of the process to create a consistent product. Each business writes their own requirements and an I.S.O. managed periodic inspection, judges if we do what we say we do. Inspections are both by internal and external examiners.

Process and procedures ARE critical to consistent high product quality, well run and profitable business, including construction. But remote construction at customer sites does not run (flow) exactly like a manufacturer’s product assembly line.

Although construction uses and installs manufactured components, it is NOT a steady and consistent straight line process. Every construction project must rapidly respond to the real world in real time to what is happening to the process in situ. No construction process is immune from unforeseen change. Parts of in situ construction are estimated and results are only documented after the fact in “as built” drawings and specifications.

I became actively involved with the team that produced and enforced the initial U.S. version of a very broad and workable I.S.O. quality standard, based on normal construction practice. We followed our process for many years and always passed the I.S.O. quality process certification examination each year.

What got lost along the way of growth and acquisition was that I.S.O. sets self imposed quality standards in the form of measurements of quality compared to specification. It was never intend to be a step by every step definition of the process details. Other documents (specifications) can be listed as detail reference to critical steps such as a job definition as part of the quality control. The actual job definition steps in the process are not necessarily a part of I.S.O., only the fact they exist.

ISO rules may say, “Every one has a written job description.” The examiner may ask someone, “How do you know what your job is?” “I have a written job description.” “Where is it kept?” “In this location on the LAN.” ”Show me.” “Here it is…”

The primary problem is that it is impossible to micro define and manage every step as a fixed sequence in real world construction project. Success depends greatly on the inherent and flexible skills a construction site and project manager acquire through experience. Many decisions are made on existing conditions in situ and not verbatim from a book of strict I.S.O. quality rules and procedures.

More rules

As I stated, my initial corporation was twice acquired by sequentially larger corporations who each decided to change more of the old practices that worked so well. It happens every time. A company that is doing well gets taken over and forced into the operating practice of the new owner in an attempt to improve compatibility (not necessarily quality). The bigger but sometimes inferior system wins out. We did that to smaller business we acquired.

Somewhere in the middle of my career, there was a US based decision to produce flow chart processes and procedures that were not part of the I.S.O. standards. I was a participant in its creation. This was an attempt to “road map” installation of a new product line we acquired from our first foreign takeover acquisition. The processes were quite different than our original product line and this was highly successful as a visual guide. This tool was greatly expanded when a new V.P. of Installation was hired who had a strong background, not in construction management, but food product manufacturing on an assembly line process.

The last acquisition was from a very large business who were also high I.S.O. standards advocates. They examined our installation processes (the road map) and thought it was more to their benefit to nail down an even stricter written procedure and detailed processes (LIKE USED ON A MANUFACTURING ASSEMBLY LINE), than to permit undocumented decision making processes that seasoned field managers create. That’s how to run a product assembly line based business, by the rule book. Not by dynamic and somewhat innate construction experience possessed by seasoned veterans. Skill is an intangible, too hard to judge and MEASURE… Look up performance metrics.

This defined process mapping was far beyond I.S.O. standards but was referenced by I.S.O. standards.

An Example

I called the book of rules and procedures we created a “road map”. It was there to provide general direction and guidance when needed. Much like a cross country road trip for a vehicle driver.

A truck driver can see the roads between New York City and Los Angeles on the map. The driver then determines the general direction, but the actual path driven is modified when needed as the driver proceeds west. There are always detours and decisions along the way. A good driver will swerve when necessary to avoid wrecks. Bad weather can change the route at any time. The many routes lead to the same destination.

Who can best drive the semi tractor-trailer across the country? A 16 year old fresh from truck driving school with a strict no change written itinerary that says, “follow only US Route 90”, or a 12 year seasoned well paid veteran truck driver who has made the trip 700 times on various routes, with a decent total USA map in his pocket and freedom to modify the route? If the itinerary is good enough and the environment is static or fixed, the 16 year old, of course, because of a lower labor cost. Ha!

Trying automation

A computer managed procedure tracking system was attempted by a corporate edict to write a process code to define every step taken in a field construction job from the sale to project completion. Each step would be defined in a tree logic structure that would ultimately lead to a finished construction project. No decision would go unmapped. When a step was completed in the process it would be literally handed off by user entry into the computer tracking system and sent (by electronic message) to the predetermined next step in the written computer program. It was internally promoted as a “tool” that would “standardize” the construction process.

Just like an automated assembly line.

After more than a year of trying to build this impossibly complex assembly line like process with thousands of loop backs and variations, into a computer executable program, the tracking “tool” was totally abandoned and the four programmers and their manager were terminated from the payroll. Probably a quarter to half million dollars spent.

What became clear to most in-house construction managers at the time was this new corporate management tool was an attempt to produce a fully automated, every decision, construction management system. Then management could plug in and out, weaker construction managers just like the subcontractors we hire, based on immediate need and available skills. We were creating the detailed rules of engagement (the map) for them to reduce real human management decisions to a sequenced automated assembly line process. Lower skilled people could then manage projects.

The more definition of a process, the less flexible a process becomes. A fact totally lost by the desire for total automated management control. Five man-years of work did not crack the nut.

Evidence that human experience and education are nearly impossible to duplicate in a computer logic diagram.

Labor cost

The seasoned construction managers such as myself (nearly 50 years in construction) didn’t need this level of detail. Who did? Oh! We see the light. Labor is the hardest factor to manage in a construction project. Work expands to fill the excess time available. All construction requires excess time built in for unseen and therefor undefined slippage and direction changes.

The computer program was an automation attempt at managing construction projects like an assembly line process. Let me tell you this from experience. Construction managers do not like micro management from above. It’s necessary for upper management to push projects, but not when it isn’t broken. This tracking program would put 24/7 process tracking beacons on the bodies of every project and site manager. Personally, I would be looking for for a new company where I would be in a little more human control of the variables.

No need for that. Management had admitted it was too complex to build, and I got too old to play “best practice” games with younger remote management… they retired me instead. I was running a manageable and working standards system, but they centralized and (remember that word…) standardized it to European requirements and local control and overhead cost (me) got terminated just like the computer programmers. That’s reality in the fast lane.

Opportunity knocked

What could have been done at one time, was spin off the entire construction management division into it’s own independent business. That was talked about in private peer group conversations many times. Construction shares little resemblance to assembly line product manufacturing (and thinking). Of course such independence would raise initial cost, but would become a fixed cost on a project. The management team is hired on a per job basis. Many of our large customers liked our project management skills so well, they wanted to hire our teams to manage projects other than our own. An indication we were doing something right!

It’s an opportunity we never took. Project management likes fixed cost. I like fixed cost. No issue there. We could have become a resource of independent construction project management teams. Hired in for each project. This is not a new idea. It already exists for most large construction. We just lacked top management to operate that kind of business. It would also be a very big change from our established comfort zone. No regrets from me. We were not broken.

Sales verses bottom line

It’s all mindset and an attempt to standardize cost when the “bean counters” have the business helm. Cost controlled by a well defined automated process is desirable to the financial side of business. The goal is as little cost as possible, yet to survive to make higher profits. Business by the numbers.

A sales driven organization is much different. I have worked in both environments and sales driven has far more enjoyable freedom for growth, experimentation, and development of human relations and occupations.

Getting to the point

My point is that there is no single standard that can be applied equally across several different disciplines. It can be made to work at high level generalization, but the more detail that is attempted the more specialized it becomes. It always gets to a place where it has become so highly specialized and specific, it can no longer be a universal solution. It will only apply to the one condition for which it has become specifically designed.

I started this train of thought not to just tell my own story, but because I have recently been writing on how Microsoft has created a complex system to dominate control of personal computing. It’s very hard, even impossible, to produce a product that suits every need. Sometimes a different product is needed and for that reason alternatives do exist. Thank goodness in the PC world for Apple and Linux and even Android.

I saw my own working career affected by a desire of a remote and disconnected management trying to invent a universal but ever increasing micro management system. A strict automation of a process that removes a high percentage of human flexibility and decision making is not always a good plan. Not everything in this world needs a computer program to replace the variable human factor in the successful business equation.

Personally, I was only micro-managed once in an engineering middle management position I held briefly early in my over 17 year career with this company. I passed that micro-managed position on to others and took on a remote $4.5M construction project in Alaska, where I was the only company man on site for nine months. That was freedom! Spending the portion that was construction funds was fun. The project was completed, ahead of schedule and well under cost budget. I was never micro managed after that.

Survival matters

Now retired, I observe from the sidelines. My plan now is to be content with the time I have left. I enjoy a high level of personal freedom. Much like when I ran (and still do) my own small business. No regrets, the corporate power struggle gave me much to do and I enjoyed playing the game. I helped shape some of the rules along the way. Enemies were few and would always self destruct in time. I was the survivor and still am.

Work of fiction

This article is written for entertainment only, to illustrate the consequence of over standardization and micro management. Any resemblance to unnamed, real world corporations and people is purely coincidental. Personal experiences serve as the general basis for the story line but facts may vary from the author’s true reality.

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