Professional and Career Topics

Expand all | Collapse all

"Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

  • 1.  "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 03-23-2022 07:55 AM
    As I understood it, "Grease the Skids" was a term used to describe any facilitative process used to ease (typically) an exceptionally challenging process. Considering I was working in an engineering design department at a shipyard, it seemed rather apropos for those of us that were "speculative" shipbuilders and not "operative".

    The contractual review and approval cycles can be very contentious periods where time is of the essence and heavily dependent upon the type of contract. Stakeholders on both sides will often take on the traditional adversarial roles with the goal of protecting "their" interest. Internal stakeholders guarding against scope creep, disclosure of proprietary data and design process challenges; and external stakeholders guarding their deliverables, budget, milestones, delivery dates and approval authority (often layered with bureaucracy).

    A few of the ways in which we "Greased the Skids" in the design review and approval cycles were through 1) design process transparency; 2) mentality change from adversarial to partnership; and 3) stakeholder review meetings attended by approval authorities in advance of any package delivery.

    Stakeholder review meetings were initially a challenge. Internal stakeholders hesitated to commit based on concerns of sharing design info/data too early in the process and external stakeholders (without final approval authority) concerned about the liability associated with what may be viewed as a "stamp of approval" or go ahead to proceed down a certain path. It took some time and some Memorandum of Agreements (MOAs) and/or Understanding (MOUs) to reach a point of comfort. However, once the process was underway and the external stakeholder agreed to have decision makers and approval authorities represented in meetings, the skids were officially "greased". Non-traditional working relationships were established. Internal stakeholders, individuals that typical had minimal contact with any approval technical authority, found external stakeholders more than willing to work through their challenges. Gone were the days of keeping the external stakeholder in the dark for months and then dropping a design for weeks of a technical review, comments and questions; and the week of addressing comments and questions; and the back and forth. Individuals found that they could pick up the phone, contact counterparts directly, and work through the challenges together. When time for final review and comments arrived, that large package had been reviewed and agreed upon in small bites. Is there a joke about how to eat an elephant in there somewhere?

    Greasing the skids - Optimizing a meeting review with preparation: Pre-meeting packages. Leaving meetings with answers and minimizing the unanswered questions.

    There are a multitude of ways to "Grease the Skids" when facing challenges. How have things changed in the past ten (10) years? How are stakeholder relationships these days? Do they still use the term stakeholders? What challenges do you face that could benefit from "Greasing the Skids"? What process or processes have you found beneficial in "greasing the skids"?




    ------------------------------
    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
    ------------------------------


  • 2.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 03-23-2022 10:02 AM
    I have removed the fax number from my cover sheet and added my email address.  As long as the proper agents are kept in the loop, there is no substitution to direct communication.  While the formalities of review are required to maintain objectivity, it can magnify small discrepancies that are quickly resolved by a simple check in.  Emails are just another form of documentation, being direct can only reinforce and clarify the contract.  If things are less clear, it's an indication of a need for a meeting or verbal discussion.

    ------------------------------
    Chad Morrison P.E., F.ASCE
    Professional Engineer
    Greenville RI
    ------------------------------



  • 3.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 03-23-2022 11:35 AM
    Absolutely, Mr. Morrison. Direct communication!!!!
    I have to laugh because I am old enough to remember when we were transitioning to the use of office PCs and email. We use to lament about the challenges (particularly the delays) that we would face when folks would start sending email and waiting for responses vs. walking to see individuals or phone calls. Of course, I am trying to remember when everyone eventually had their own company phone (landline).

    ------------------------------
    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
    ------------------------------



  • 4.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 03-28-2022 10:13 AM
    I recently retired from decades as a civil engineering consultant to numerous public transportation agencies, primarily highway departments. I agree with your observations & recommendations. I would emphasize the need for transparency and research in the pre-contract/business development stage. Agencies that award contracts to consultants to plan & design public works should be completely transparent about their policies & procedures, particularly for this discussion, for review and approval. Consultant company management provide adequate time & resources (budget & staff) to research these for each target client, including personal contacts with appropriate agency staff to understand how they will process reviews & approvals. For example, which departments will participate, in what order, and will any other agencies or stakeholders be involved. These answers, along with a thorough understanding of the scope of services, should then be used to develop the proposed schedule and budget. After selection, and during contract negotiation, the consultant should then review these assumptions and reach agreement with the client and document decisions made. All of this should be disseminated to the whole project team (consultant & agency personnel) at the beginning; and revisited periodically during the project. In this way we can, hopefully, fulfill the adage "I can't promise no problems, but I will promise no surprises."

    ------------------------------
    Fraser Howe P.E., F.ASCE
    ------------------------------



  • 5.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 04-04-2022 09:15 AM
    Although it is desirable to have a good relationship with a potential design consultant, that has caused significant problems of alleged favortism.  As a result, consultants are selected for projects on an alternating basis.  The other problem is that bidding for contractors is not only most competitive, but the award must be based on low bid.  Each contractor supposedly is ranked on their experience with certain types of projects, but the low bid always prevails.  The contractor's previous performance on projects has to be egregious before they are eliminated as "qualified".  These marginal contractors usually try to obtain other subconsultants to make up for their lack of expertise.  As a result, the project proceeds slowly because of lack of expertise.  Some states I deal with feel that there must be an adversarial relationship between designers and contractors because that is what is our function as taxpayer overseers.  Although expediting contracts seems beneficial, an adequate review, which is typically contested by the design consultant who contends that their design is "perfect", causes needless delays and friction.  We have an instance where the design submitted had unnecessary machine and electrical component requirements, resulting in a multi-million dollar cost overrun.  Rather than supporting its own own staff engineers, the selection agency just thought that the conflict was too much, so the excessive design was accepted to appease the design consultant.  Just another example of needless waste of tax dollars...

    ------------------------------
    Christopher Hahin P.E., M.ASCE
    ENG OF STRUCTUR
    Illinois Dept. of Transportation
    Springfield IL
    ------------------------------



  • 6.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 04-04-2022 03:09 PM
    Thanks for noting the challenges when faced with "least cost" bidding, Christopher Hahin.  I'm on the customer/owner side of the industry.  My public agency's board of directors got rid of the ill-advised requirement to select the lowest bidder years ago for just the reasons specified.  No doubt a chore pushing that reform through the state general assembly.  Cost still factors in for us, and it's important, but we can go as low as 40% weighting on the proposal evaluation.  One stumbling block for me is the back-and-forth required to achieve regulatory review and approval before and during the project execution.  We can wait six months just for regulatory comments on a design for a relatively small $200,000 construction project.  Building good relationships with management at regulatory agencies seems like the only way to grease those skids.  Naturally, private engineering firms shouldn't influence regulatory review.  Ethically speaking, it seems appropriate for public agency owner engineers to build trust with public regulatory engineers to achieve this.

    ------------------------------
    Dudley McFadden P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE
    Principal Civil Engineer
    Roseville CA
    ------------------------------



  • 7.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 04-07-2022 10:39 AM
    Mr. McFadden, as you state good and trusting relationships are key. Some agencies may not have the manpower to address all the projects under their purview. I imagine some may use that time block or the allocation of time (with a big cushion) to cover. I am interested in knowing whether reviewers/approvers (weeks into the review) will pick up the phone and call for a uncommon/non-standard detail (unfamiliar to the reviewer) or simply send it back into a review & comment cycle.

    I imagine that some have submitted volumes of documents that are knowingly overwhelming or not truly ready. When I was reviewing drawings, I found that some were submitting what I would deem "BAD" drawings that were not intended for a good faith review but simply to meet a submission schedule. Given there were typically QA/QC processes that required a checker, after 5-10 minutes I would note that the drawing was not ready for review and send it back. Of course, early on I believed I reveled in the thought of being finding & correcting all these errors and what a good job I was doing. Once they ping you for exceeding the time allotted for a review activity or you have more responsibility and other work, things change.

    While private engineering firms should not influence regulatory review, they can assist in expediting the process and demonstrating how they may be able to ease the process. It often requires a demonstration of how the process will work upfront, but that time in the beginning can ease the burdens associated with reviewing large chunks of info and result in a significant time savings.

    I had a quick thought that it was ridiculous for regulatory agencies and engineers not to trust us given we have a common interest in our and the public's welfare (we are the public); and then my thoughts took me to Superfund sites and the building that collapsed in Florida. Were these the result of trusting relationships? I am recalling my conversations/debates about the importance of ASCE 7 basic load cases with some project managers without engineering or apparently any type of science degrees and I awake from my idealistic world and smacked with reality. Engineers may have built the bed that we and future engineers must lie upon or laid the foundation that we continue to shore up and build upon. We have built a robust regulatory system to minimize challenges. Do we start over? If so, how?

    "TRUST BUT VERIFY (frequently)!"


    ------------------------------
    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
    ------------------------------



  • 8.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 04-11-2022 01:49 PM
    Great topic and feedback!

    Having served on both sides of municipal owner-engineer aisle, I've found that no amount of legislation, formality (e.g. MOAs/MOUs) or transparency will be enough to serve the best interests of all parties, unless the relationships are built on a foundation of mutual trust and an understanding of each party's role. There are simply too many ways to slip obstructions of all sizes between the cogs of the wheel and bog it down for all, regardless of intentions.

    So, for example, the owner must make a serious effort to prepare a solid, unambiguous scope of work with their selected engineer and with the desired level of effort to achieve the owner's goal. Similarly, the engineer must must work together with the owner and QA/QC staff on both sides to prepare a solid, unambiguous set of construction documents to allow contractors to deliver the most competitive bids possible. [This goes a long way towards keeping the bids as "honest" as possible.] All parties should operate in good faith and be willing to accept their share of responsibility for whatever goes wrong along the way towards project success, so that fair resolutions can be achieved in a timely manner. With appropriate checks and balances in place, and as long as it is deemed responsive and responsible, the construction bidder producing the lowest price should always prevail, as that would represent the best use of public dollars.

    ------------------------------
    Ronald Eyma P.E., M.ASCE
    Municipal Engineer/Consultant
    Fort Lauderdale, FL
    ------------------------------



  • 9.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 05-20-2022 10:57 AM
    Definitely agree with the requirement for mutual trust and understanding. Should the bidder producing the lowest price ALWAYS prevail? I thought there were other factors considered such as performance history and availability of direct staffing.

    ------------------------------
    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
    ------------------------------



  • 10.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 05-20-2022 01:48 PM
    Bid documents are a window into the organization producing them, and how a successful bid may be administered. So, I'm a strong advocate for producing the most complete and accurate set of bid and construction documents possible before advertisement. As such, all selection factors to be considered, including performance history and availability of direct staffing, should be clearly described in the bid. Leaving important factors out of a bid, even if addressed in subsequent addenda, could lead prospective bidders to wonder about what other important information may be left out of the bid. Ambiguity and weakened owner credibility will be reflected in higher levels of uncertainty and correspondingly higher bid prices.

    If selections are based on factors clearly laid out in a well-prepared bid, the lowest priced, responsive and responsible bid should prevail. It's unfair, and indeed unethical, to recommend selections based on unstated or capricious factors (i.e., making up or changing the rules as we go). For many public projects, the governing body/officials have the collective authority to contract with any bidder regardless of bid prices, and that's a political decision the governing body will have to own and be accountable for. My responsibility is to provide them with a recommendation that I can defend based on tangible, verifiable factors.

    ------------------------------
    Ronald Eyma P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE
    Municipal Engineer/Consultant
    Fort Lauderdale, FL
    ------------------------------



  • 11.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 05-20-2022 01:49 PM
    The lowest bid should not always prevail. and we have learned that the hard way.  Even with a very good set of plans, contractors can cut corners during construction, propose alternate materials and methods of construction or fabrication, all in an effort to make up the difference in their low bid.  Many times they do not have advice of other engineers and specialists, asking the owner "how the problem should be solved".  This is especially the case in some of our projects which involve the needs of structural, electrical, welding, materials and mechanical engineers and the contractor has no real engineering staff and must solicit outside advice.  In the end, we as owners, perform the problem-solving for the contractor just so the project moves along.  The statement that low bid "serves the taxpayers" is only one side of the coin.  If a project is delayed because of a slow-moving inexperienced or understaffed contractor, the project completion time is extended and the "taxpayer" businesses are affected along with traffic at a standstill or re-routed.  This ends up stiffing the taxpayer either directly or indirectly.  Low bid with a high quality contractor best serves the general public...

    ------------------------------
    Christopher Hahin P.E., M.ASCE
    ENG OF STRUCTUR
    Illinois Dept. of Transportation
    Springfield IL
    ------------------------------



  • 12.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 05-20-2022 03:38 PM
    I think we're all saying the same thing....

    After careful review of bids, with necessary due diligence on reviewers' part, an inexperienced or understaffed contractor would not be deemed to be "responsive and responsible", and therefore wouldn't be considered for selection, regardless of their bid price. On the other hand, if a bid attracts multiple high quality contractors, as defined by the bid selection criteria, then the lowest bid would best serve the general public.

    ------------------------------
    Ronald Eyma P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE
    Municipal Engineer/Consultant
    Fort Lauderdale, FL
    ------------------------------



  • 13.  RE: "Grease the Skids": Optimizing the Review, Comment and Approval Cycles

    Posted 05-23-2022 11:06 AM
    No matter how perfect the package is, the bids were responsive and the selection process was flawless, the project team and all stakeholders must also understand that we have to have a solid and transparent Change Management process.

    ------------------------------
    Michael Kozinetz Aff.M.ASCE
    Construction Manager
    Murrells Inlet SC
    ------------------------------