Business Strategies for Surveyors / Columns / Surveying Basics / Boundary & Topo / Turner: Surveyor's Footsteps / Surveying & Mapping Education / Survey Monuments

When It's OK to Spend Your Boss's Money

Many years ago, while working at a mid-size engineering firm, I was called into my supervisor’s office. “You’re different from the other party chiefs,” he said. “When I send you out to do a job, I don’t get phone calls.” What he meant was that I did the job correctly; therefore, it did not require additional action, generate complaints or follow-up phone calls from clients, or create worries on his part.

It was then that I began to understand the mind of a boss. If I performed my job well, he could relax and focus on other important tasks.

Over the last couple of decades, the surveying profession has lost much of the interaction between the seasoned professionals, party chiefs, transitmen and rodmen. With the introduction of robotic and GPS instruments, the last two positions no longer exist in many companies. The journeyman aspect of the profession may have ended. No longer does an experienced professional spend years in the field guiding the novice and teaching him or her the fine art of land surveying.

I love working outdoors and wonder how many of the next-generation surveyors will take a maul and chisel, kneel down in the road and dig up spikes to prove a point? How many know the sound of an old PK nail when “bugged up” with a pin finder? Does the college grad with little field experience know that even when they find a pin sticking up nicely, they still need to check around it for another pin, stone, monument or pipe?

In today’s cost-conscious business environment, firms tend to focus on maximizing productivity and minimizing the use of materials. Although these strategies are certainly important to keep a business profitable, be careful that you’re not compromising too much along the way. You should always take the time in surveying to do a little bit more, dig a little deeper and leave a trail. There are times when it’s OK to spend your boss’s money.

When I was 25 years old, I was transferred from a rural branch to the main suburban office of the engineering firm where I was party chief. One of the older party chiefs began complaining that I used too much flagging. I did use a lot of flagging--I wanted to see my found points when I was setting up a survey and easily find my traverse points a year later when I was sent back for stakeout. If the owner or builder was overly anxious about the survey, I would tie up a lot of flagging on the first day, put up lath that could be easily seen, and generally make it visually clear that I had been there working. Was I wasting materials? Not at all. The cost of the flagging and lath was small in comparison to the peace of mind the client received, and my boss did not get a call asking, “When are they coming out?” after the crew said they had been there for days.

For the past 22 years, I have been the owner of a surveying company and the boss who pays for the flagging, pins, magnetic nails, wood, markers, hubs and more. Every time a crew chief puts a mag nail into the pavement, it’s like driving one of my quarters into the road. Do I mind the expense? Absolutely not. It’s an investment in my business. The same goes for the rest of the supplies that are used in the process of doing a thorough job.

Sometimes I will follow up on an old survey that one of my employees started with his robot. When I find magnetic nails without an orange plastic disc, I wonder why in the world he only put ribbon on the nail. Did he run out and forget to stock up at the office before leaving? Likewise, when I go into the field and find few control points remaining, I wonder why he did not set more mag nails in case our topo turned into the construction site.

When I set up a survey, I like to put in a few more mag nails then necessary. I look for a few more pins, locate the curb line a little farther away for good direction, drop in a nail for future use, and thereby leave clear and accurate tracks to follow. When I set up traverse points, I always take a minute to make sure each point can be seen from two points if possible. I know better than to assume that piles of wood, concrete blocks, trailers and machines will not be in the way when I return a day, week, month or year later.

I have often wondered whether other surveyors take a moment to carefully locate water valves as second-tier control points. A third tier could be a manhole. Taking the time to enter these points in the control layers provides a rough temporary backsight to find a better control point when the original point becomes buried or obscured.

I’m also happy to spend the money to use a surveyor’s nail rather than one made for concrete or carpentry. Every now and then, I find a corner set with rebar that has a painted coating, similar to what is used on bridge or commercial concrete work. It makes me wonder whether a non-licensed person did the work and stole the material. I would rather use a pin that looks the part and gives a greater “sound” for location, because it will rust.

Many times I have silently said “thank you” to the field person who tied a piece of flagging on a fence or tree in the woods. I’ve been reassured by the sight of a square cut in the pavement that I’m following in the footsteps of a diligent surveyor and that a spike will be found underneath. Conversely, I have seen plans with the words “signal found” at a corner in the road and wondered why it was not dug up to see what gave that signal. Once, my business partner and I found what looked like a huge spike in an intersection. After we carefully cleaned it, the edges popped out; we discovered that it was actually a huge ball bearing. I was glad we dug a little deeper in our quest for the truth. I have often dug up other odd items in the road that sounded golden but were not. I can’t imagine holding a “signal.”

Controlling costs is important, but so is due diligence. When you blaze a trail, use an extra magnetic nail, use more flagging, identify an additional control point, locate one more monument then take a few insurance shots. You may spend your employer’s time and money, but the boss will be paid back. Even more importantly, you will leave clear tracks that point the way forward.

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