Where has the passion gone?

James Joyce, 1 photographic print, b&w, cartes...
Mr Joyce

If you do not have any passion in what you do in your life, you really are wasting your time. I am passionate about my work, James Joyce, visual basic, writing, teaching those who want to learn, and above all else my darling wife, plus a few other things. But I suppose the main passion (excluding my wife) is work. I am not a workaholic but I still get a buzz from delivering projects.

My question is why are some people so dispassionate when it comes to work. We spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with our families so if you are not passionate about what you do you should stop doing it and try something else. Sounds a bit harsh but why waste your life doing something you don’t enjoy.

If you are passionate about something you can inspire others to go with you on that journey, to be part of something not just a passenger. Unfortunately many people have no passion or if they do, they keep it well hidden.

So why do I place a picture of James Joyce in this blog. The reasons are twofold: I have a passion for his works; and he had a passion for his work. Some people struggle with his novels but my advice is to persevere. Ulysses must be the greatest novel of the twentieth century and as I was brought up as Irish catholic with all the associated guilt it relates to me. I am sure there are many of out there who could relate to it as well.

We know we are making money ….. aren’t we?

Robert Bernard Reich, American politician, aca...
Robert Reich come back all is forgiven

Some people confuse increased company activity with increased profits. When in fact they are just going broke quicker.  Now before we start I am not rambling about Keynesian economics, the Galbraith hypothesis or even Robert Reich‘s analysis of the Global Financial Crisis (the most recent not the one that will hit before Christmas). This missive is about the nuts and bolts of how we manage our dollars in straightforward construction and engineering contracting.

If you are not in construction/resources/engineering in Australia you assume that those of us who are get paid in gold bars and all the companies for whom we work are making gazillions. As I find it hard to be objective from within all I will say is we work hard and booms don’t last forever. But what is a given is that we do not maximize our profits because our thinking is out dated. So what has Robert Reich got to do with construction/engineering in Queensland Australia in 2011? The answer is simple: his analysis of complex US/global economic problems is rational and succinct; and we don’t analyse our projects well enough. He understands: the complexities and his precis is in lay mans’ language; we don’t appreciate the complexities and summarize without fact or maybe with linked spreadsheets or proprietary software which is not fully understood by not only the people using it, but less so by the people relying on it.

Most organisations know where they stand financially as an overall business but have difficulty in being up to speed at a project level. They rely too much on the verbal reassurances from Project Managers, and glossy monthly reports full of nice pictures, colourful graphs and the ubiquitous spreadsheets. All of which the site cadet has spent a week preparing and the project manager’s cursory glance.

The simple fact is the senior management want to know two things: what are the risks; and what are the opportunities. And they need t have confidence in the person giving them that information. That is why the financial status of the project MUST come from the finance department, and the project team provide the forecast of what will it cost to get the job to the finishing post and how much above/below the contract sum will we be paid. That does not sound difficult because it isn’t.

Next time when the blog is on this subject I will look at making sure it is not difficult whilst ensuring accuracy and confidence.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Trajan's Column - Roman Soldiers Building a Fo...

All the successful project managers I have known have had a common thread. They have certain traits that distinguish them from other PMs or other members of the project team.

I decided to hit the keyboard on the subject as I have been talking with perspective employers about the next project. Invariably the question they all ask is what are your strengths? (easy peasy) but you know what is next – what are your weaknesses?

Now I have hire many staff over the years from Project Directors on $2billion projects to site clerks, and I have asked the same questions. The hard part is divorcing the kind of person you want as the employer and deciding on the right person for the project. I have hired people who could be the most difficult, recalcitrant and plain bloody minded but they were right for the job. I have also hired people that I thought at interview were marvelous people, and they were, but you would not put them in charge of a free bar.

Now when I am asked about my strengths I admit that I trot out the normal stuff. I will use one word for each: team, relationships, example, foresight, leadership, tenacious, focussed, driven, professional, experience etc etc. I usually add a few others that satisfied clients have used about some completed projects: the shark, hit-the-ground-running, and my favorite which I was described as by a very influential Arab developer – Mr Wolf

So how to respond to the “Weakness” question. You need to be honest. I have had people become more humble than Uriah Heap and advise them to try social work not project management. I have had some who have no weaknesses (next candidate please). The secret is be prepared for the question as it always gets asked.

But returning to the common thread and PM’s traits there is one weakness that does surface in many of us. That is we take over a team member’s critical tasks sometimes if that person is struggling. Yes as good leaders we know that people make mistakes and we council, train, “mother hen” them. We don’t let them go under. But the response during the interview is usually on the lines:

“some people may see it as a weakness but when a team member is struggling with a critical task I go out of my way to help them achieve the goal they are striving for”

My response is as Mr Wolf “I solve problems”

On the Road to Damascus

Street sign near the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus,...
An actual street sign!!!

No I have not “seen the light”, done a Saint Paul, or had some other recent mystical experience.

This post is about my business trip from Latakia in northern Syria by road along the M5 to Damascus and then on to the M1 to Beirut.

The plan was simple fly from my office in Doha Qatar to Latakia Syria (on the Mediterranean just south of the border with Turkey. Doha to Latakia is about 2,000 klms ie Brisbane to Ayres Rock or say London to Sicily. But of course in the Arab world things are never that simple. There are visas, questions about what country’s passport you hold, the reason for the visit etc. The Middle East is not the same as traveling through the EEC even for me with dual nationality of Australia and UK so two passports.

It was decided the day before the trip that we would pop over to Sannaa (Yemen) and Kartoum (Sudan) as we had construction projects in these locations too. Now I have been to damascus before and Beirut but not on the same trip , Yemen and Sudan were my first visits. I was not concerned as we were usually bumped up from business to first class on the plane, drivers waiting at the airport to take us to the best hotel in town. Anyway that afternoon my very efficient PA and Sami brought in my travel documents and local currency for each country. I should point out that Sami does not have a job title, he is a local and he only can be described as “a fixer”. You need a visa, driving licence, tickets for anythink, the Sami will speak to one of his “cousins” who all seem to work at a minisitry of something in the government, and things just happen.

The big surprise for me was amongst the documents there was a form I had to sign – my kidnap insurance, and the port were my body was to be sent to. The reason for this was we were off to Sudan and Yemen. But Sami assured me there should not be a problem as were ere not Americans, my colleague was British. So with lots of enshallas and mafi mushkalas the paperwork was completed and we were off the following morning.

At Doha airport the flight plan had changed it was now Doha to Damascus and then a four hour drive from Damascus up to Latakia, an overnight stay then a four hour drive back to Damascus the f0llowing morning. So we arrived at Damascus and our driver failed to show. So we just hired a car and set off on the M5 which sounds impressive but is not. It is a single lane highway but wide enough for three lanes in either direction. In other words it is a motorway with no line markings, no white lines, no signs, no lights, but does have lunatic Turkish truck drivers, donkeys with carts, and all the pleasures of driving with our arab friends bless em.

Although I had been to Syria a few times previously I had allways arrived at an airport, rushed by car to a nearby hotel etc, this time I had a four hour drive which meant interaction with the locals. This occured very quickly in fact less than a kilometre from the Airport. The traffic lights went red, I pulled up and two local gentelment stepped out from the shade of a tree and tapped on my window – with an AK47. One word from them “papers”, one US$100 note from me and we were on our way. This happened four times so it would have been cheaper to hire a local taxi and armed militia don’t issue receipts.

After spending the night in Latakia and having a four hour meeting we headed back on the road to Damascus. Thje plan being to drive to Damascuss, another meeting then 100klms to Beiruit. We arrived at our hotel in down town Damascus only US$300 lighter and discovered the only way to Beiruit was to fly to Jeddah and then to Ammaan, then Beiruit.

One day in Beiruit. Then down to Yemen where we were met at the airport and at the developers office we were greeted with a sign behind reception which stated that all firearms must be left at reception. From the meeting to the Moevenpick hotel the entrance of which is accessed by zig zagging through anti tank obstacles and army posts not only with machine guns but with anti aircraft batteries. The next day off to Kartoum trying to get a hotel out of the ground but in dispute with the only concrete pump operator in the country. And yes his uncle was the president. No overnight stop here, we got the next flight to Doha.

Four days 12,000 klms, US$1,500 in “fees”, kidnap insurance not used, body not returned by body bag, half the people we arranged to meet did not turn up, and those who did could not make a decision.

Doing business is a bit easier (and safer) in Australia!

We are building a “relationship” with this new client

Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. ...
Image via Wikipedia

Oh no. The above word came up in a meeting yesterday and my heart sank – Relationship

Translated into normal language not management speak, it means: the project is under priced; we then gave them some freebies (which is called value engineering); we promised to be on site within a week; and we will complete the project a month earlier than it is humanly possible.  But we are building a relationship because this new client will be fantastic to work with, will be a “key stakeholder” and we will all skip towards practical completion, profit maximised and enhancing our reputation all the way.

Reality does not hit immediately but the warning signs start to emerge. Where are the drawings “approved for construction”?  Why are the agreed inclusions/exclusions different in the contract documents?  Why is it that the client’s representative got sacked from the gestapo for cruelty?

The world weary project manager has seen it all before.  Usually some bright business development manager has “cultivated a relationship” with a “key player” and the brass tacks of the project are merely white noise which distracts from the latte circuit. It is easy to promise the world when someone else has to deliver it.

However, woe betide anyone who dares to say :hang on a minute, who is this client, have we spoke to builders who have worked for them. The silence is deafening and because most PMs are true pragmatists they are countered with being accused of not being “proactive” or even Luddites.

Give us the resources to do the job

The picture explains what the project managers...
Image via Wikipedia

Construction project managers have similar issues the world over, no matter the size or complexity of the projects they manage – resources. The way it should work is a budget is given to the PM to manage, he is responsible so let him get on with it.

But in many companies project teams are invariably understaffed, under funded, and micro managed by head office bean counters.

For example, the chief accountant discovers coloured photocopies discarded by the photocopier shared by 30 staff and is apoplectic with rage. “These cost 18 cents each, use black and white only” he screams, but when asked to get an IT person in to change the default network setting it just never happens. The change setting is simple but it is the levels of security to go through that are the issue. We cannot have project managers who deliver multi million dollar buildings changing print settings, that spells the end of civilization as we know it.

Thousands of dollars are spent on document management systems, we move to cloud storage, and expect our concrete subcontractor to not only download and print the drawings, but to join the project electronic communication merry go round. But ask for a part time document controller and you are sure to be disappointed. Then someone has the shear temerity to point out that with electronic issuing of drawings nobody is actually reviewing the drawing changes. Thousands of dollars of design changes are being left unclaimed. Who is responsible, yes the project manager, but if they had the resources…………………

US Crane Safety

Having worked on projects with bamboo scaffolding and ones where instead of a concrete pump we used 100 local labourers as a chain with buckets balanced on their heads,  I have seen the full spectrum of safety.

I have been a Project Manager on one job in the US and that was ten years ago in Kansas.  A 15,000m2 processing plant, with 30,000m2 concrete hardstand for trucks. Slab on ground,  Steel frame, insulated walls, Colorbond roof – a big shed. Plus all the mechanical services to turn milk product into cheese.  What amazed me was how far the States was behind Australia when it comes to safety even then.  I was chasing work method statements, risk assessments etc and my local site manager thought I was from a different planet.  Anyway, enough of the reminiscences, I will keep that for the next book. The subject that caught my eye recently was crane safety.

The link below contains a video: “Employer Goes Beyond OSHA” by Tudor Van Hampton and is well worth viewing.

Any experienced Australian contractor will watch in amazement as the US industry tries to implement what we have been doing for years.  But I am not putting them down, at least they are trying.  And having worked there “trying” is sometimes the right word.

Click to view:
Enforcing the New Crane Safety Rule | ENR: Engineering News Record | McGraw-Hill Construction.

Job Interview Feedback

One of my pet beefs is the lack of feedback from “Employment Consultants”. I recently was approached, yes that is the word, by one of these consultants to apply for a job that I had not seen advertised. “You are ideal for the role” purred the consultant “$300K plus bonus, plus stock options etc etc”. So immediately he had broken my own number one golden rule: don’t mention money first up.

Well of course I was interested, and within 24 hours I am sat with three suits in a CBD high rise, listening to how wonderful the company was, and how the future was bright and the reasons they had “hunted me down”. When I told them after forty minutes I was curious but not convinced, they were taken aback. The thought had not occurred to the CEO, the CFO and the other suit, that I may turn them down. Which at the end of the meeting I did there and then. Why did I refuse – simple – I did not trust them and everything was too good to be true. They wanted me to run one of their many businesses which they had acquired. They were not true asset strippers but shaking hands with the CEO was akin to shaking hands with a dead fish. There was no chemistry between us, there was no spark.

Usually feedback from employment consultants is extracted if it is bad news, or immediate if it is a job offer. This was a highly unusual scenario for the consultant. He called and immediately started talking money, shares and had no idea that there was more to my decision than the perks and lurks. I explained to him that I came to Australia on a 747 not a banana boat and he was still mystified. Also, the thought of loosing his fee (12.5% on $300k plus) was influencing his excitement. When he realized that I could not be persuaded his tone changed and he wanted to tell me how I should appreciate everything he had done for me. At this point the boy from Liverpool emerged from within and I explained the facts of life to him in words of four letters and one syllable. He will probably be so angry he will un-friend me on Facebook, oh dear.

So my debate rages is it boots or suits for my future? Boots are looking more honest at the moment.