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Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

  • 1.  Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 07-25-2019 16:20

    I've recently emerged from another work-all-night deadline. Yet again, I've been asking myself why did it happen and how to avoid it in the future. Job discussion boards, such as Glassdoor, are full of people complaining about working overtime, and other people commenting that 'this is the nature of consulting work'. Working through the night may be a personal decision. However, it's just very likely that the quality of work will suffer. 

    Please feel free to share how do you approach tight deadlines. Do you just deal with it by working a lot, or have you found ways to prevent the situation?

    Here are some of my thoughts on the issue:

    1. Sometimes you are just presented with an unrealistic deadline. Someone had a good discussion earlier on how to say 'no' if you are routinely presented with unrealistic deadlines.

    2.Personal time management is a big part of it. I am telling myself to start working two extra hours per day a month before the deadline, instead of eight extra hours per day a week before the deadline. This is straightforward  but not always easy to do.

    3. Project management.
    - 3a. Estimating how long the work will take. I find it challenging to predict how long something will take me, especially for a new type of project. Forget it, if other people are involved. I've heard of a rule of thumb: to estimate the time you think it will take, and multiply it by two
    - 3b. Presenting realistic timelines during the bidding and negotiation process while staying competitive. I am curious about this one, as I wasn't on this side of things much. Do you often feel pressured to present tight deadlines to have a chance at the job?
    - 3c. Unexpected delays, especially delays on the client's side.
         - Several tight deadlines in my experience resulted from waiting for data or other input  from the client, while the final due date hasn't changed.  Formulating deadlines in terms of client milestones may be appropriate (e.g. the final document is due X days after client's review of the draft document). I've seen it done on large multi-player projects but not on smaller projects.



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    Natalya Sokolovskaya P.E.,M.ASCE
    Wynnewood PA
    (323)382-6176
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  • 2.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 07-26-2019 10:18
    Natalya,
    You are definitely not alone. A large part of the problem is economics, both on the competitive end and on the staffing end. Keeping an extra employee through slow periods is expensive. We have been awarded several contracts with work to keep multiple entry level positions busy. We hired one person to fill that position. I have to fill part of that gap doing work that should be passed off. We also share work accros offices so that everyone is kept busy,  but you lose a huge amount of efficiency when you get workers for two days here and three days there. It sounds like bad project management, but it mostly comes from a corporate level of not supporting the projects with what they truly need. Basically, jobs are bid for six people to get it done on time and then staffed with four people to meet the same deadlines.

    Another problem I see is poor use of technology. These errors either set up a project for failure or can derail it with mistakes. This falls into several categories:
    • Bidding with insufficient data or overestimating the value of your data. Using GIS data as if it was a survey is a great example. You may not have the time or money to spend on a survey just to bid a job, but at least do a site visit to verify the accuracy and look for potential challenges.
    • Bidding jobs based on the supposed efficiency of technology that the company hasn't used before. We have run into this where we get the job and fine out we need training or licenses or something that was not accounted for in the bid in terms of cost or time.
    • People who understand technology more than they understand engineering. Some people are a wiz at computer programs and trust them blindly. They don't have as good of a grasp on what the computer is actually designing...what the inputs mean in real life and what outputs are reasonable.


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    Ron Zagrocki P.E.,M.ASCE
    Engineer
    Aliquippa PA
    (717)580-5736
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  • 3.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 07-28-2019 21:45
    Tight deadlines are part of being a consultant.  Often they are not under your control.  A subcontractor of Consulting Team member is often put in a rush position because of a partners mismanagement.  I once had a job on a new airport complex doing the site design work for an Architect.  Because of his late input we had worked all night to finalize a set of plans and than caught the first
    airplane to his office located in another city.  Coffee was served on the flight.  I was hand carrying the drawings wrapped up in a tube.  At the gate they insisted the tube was too long and had to go in the hold.  On arrival no tube of drawings could be found.    I arrived at the Architects Office by the deadline but with no plans.  The first he said was there has been a change and we have more time.  Saved but from my experience working with Architects such rush jobs are common.  I went home and prepared a new set of Ink Drawings with the new changes.  And for lost set, I was covered by Insurance and came out ahead.  And yes the Airline called me a month later noting they had found the drawings lodged out of sight in the hold they had promised had been carefully checked.
    I said keep them.

    ------------------------------
    Frederick Zobrist P.E.,F.ASCE
    CONSULTANT
    Tetra Tech, Inc. (Retired)
    Tucson AZ
    (520) 546-5799
    ------------------------------



  • 4.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 07-29-2019 08:07

    Hey Natalya,

     

    Tight deadlines are the rule, not the exception, in consulting for any profession – especially engineering. Tight deadlines are mostly out of our control because they are mostly client-driven.

     

    Since I've been self-employed, I've noticed my deadline management always gets better with the degree at which I prevent procrastination. This seems to get the best of us at times so be aware of when you feel procrastination taking its toll.

     

     

    Dave Ureña, P.E.

    Banneker, LLC

    3104 N. Armenia Ave

    Suite 2

    Tampa, FL 33607

    813.415.7872

    dave@...

     






  • 5.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 07-26-2019 10:19
    Tight deadlines are one of the most frustrating parts of the consulting field, in my opinion.
    Consistently working longer days tends to wear me out more in the long run than working one really long day and then regular hours the rest of the week.
    One thing I try to do is pull my late work night(s) about 3 or 4 days before the actual deadline. That gives me and the QC reviewer a couple days to clean up any of those it-is-10pm-and-I-am-not-at-full-capacity mistakes before the plans go out.

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    Heidi Wallace EI,A.M.ASCE
    Engineer Intern
    Tulsa OK
    (918)720-8664
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  • 6.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 07-28-2019 09:20
    Natalya your menu of potential reasons for tight deadlines are right on.  During my 50-year career I haves lived with tight deadlines, midnight work and pressure. I know of no engineers who don't experience this frequently, and have to say that, yes, it is an unfortunate part of our business.

     I know that I have accepted tight deadlines to get work. I agree that clients often delay projects by dragging their feet on delivering the data that they are responsible for.  Sometimes poor project management or time management is the root cause.

    Effective project management can mitigate this problem, but only if the firm/agency has the personnel resources.

    One last comment:  there is a difference between a tight deadline and an impossible one.  Engineers are ethically bound to decline projects with impossible deadlines and inform the client or potential client of such.

    ------------------------------
    Bevin Beaudet P.E.,M.ASCE
    President/Owner
    Bevin A. Beaudet, P.E., LLC.
    West Palm Beach FL
    (561)373-4442
    ------------------------------



  • 7.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 07-29-2019 08:08
    Tight deadlines exist not only in consulting but also in government work. No engineering project ever relies on just one person - these are team efforts. This means that to meet the deadline, the entire team has to work effectively and efficiently. Getting information as soon as possible can help even out the load so that no part of the team has to bear the brunt of the workload at the last minute. The manager's role is to chart out the team's approach with deadlines for each group and enforce it strictly. It is important to have regular meetings of group leaders to make sure they have what they need to move ahead. Everyone from the surveyors, coordinators, the designers, to the drafters should be included in these meetings. Many times, bringing everyone together can resolve issues before they become a drag on the schedule.

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    Yance Marti P.E.,M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer IV
    City of Milwaukee
    Milwaukee WI
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  • 8.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 07-30-2019 16:06
    Dear Natalya and all,

    Meeting deadlines reflects good planning. Furthermore, deadlines in the consultancy business are essential for compliance and seriousness despite the fact they are actually frustrating.
    In any tender for work (contractors or suppliers) and consulting services, deadlines are one of the most important terms of the bidding document, beyond which penalties would be imposed. A good professional would make the ultimate of his time to accomplish the duties within a certain deadline. If deadlines are not instructed, the client would not meet his needs in due time.

    Cheers

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    Ala Al-Kazzaz M.ASCE
    Procurement Consultant
    World Bank
    Holly Springs NC
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  • 9.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 11-28-2019 23:02
    • Select quotes from previous contributors
    1. "Tight deadlines are mostly out of our control because they are mostly client-driven."

          2. "Sometimes you are just presented with an unrealistic deadline."

          3. "it mostly comes from a corporate level of not supporting the projects with what they truly need.
               Basically, jobs are bid for six people to get it done on time and then staffed with four people to meet the same deadlines."

     4. "I agree that clients often delay projects by dragging their feet on delivering the data that they are responsible for. "

     In my Management Quality by Design, Inc., consulting practice, when I was in a consult session with the partners
       and/or Board of Directors of engineering firms, I would ask the question:

                        "If you 'fired' 10 to 15% of your clients, would you be more profitable a year from now?"

     With no discussion, the spontaneous response 100% of the time:  "YES!"


    Habit[1]: Applies to a practice or usage so steadily associated with an individual or group as to have almost the force of unwritten law.


    So do you wish to continue the historical-whining, or are you ready to take charge and discuss alternative paths away from and out of this unprofitable and

    no-fun, unappreciated project work?

     

    Cheers,

    Bill

     

    [1] Google.



    ------------------------------
    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880
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  • 10.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 12-20-2019 17:13
    Many professions have deadlines and many of the unreasonable deadlines are sometimes set by an individual for their personal agendas. So the tight deadlines for consulting engineers are not unique in any way. I see it in my own family where my son (in a promotional business) and my daughter who is in sales. As a retired Civil Engineer in construction, our deadlines were at times capricious, but most were the products of weather, access to space, other contractors taking up space, access to equipment, tasks that once started had to be completed without a break, delivery problems, crews being redirected, manpower shortages, organized labor activities, and so on- a big difference from the somewhat controlled offices environment.

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    James Worrell
    Mostly Retired
    PE, RLS (retired)
    Raleigh NC
    jimworrell@...
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  • 11.  RE: Are tight deadlines in engineering consulting the norm or a problem?

    Posted 12-27-2019 15:37
    Nice seeing many interesting discussions on this topic. Let me attempt to add some more.
    • Deadlines are part of our life - from school days to professional life, we are used to constantly setting completion timelines - because we want to get over things - to do something different, something more interesting. Even the New Year resolution is an example.
    • But there is also the harsh reality of deadlines that are pressured and imposed upon. And when they are imposed with a bossy attitude, and appear unrealistic - we become annoyed, even disgusted. If such situations continually happen in an organization, mutual trust, productivity and creativity become threatened.
    • Some deadlines come from genuine requirements for balancing the trio of cost-scope-schedule - to make room for incoming works. One can only hope that quality does not become the casualty in such cases.
    • Also it seems to me, some pressure-feelings develop due to poor communications. In such instances, the burden of onus mostly lies with the managers of different sorts.


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    Dr. Dilip Barua, Ph.D, P.Eng, M. ASCE
    Vancouver, BC, Canada
    Website: https://widecanvas.weebly.com
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