You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know, Part III


You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know, Part III

A proud supporter of the innovation revolution taking place within the structural building components industry.

What Is Innovation?

To answer that, I would strongly recommend taking 15 minutes out of your day to listen to the June 2013 commencement address by Mr. Wesley Bush, Chairman, President and CEO of Northrup Grumman.

He hits on some timeless points for anyone who desires to innovate but is pulled back by “status quoers” who resist such advancements. He also confirms that anyone who has a penchant for innovation, meaning they’re a strong advocate for making change happen, will be met by strong resistance.

I believe Bush’s key statements are:

“Leadership is a very demanding but very fulfilling role.”

“Three fundamental strengths that great leaders bring to their endeavors: a genuine passionate commitment to the mission of the enterprise; a genuine competence including knowledge and expertise; and a very serious focus on ethics and integrity.”

“Leaders then give weight in their decision-making to priorities that are based on deeply held personal values. This differentiates one leadership style from another.”

“The interesting thing about innovation is that it brings change, change that builds vigor and excitement in an organization. Companies in any enterprise need innovators and diverse thinkers so they can truly exploit the opportunities that go with change. Now that is not to say that innovation is always welcome in every enterprise that you are going to encounter. Simply because innovation means change, it inherently attacks the status quo. Any time the status quo in any enterprise is attacked, you might expect a response.”

“In fact, I have seen some organizations that practically drive good innovators out of their systems because they are not capable of dealing with the change that results. Now fortunately those organizations usually don’t last very long, and if you happen to find yourself in one of them, recognize it and get out.”

“Innovation is an inherently important process that leads to the creation of the future of any enterprise. So my bias in decision-making: favor the innovative ideas, accept the discomfort that comes with that change if you can see a promising potential for a pay-off.”

“It is important to have a commitment that your decisions will drive true value (i.e., profit) creation.”

So, Is There Any Value to Being an Engineer?

Bush’s advice to new graduates speaks directly to the place the structural building components industry stands at this moment. We can yield to those that desire the status quo because it is comfortable, or we can challenge ourselves to look for ways to innovate and foster the discomfort of change. I contend that we need to seize this opportunity in time and drive the construction industry toward the future, just as our industry did at its inception in the 1950s. When presented with a new idea, our industry should be energized, and as Bush recommends, “let our expertise and values guide us” in serving the best interests of our industry.

For example, the definition of what an engineer should be is a perfect example of what and who should be driving our industry forward. What is a professional engineer? Professional engineering law generally says the following:

An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin roots ingeniare (‘to contrive, devise’) and ingenium (‘cleverness’).

The work of engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries and their subsequent applications to human needs and quality of life.

In short, engineers are versatile minds who create links between science, technology and society. The building code defines an “approved source” as follows:

Approved Source: An independent person, firm or corporation, approved by the building official, who is competent and experienced in the application of engineering principles to materials, methods or systems analyses.

For all intents and purposes, this concept is identical to the definition of an engineer. Further, the building code often says that the provisions of the code ought to be implemented in accordance with generally accepted engineering practice.

Confirm that other structural design criteria and design assumptions conform to this code and are in accordance with generally accepted engineering practice.

Therefore, structural engineers have a golden opportunity to support innovative ideas that link scientific discoveries to subsequent applications that advance value to the quality of life. In our industry’s case, this means that innovation should create greater structural framing value, resulting in more accurately designed and reliable structures. Ideally, this results in a more affordable residence or commercial building; otherwise, there is less value to customers for embracing innovation.

There is a common thought in the market that, to undertake engineering today, one has to follow or get approval through the use of a specific ASTM standard, IBC/IRC code provision, ANSI/TPI 1, or be endorsed by some governmental agency, ICC Evaluation Service “Evaluation Service Report (ESR),” national or state engineering association, university professor, etc.

Does this make sense? Are any of these entities more professional than an individual professional engineer? This “approval by others” notion seems very condescending toward normal professional engineers who are knowledgeable in their own right and want to create innovative proprietary solutions to construction problems. It also seems contrary to the concept of creatively using generally accepted engineering practice to better serve society through change. Creative engineers should be about new scientific discoveries and turning those into innovative ideas for the positive advancement of any industry.

The fact is, the “approval by others” notion is intended to thwart innovation. It is the tool that many try to use to maintain the status quo or their proprietary agenda, and it is meant by them to drive good innovators out of the system because they are not capable of dealing with change.

The status quo is particularly desirable for those who have been able to codify into law through the IBC/IRC system a distinct competitive advantage in the market, or convinced the market, through good marketing mythology, there is a key approval gatekeeper that needs to be satisfied before one uses any type of new and innovative product.

Fortunately, as Bush stated in his speech, people and organizations that foster the status quo and restrict innovative ideas usually don’t last very long. Likewise, if you happen to find yourself supporting one of these organizations, it’s probably best to recognize it and run away.

Can Engineers Do Anything They Want Without Constraint?

The above question is the common response by the status quo to anyone who suggests the gatekeeper is unnecessary. This question is intended to mislead, because the obvious answer is no. Engineers must follow generally accepted engineering practice, and their structural design criteria and design assumptions must conform to the minimum properties defined by and codified into law by the building code.

What is unfortunate is that sometimes the building code defines minimum properties in strange ways, primarily because the building code is a political document—not a science-based document. Anyone who believes the building code is purely objective should know there are a few of us who have hundreds of miles of Arizona Pacific Ocean beachfront property for sale today.

One of the key roles of the plan review process is to confirm that the structural design and implementation of that design is done in accordance with these minimum code provisions. The specific role of the building official is as follows:

104.1 General. The building official is hereby authorized and directed to enforce the provisions of this code. The building official shall have the authority to render interpretations of this code and to adopt policies and procedures in order to clarify the application of its provisions. Such interpretations, policies and procedures shall be in compliance with the intent and purpose of this code. Such policies and procedures shall not have the effect of waiving requirements specifically provided for in this code. [Emphasis added]

The key concept here is to enforce the provisions of the code. It appears benign, yet it is vitally important because it does not say, “to enforce the building official’s opinion of what he/she likes or does not like,” but rather, “any interpretations, policies and procedures shall be in compliance with the intent and purpose of this code.”

This falls directly in line with the concept of preserving “free and unfettered competition as the rule of trade,” which is a long-standing federal law that serves as a foundation for our entrepreneurial system, and one everyone is obligated to follow. From the Federal Trade Commission’s website:

“Congress passed the first antitrust law, the Sherman Act, in 1890 as a ‘comprehensive charter of economic liberty aimed at preserving free and unfettered competition as the rule of trade.’ In 1914, Congress passed two additional antitrust laws: the Federal Trade Commission Act, which created the FTC, and the Clayton Act. With some revisions, these are the three core federal antitrust laws still in effect today.

“…Yet for over 100 years, the antitrust laws have had the same basic objective: to protect the process of competition for the benefit of consumers, making sure there are strong incentives for businesses to operate efficiently, keep prices down, and keep quality up….

“For instance, in some sense, an agreement between two individuals to form a partnership restrains trade, but may not do so unreasonably, and thus may be lawful under the antitrust laws. On the other hand, certain acts are considered so harmful to competition that they are almost always illegal.

The penalties for violating the Sherman Act can be severe. Although most enforcement actions are civil, the Sherman Act is also a criminal law, and individuals and businesses that violate it may be prosecuted by the Department of Justice.” [emphasis added]

So what does this all mean in terms of the value of a sealed engineering document and the use of innovative products? It means that the mission of any professional engineering endeavor is to use any and all innovative materials, designs or methods of construction that add value to every enterprise. This innovative approach shall be approved by any building official, unless there are specific reasons that can be provided, where the engineering or innovation is non-code-compliant. 

I contend this is the only approach that truly adds value to society overall, and that equally and fairly protects the consumer and the spirit behind all anti-trust laws in the U.S. through the preservation and advancement of “free and unfettered competition as the rule of trade.” It is why I am a proud supporter of the innovation revolution taking place within the SBC industry, and I invite you to join me as an advocate for change.

This article is Part III of a three-part series entitled “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know.” If you didn’t have the opportunity to read the first two in the series, take a few minutes to check them out:

Part I - from August 2013

Part II - from Sept/Oct 2013