Smart & Streamlined
Many surveying firms have cut spending on new equipment and training while they wait for the economy to recover. Triad Associates, a 29-year-old, mid-sized land development consulting firm with 90-plus employees (41 in the surveying department) located near Seattle, Wash., continues to invest in both. Greg Juneau, PLS, director of surveying, and Mitch Evans, PLS, survey field manager, have spent almost a half million dollars in the last three years on surveying equipment. Over the same period, they have spent $300 in formal training per field surveyor following a strategic and sensibly organized plan. Each dollar they have spent has been paid off and generates revenue through greater efficiency. To stretch a small training budget for 12 crews, Juneau and Evans encourage Triad's surveyors to teach new skills to one another on the job. By setting clear expectations, measuring results and celebrating accomplishments, Triad Associates' managers and surveyors exercise efficient surveying, management and training processes that, in turn, provide end-result success for the business and their clients. In addition to a high level of employee retention, this proactive and effective approach to business has led to faster turnaround times for clients and smaller increases in hourly rates each year. Triad's business plan is working well for the company-and it's a good example of smart business.
Establishing An Effective PlanTriad Associates has continued to invest in new technologies, new equipment and efficient training even during the recent recession in order to avoid the problems it faced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During those formative years, Triad expanded rapidly into Seattle's residential and commercial markets, admittedly without maintaining a high quality of work. Without the proper support and tools, Triad's crews made costly mistakes, which eventually hurt the company's reputation. After significant layoffs and changes in personnel, company operations were changed according to improved priorities. One of those improved priorities was training. Rather than seeing training as a costly and timely weight to its business, Triad made training a pivotal part of its strategy to attract and retain clients and employees. Since then, Triad has done many things to develop its crews' skills.
When Triad supervisors set out to train the company's surveyors in the early 1980s using an employee-focused approach, the company started by leveraging its two most valuable resources: time and knowledge. "The [surveying] department had the resources to help itself; we just weren't organized to take advantage of them," Juneau admits. Juneau, who was a party chief at that time, took the initiative to help staff solve surveying problems at lunch and in-between projects. He and several other surveyors also started a tradition of meeting on Friday nights to discuss the latest trigonometry problem. Over time, the meetings evolved to address the challenges that came from implementing new surveying technologies.
Later, in the early 1990s, Juneau sought help outside of the company to aid him and other staff members in adapting to the latest high-tech surveying equipment. In this second phase of Triad's training evolution, surveyors were sent to equipment and software training classes, many through Renton Technical College (RTC) in Washington state. Additionally, an internal method of training utilized the company's younger staff members who had newer technical skills to help educate others in their departments. This method proved to be beneficial and continues at Triad today.
"In 1996, I found out through classes in AutoCAD and GPS that there was going to be a lot to learn in a short amount of time," says Toivo Orni, LSIT, a survey technician at Triad with an eight-year tenure. "If I was going to become the productive and effective survey technician that I am today, these specialized classes were just the avenue I needed to explore the capabilities of the new high-tech equipment we had purchased."
Orni says Triad encourages employees to take classes even on company time. "We get paid to go to these classes," he says. "It enhances my abilities as a technician and it also allows us to use the equipment the right way and to know how to get the right results-the first time. [Training offers] a better understanding of what the technology is capable of. It allows us to diversify our work here at Triad."
In the early 1990s, Juneau became involved in the Renton Technical College surveying program as a board member to provide input for its engineering and surveying curriculum. Through Juneau's participation at Renton, Triad has obtained new recruits with up-to-date technical skills. Triad currently employs 10 RTC graduates, four of which are now stockholders in the company-a number that is expected to grow.
"I believe Triad and RTC go hand in hand," says Dan Olmstead, a Triad party chief with nine years in at the company. "RTC gave me the tools and understanding of what surveying entails. Triad has provided me with a wealth of knowledge, access to dedicated and highly skilled staff, and invaluable hands-on experience."
Through his active and continuing role on the college's advisory board, Juneau, on behalf of Triad Associates, has donated funds and equipment to help students pay for tuition and textbooks, and to help the program remain updated with the rapid and regular changes the industry undergoes. These investments help to make Renton graduates more marketable-and more attractive-to employers like Triad Associates.
"We would not have near the program we have without the active participation of Triad Associates," says James A. Coan Sr., PLS, an RTC land surveying instructor who adds that the donations from Triad "go a long way towards giving our students a quality education." Coan says Renton also benefits from Triad's progressive internships and hiring approaches. "[Juneau] has hired our instructors in the summer so we can stay current with the profession. One other valuable part of our partnership is the summer hiring of our students who are between the first and second years of their education. Several companies hire students each summer and many times our students go to work with the same companies they worked for while in school [after] they graduate."
This progressive nature extends to Triad's technology training as well.
Keeping Up With TechnologyWhen surveying equipment began to rapidly change in the late 1990s with the introduction of advanced CAD routines, better field computer to office software packages, and more accurate and reliable total stations, Triad sought ways to keep up. In that period, Juneau appointed Mitch Evans, an old friend and former high school teacher, to the position of field survey manager. Given a mandate to improve the efficiency of Triad's surveying crews, Evans now spends part of his time ensuring that the necessary ingredients are in place for the department to successfully adapt to new technology. What are these necessary ingredients?
"You can't give a guy on a backhoe an electronic cut sheet unless you show him how to read it," Evans says. "Field-to-finish workflow is paramount to the success of business. All the aspects of the total surveying process need to be accounted for. If the fieldwork can be accomplished three times faster with a new technology but it creates twice as much work for the office reductions, then you've made a work bulge where previously none existed. Management and technology implementation staff need to communicate and attempt to foresee the entire process before making changes. We've attempted to provide a unified process control that standardizes the ways in which we use and interpret data. Twelve crews generate and use a tremendous amount of data; if that data is collected and processed in 12 different ways, making sense of what we have becomes nearly impossible.
"Client and end-user education become integral to being successful for technology implementation. Internally, our project principals, who bring in much of our work, need to be educated as to what new technologies can do to save their clients time and/or money, or how these new technologies and techniques can give them higher quality products that allow Triad to better meet their clients' needs."
Slowly and steadily, Triad's surveying department has improved with changes to its field and office procedures; the overseeing of training budgets; the efficient coaching of staff members; and the selection of the proper equipment for jobs. Triad's surveying department operates on a project surveyor system in which each of its 12 licensed surveyors are responsible for the project's budget, methodology and time frame. These leaders understand individual project needs and technological advances, and guide crew members to use the right tool for a particular job. And because of the comfortable learning atmosphere embedded at Triad, the entire department has embraced this change; team members are willing to try new methods, technologies and procedures, provide consistent and in-depth feedback, and are even willing to gamble with fixed fee budgets on new and untried processes.
"We've changed both the ways in which the data is collected in the field and processed in the office," Evans says. "For example, we used to collect only mapping data but collected traverse information through hard notes. This dumbed down our field computers to simple data collection devices. With a few key questions about why we were still processing with a pencil, we found that data integrity and retrievability were foremost in senior managers' and licensed professionals' minds." Eventually, Evans continues, "we found a happy medium where averages were booked with a pencil, but all interim observations were recorded electronically. Carefully instituting a new process allowed us to streamline data, keeping the licensed staff happy about accountability and retrievability."
This is just one example of how Triad has kept pace with technology. Evans explains that this process of improvement must be cautiously applied for a company to benefit. "By carefully investigating each prospective advance for full impact across the department and making educated decisions on how to proceed, we've had very few outright failures in technology implementation and numerous successes," he says. "What we did was to implement technology advances on ongoing and new projects where the tool was applicable and represented time or money savings. We then took the training and the technology to where the crew members learn best-in the field."
For office changes, Juneau was instrumental in keeping workflows interwoven with training and instituted mentoring to let in-house "experts' teach others who had similar skills and positions. Both field and office strategies have improved Triad procedures, pleasing an increasing number of clientele, including one of its biggest clients, Yarrow Bay Development Company.
With some 2,500 to 3,000 acres of residential developments in various stages of development, Brian Ross, senior managing partner of Yarrow Bay, has been on the receiving end of Triad's highly efficient survey staff. "We've been able to turn projects around in less time with fewer problems," Ross says. "Triad can meet short turnaround times and complete detailed surveying assignments faster and with fewer revisions due to the high quality of their surveying staff. They bring high-tech solutions to both small- and large-scale projects in a knowledgeable and efficient fashion. With 12 highly trained survey crews, they offer many well-trained personnel to complete tasks on time. This makes for a higher standard of service. We use them exclusively for our survey work because they get the job done right and on time-the first time."
Training With a PurposeAlthough the addition of new instruments and software is often recognized as important and necessary, and although many survey crew members, field chiefs and supervisors may add new tools to their inventory, old habits can die hard unless new surveying methods are married to old skills through continual training. After purchasing new equipment that uses new technology, Triad Associates managers make training a priority so crews can work efficiently with new surveying methods while retaining valuable tried and true techniques.
Tying equipment upgrades to a regular training program can not only help employees operate equipment proficiently, it can also create a culture in which employees can more readily adapt to continuing technological advances. But such a commitment does not necessarily require an elaborate or expensive training program. To get the most out of their equipment, Juneau and Evans have slowly made adjustments over the last 25 years to Triad's daily field and office operations. One step at a time, they have learned the importance of developing the skills of their staff members. And they've learned they are examples themselves.
"Whether you are a manager or crew chief, you can influence people by setting an example. If you make technology a priority, so will others," Juneau says. Juneau follows this leadership rule-of-thumb every day. At scheduled department meetings (and impromptu ones), Juneau and his leadership team regularly discuss the challenges and opportunities of running new equipment.
Zane Nall, PLS, a survey field coordinator at Triad, finds the meetings to be "invaluable in making the equipment and personnel we have work to their full potential. Some discussions include ideas on when to use [a particular type] of equipment and when to keep it in the box. A textbook can't always teach you that."
Evans himself proves his leadership by periodically heading to the field. He not only helped the company purchase new GPS gear, he also went out to the field nearly every time it was used after the purchase. He helped with setup, troubleshooting, training, post-processing and data checking to ensure that the results from the equipment were successful and that staff understood the equipment in order to be productive, confident and self-checking.
"When the crew was trained and confident, I made myself as available as "a phone call away' to answer questions and help to solve problems," Evans says. "Greg [Juneau], in turn, understood the product and its strengths and weaknesses. He wasn't just an arm-bender and budget-watcher; he actively engaged himself in learning the process in order to answer "Big Picture' questions. This process allows everyone to learn and advance. Change must be global for it to be successful."
Encouraging DevelopmentTo effectively implement new technology and to guide the surveying department successfully, Juneau and Evans have cultivated a work environment that encourages people to learn new technology skills. In addition to bringing in vendors and college professors to discuss new technology, Triad gives each staff member non-billable time to learn. Some use this time to go to professional society meetings, to take classes, or to study the latest news and product material and other professional information in the industry. Some even teach refresher courses on technology topics such as GIS.
Triad further encourages staff members to improve their equipment skills through the incentives of public recognition and financial rewards. Wide salary ranges for each position give managers the opportunity to financially recognize employees with new competencies. This encourages staff members to continually grow within their positions by developing valuable technology skills on their own initiative. Employees are also rewarded with increasingly complex projects that take advantage of their new skills. When Juneau creates work schedules, he considers what projects will motivate people, as well as the most efficient ways to finish the work. Juneau and Evans make sure not to overlook the recognition that encourages each individual. Some people at Triad respond well to public praise and others respond to teaching opportunities.
Juneau and Evans have further learned that no one specific training initiative will provide for the best development habits.
"People who are interested in learning new equipment, skills and techniques ask a lot of questions," Juneau says. "Sometimes they even push harder than the teacher can keep up with. The more these folks wish to learn, the more likely they are to spend their and our time to learn new ways to do things, and the more they get to use the new equipment and processes. These individuals rise within the ranks faster, which often persuades others to keep up."
And if employees shine, Triad supervisors notice. "Our company promotes staff based solely on their abilities, not on seniority or other criteria," Juneau says. "We look for and promote those who show the highest level of interest. This is mitigated with the knowledge that everyone needs differing skill sets depending on what their jobs are. Not everyone needs to learn how to run an RTK GPS unit, but most of the staff needs to know how the data matters to them and to understand the limitations and advantages. We try to tailor the training to meet the needs of each staff member."
One method implemented to help staff learn new technology faster, and to encourage personal and professional development is for employees to train one another. At bi-weekly staff meetings, employees who work on unique projects, take courses on specific topics or develop expertise in a specialty area of surveying are given time to present their knowledge to department members. Twice a month, department managers and employees meet to discuss the challenges and opportunities of working with new technology. Aside from these more formal meetings, surveyors are encouraged to use each other as resources. Triad provides each surveying staff member with a cell phone to facilitate communication between employees.