Teachable Moments: Learning From Project Challenges

By Wayne D. Moore | Aug 15, 2017




How often does something go wrong on a project? I bet your answer is, “Too often.” Of course, when this happens, it erodes profitability.

Most of these unpleasant surprises result from decisions made during the bidding process. One might decide to use fire alarm systems equipment from a new supplier that offers a reduced price. Or a less expensive fire alarm systems subcontractor. Or a new subcontractor that offers to complete the installation and program the fire alarm system at a price below what is normally paid. The common denominator is price savings. The challenge arises when the decisions eventually cause serious grief, some of which couldn’t have been foreseen.

It seems we often forget the old adage that you get what you pay for. These project challenges—I call them teachable moments—will increase in the coming years for a number of reasons. The first reason is that, as the boomers retire, their replacements do not have the same level of experience. Second, as most readers know, it is hard to hire qualified people.

So, the equipment suppliers and fire alarm subcontractors try to do more work with fewer people. Add to the mix of changing personnel the fact that the new people rarely get all the necessary and expected training they need to do well on projects. 

What can be done with these teachable moments? Perhaps take a deep breath, slow down a little, and figure out what has been learned from this situation.

With fire alarm system issues, learning can be broken down into a few categories. Do the negative issues that arise come from a lack of knowledge regarding the codes and standards, including NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code? For example, did the fire alarm systems subcontractor miss the fact that survivable riser circuits for the speakers were needed on each floor? Did the fire alarm equipment supplier fail to calculate the notification appliance loads correctly? Did the supplier compound this mistake by providing batteries that don’t meet the standby power requirements? Does the subcontractor use technicians with little installation experience and fail to install the return on a Class A circuit, for example? In the same vein, what installation knowledge or background do the fire alarm equipment supplier salespeople have?

Or, has the responsible individual failed to properly coordinate with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ)?

The teachable moment becomes quite obvious. It is important to stop shopping price and shop quality instead. These errors result in lost time, lost profit dollars and lost reputation, because mistakes kept the building from opening on time.

Can these project challenges be avoided? In my opinion, the first way to learn from an issue is to examine what happened from all angles to find out why it happened, not to find fault. Get to the root cause of the problem so something can truly be learned from it. As Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless; planning is everything.”

How can planning be incorporated into fire alarm system purchasing? Develop a checklist of questions that each fire alarm equipment supplier and fire alarm systems subcontractor must answer before you will consider each bid. Questions could include the following: How many manufacturer qualified programmers do you have on staff? How many projects of this size and complexity do you have now and will you have to program those systems at essentially the same time? 

If your project schedule must finish so the owner can open in the fall, ask if the equipment supplier or subcontractor have other jobs, such as school projects, with the same deadline. 

Ask which technicians will be assigned to your project and how long those individuals have worked for the company. Find out what kind of relationship they have with the AHJ. (Make sure you ask the AHJ about them, as well). Get a guarantee that the qualified technicians assigned to your job will stay assigned to the project from beginning to end.

This last item is very important. For large, complex projects, you want the assigned technicians to stay with you. You waste time bringing new guys up to speed.

Purchasing a fire alarm system does not compare to buying a receptacle or light fixture at virtually any wholesaler. Issues with the supplier or subcontractor can almost guarantee that the project will not open on time.

Deciding on a fire alarm equipment supplier or fire alarm systems contractor, and developing a relationship with them and their technicians will result in fewer call backs and fewer project issues. If everything is properly planned ahead of time, the quality and performance of others can be ensured, and project needs will be completely thought through. This will also, hopefully, result in fewer “teachable moments.” That should be your goal.

About The Author

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, was a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is president of the Fire Protection Alliance in Jamestown, R.I. Reach him at [email protected]


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