Learning from more than mistakes, successes

BY MICHAEL CULLINANE MCAA PRESIDENT ANYONE WHO'S BEEN in the mechanical construction industry as long as I have knows that there's not a day that goes by that doesn't bring us a lesson of some sort. Some of these lessons are painful jobs that go bad in unforeseen ways, employees who disappoint us or sometimes even our own costly inattention to detail. Of course, some of the lessons are also positive.

BY MICHAEL CULLINANE
MCAA PRESIDENT

ANYONE WHO'S BEEN in the mechanical construction industry as long as I have knows that there's not a day that goes by that doesn't bring us a lesson of some sort. Some of these lessons are painful — jobs that go bad in unforeseen ways, employees who disappoint us or sometimes even our own costly inattention to detail.

Of course, some of the lessons are also positive. We may cement a productive relationship with a formerly unfamiliar supplier, for instance, or become aware of an outstanding organizational talent in one of our project managers that we had never noticed before. Whatever the nature of the lessons — positive or negative, pleasant or painful — when we ignore them, we do ourselves and our companies a great disservice.

In an industry as competitive as ours is, however, we can't rely on the natural progression of mistakes or triumphs to teach us everything we need to know. That method is just too haphazard and, in the long run, too expensive. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Many private and nonprofit organizations offer construction education in a number of formats.

As the recently elected president of one of these organizations — the Mechanical Contractors Association of America — I'm in a position to speak to just how useful and innovative these educational programs can be. Since MCAA's education program is led by a committee of contractor members, it is perhaps more focused than most on operational areas that can hold both costly pitfalls and profitable opportunities for companies of all sizes.

And, as contractors, we recognize that we're not the easiest people to teach, since many of us have little patience for theory that is not also based in the sometimes hard facts of physical and business reality.

We also don't have much time, so we tend to derive the most benefit from education that targets specific areas in an efficient manner. I'm not just speaking about company owners or CEOs here.

It's been my experience that MCAA contractors value the right kind of education for all their employees — from the project manager to the dispatcher, from the estimator to the company president — because each person plays a key role in the company's success or failure.

One of MCAA's newest educational ventures is the Strategic Estimating Conference, which will be held June 4-6 in Cleveland. It exemplifies the way in which MCAA seeks out an educationally under-explored sphere of business operations in order to illuminate how this area can be optimized to serve the greater success of a company.

For many companies, estimating is a mere avenue for getting to the exciting stuff — the job itself. Estimating is often seen as important but rather routine. The faculty of the Strategic Estimating Conference, however, sees estimating as a key point at which overall company strategy can be reinforced or changed.

Far too many of us respond to every RFP that comes our way without stopping to think about the very real business consequences of securing a job with an undependable (or worse) owner or construction manager. Is every project worth a bid? And, how do you differentiate between worthwhile projects and projects that have a high probability of going bad? This conference will help experienced estimators answer these questions and, further, will help them see how far from routine strategic estimating can be.

We're excited about this program, both because it's new and because it uses a teaching method we've found very useful in the past. I mentioned before that mechanical contractors don't respond well to pure theory. So what we're doing with the Strategic Estimating Conference — and have done in several of our other successful programs — is to use a case study to move the learning along.

Because project management is a key area in which productivity and profitability gains are made — or lost — much of MCAA's educational programming throughout the year is aimed at beginning and experienced project managers. By using the case study method, we immediately gain the attention and involvement of people who face the daily challenges of managing a job.

In this kind of educational programming, those who run projects for a living get to explore alternative ways of looking at jobs and solving problems in an environment in which they can engage in productive "what-if" thinking without the consequences that might ensue in reality.

Being a mechanical contractor in a highly competitive industry allows many of us to make a good living and do satisfying work that is of real use to the communities in which we live, but it's not easy. We all have to rely on the lessons learned by ourselves and others to help us achieve — or hold onto — success.

What I'm suggesting here is that well-planned and executed education can make this learning process much easier. What I've found with my company is that targeted education goes a long way toward ensuring success — and I'm willing to bet that any successful mechanical company in this country would agree with me.

Michael Cullinane is president and comptroller of Bert C. Young & Sons Corp., a mechanical contracting firm in Bell-wood, Ill. He was installed as MCAA national president in March during MCAA's annual convention in Hawaii. To reach him, or to learn more about the Strategic Estimating Conference June 4- 6 in Cleveland, visit MCAA's Website at www.mcaa.org.