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Project management for surveyors and engineers dealing with many small jobs, part 1.

November 21, 2000
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A slow down is starting to happen.

In the strong economy we have been experiencing for nearly ten years, it is difficult to get the attention of managers to talk about project management. Most companies are lucky to meet most deadlines working 60 hours per week. The sad part of this crisis management style is that most of us are never sure if we are making money or just doing a lot of work. This is truly sad, as some companies have been taking all jobs regardless of price, hoping that what they lose on one job will be made up for in volume. Unfortunately, it does not work that way in business. Each job needs to stand alone as its own profit center.

As I mentioned in a recent guest editorial, I do see signs that a slow down of some magnitude is starting to happen. One company owner recently told me he was looking forward to a business downturn so he can get more organized and work on profitability. The survey and engineering professional that deals with doing many small jobs is at a real crossroads. Traditionally many of these types of jobs have been under priced, and the first reaction in a slowing economy is to want to lower the price. Just when most of us have gotten the courage to charge at least $100 per hour for a two-person survey crew, other professions jump ahead of us. (I recently received a quote from an attorney for $225 per hour.) This quote was for a very special type of service that most attorneys do not provide. This should tell us something about unique markets.

There are many books on the market on project management. Most deal with large engineering projects and use the common language such as building the team, projecting planning goals and objects, project strategy, project control and evaluation, and risk management. Most of the small projects the typical survey company provides is finished before the planning process is finished. What we are going to be spending our time doing in the next two articles is looking at how to manage small projects while making sure we are making money. When I think of managing jobs I always think of the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

If the available books are of little use to the small company and a seat of the pants method is only effective part of the time, how do we manage the work? Here are some important starting points.

Have the right fees

No amount of project management can make a job a winner if the money contracted does not provide the resources to do the work correctly. Surveyors have traditionally let others set the fees for our survey work, many times this was the realtor, title company or attorney who think they know what our product should cost, and many times resent our charging an adequate fee. One of the best things to have happen in surveying is when a client requires an ALTA survey. These standards get all the parties involved reading from the same sheet of music and agreeing on what constitutes a good survey. This then allows the surveyor to charge the proper fee.

Scheduling the Work

It does not matter if you do three jobs or 50 jobs a week. You have to schedule the work. This means both fieldwork and the office portion. The single most important issue is to set realistic delivery schedules when contracting the services. Taking one extra job when you know it will impact all the other jobs in a negative way, may result in your losing money on more than one job. The best way to cut down on the amount of work you have is to raise prices. I am not talking about doubling prices, but by not being the company with the lowest prices around. My experience tells me the cheapest company has the longest backlog. I hear stories about waiting two years to have land surveyed. Does this tell you something about this client? Maybe the only important thing is price. These are not the type of clients to build companies around.

Scope of the Work

Every job has a standard scope of work whether written or not. An important part of project management is to control fieldwork with a proper scope of work. In many cases fieldwork is the least controlled of all tasks. A good example would be a simple lot survey. Every crew thinks they know what is required on a simple survey, but do they really know? The registered surveyor should develop a standard form or checklist containing the requirements in his or her state on what constitutes a complete survey. This should be augmented with checklists for different types of jobs. Notice, I haven’t said one thing about having meetings or developing complex charts or matrixes. What I am presenting to you are common sense things we never get around to doing. This is how you control having many small jobs. Think of a factory: instead of building widgets, we are building surveys through an assembly line of people in their proper places providing their piece of the finished job. Eating an elephant, one bite at a time.

Office Work

I see three pieces that the office provides. The first is getting the job ready to do the fieldwork. This may be one of the most important parts of process. Researching the old surveys, getting the right scope of work for this job, courthouse research of deeds and plats, and pulling this together into a package for the field crew. This package may contain a map showing the location of the job. Getting ready for the day’s work should not be left upon the shoulders of the field crew chief. The crew chief should have the next day’s assignments before leaving for home. The second service is the drafting or plotting of the data. These services can be broken down between different employees depending on their expertise. The best way to manage the cost of office services is to have pre-determined amounts of time allotted to different tasks. Employees should know in advance what is expected of them, and always manage in time, not dollars. These office services should be run like a well-oiled machine. The third service is getting the plat ready for final review and the signature of the registered surveyor. Note that I did not say the company owner. The registered surveyor in charge of that crew and work should be the one to sign the plat. In most well-run companies the person who handles the final paperwork also gets the final product to the client and bills the work.

What I presented is a process that helps manage work. If the company provides different types of services such as construction staking, these employees may have their own part of the building separate from the land surveyors. This may also be true of crews that provide engineering surveys. This separation helps managers control and supervise their function. I know this doesn’t sound like it might be as much fun as meeting together, but this will bring some saneness to the management of field crews. If space is limited, you may want to consider staggering the starting times of some of the different kinds of survey crews. The only meeting needed will be a weekly manager’s review of projects and employee assignments. This should never last more than 45 minutes. On a monthly basis, the owners may want to meet with managers and review the previous month’s profitability. This can be accomplished one-on-one, perhaps over lunch.

In the second part on project management (February 2001) we will look at different methods of organizing paperwork and cost control on projects. Don’t you just feel great? We are starting to practice project management, and we haven’t been to our first meeting.

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