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Zen koans of project management

March 1, 2012
As defined by, koan [koh-ahn] is a nonsensical or paradoxical question to a student for which an answer is demanded, the stress of meditation on the question often being illuminating. Thus, here are some koans about project management for you to ponder.

As defined by, koan [koh-ahn] is a nonsensical or paradoxical question to a student for which an answer is demanded, the stress of meditation on the question often being illuminating. Thus, here are some koans about project management for you to ponder. 

Have you eaten yet?

Bubba the salesman asked Mr. Fine, a project manager, “Where have you come from?”

Mr. Fine said, “From the main office.”

Bubba the salesman said, “Yeah, I just ate lunch at Steak & Beer a few moments ago.”

Mr. Fine said, “Did the waiter who brought you lunch have eyes or not?”

Bubba was speechless and with that became enlightened, saying “I would have taken you to lunch if I’d have known you hadn’t eaten yet.”

“Yes, I know, maybe next week then, and no, you still can’t have the purchase order for the Main Street Shopping Center job,” said Mr. Fine.

Bubba exclaimed, “Drats, at least let me have a second look at it?”

“To buy someone food with the implicit but unstated reason of influencing a business decision might be traditional, but with this economy the bottom line is the bottom line and you’re always about 5% high and I know you can’t match my low quote from a competitor for the order,” said Mr. Fine.

“But I am your giver and you are the receiver of my eventual generosity,” said Bubba. “How can’t you see my motivations are not impure?”

“Because you are blind to my truth and I am blind to yours,” said Mr. Fine. “We could play this game all day. And, yes, you may take me to lunch next week, but only if you bring me a quote at least 5% lower than the last one you sent. Otherwise we shall still be blind to each other.”

Bubba asked, “So from our blindness comes sight?”

“No, from our blindness comes better numbers,” said Mr. Fine.

Comments: To function in the real world we all must turn blind eyes to parts of what we see in order to get things done, but you must open your eyes to the sometimes painful details of others’ motivations or be used like a rented mule. Sight is not seeing, but awareness.

Mr. Fine’s body of wisdom

An estimator asked Mr. Fine, “What is the body of our collective trades wisdom and the function of our trades gestalt wisdom?”

Mr. Fine said, “Your dog eating the quote you spent all last night preparing by hand and didn’t make a copy of is the body of collective trades wisdom, and how this distracted you afterwards  is the function of our trades gestalt wisdom.”

Comments: When Mr. Fine referenced the estimator’s family dog eating the quote he worked on, he was referring to the transitory nature of all wisdom, always in flux and always no more or no less than the perspectives of the two parties asking and receiving what passes for said wisdom. One man’s wisdom is another man’s dogma and that dogma or wisdom is neither correct nor incorrect, it simply is.

When the estimator asked what is the function of the great pool of combined knowledge, and Mr. Fine replied with a comment about being distracted from everything else important after the dog ate his hand-prepared quote, Mr. Fine is referencing the fact that without proper application and understanding, wisdom in and of itself is useless. Only when attention to detail, all details, eventually equals real-life success can one say that one has had even a glimpse of true wisdom of any stripe.

The blown hair pipe wrench

Master Plumber Billy Bob asked Mr. Fine, “What is the blown hair pipe wrench?”

Mr. Fine said, “Each piping branch out of the hundreds of them in a building’s fire sprinkler system supports all of the drenching heads in the system regardless of their actual location.”

Comments: In the end it doesn’t matter who estimates the job, sets the number on bid day, buys the job out, does all the pre-construction documentation, determines what larger pieces of equipment and specialty tools need to be assigned/rented/or bought, directs how the job will get done, etc., no, it just doesn’t matter!

What matters is that the most competent people within the company are selected by the owners/upper management to complete needed tasks most efficiently to maximize eventual profit on the job. It doesn’t matter who wields the blown hair pipe wrench or who uses the office’s computerized estimating system to wrangle out the most 2% plus or minus correct estimate. It doesn’t matter who gets the old geezer, running your warehouse, to call up his cousin at a supply house you use to promise him a hunting trip if he’ll sharpen his pencil just another half of 1% on the quote given that helped you get the job in the first place. No, it just doesn’t matter!

What matters most is to know one’s self, one’s strengths as well as one’s limitations, and to be honest with yourself equally about both. Do the best you can by working smart, working hard and cutting slack and offering praise as well as gentle admonitions to others as you would wish them showered upon you. And remember that in the end — the paradox of life and project management — a hundred years from now, not one wit of anything you’re doing will matter to anyone anyway. So by rights, right now, everything you’re doing matters a lot, not just to you, but to those around you and influenced by you as well!

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via e-mail at: [email protected].

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