Paying Attention Now Can Save Headaches Later The Devil's in the Details

Paying Attention Now Can Save Headaches Later

We are all taught to “Look at the Big Picture.” That was a common phrase back in the 1980s when managers focused on how their actions resonated with the mission statement and goals of the corporation; whether that corporation was IBM, the U.S. Army, or your condo or co-op building on Park Avenue.

Today, there seems to be heavy emphasis on the idea of “Thinking Outside the Box.”

Who knows what the next overused cliché or buzzword will be—but whether you are a Big Picture kind of person or a Thinking Outside the Box type, two things remain unchanged when running a residential building: The first one is people. And the second one is details.

I am going to spend some time here discussing the latter of the two. Details so often seem to fall between the cracks. I am guilty of not paying attention to detail sometimes, and yet it’s always those small details that crop up at the worst possible time and make life more difficult than it needs to be.

Case in Point

My building is replacing its cooling tower. I discovered last year in late summer that our 30-year-old, 800-ton Baltimore cooling tower was on its way out. My building hired an engineering firm that began collecting data and defined the scope of the work that needed to be done. In October, we started planning for the tower replacement in spring of 2008. By the end of November, we had proposals from the engineer, and the cost was worked into the 2008 budget. In January of 2008, we had the contractor chosen and signed the contract. The tower was ordered from the factory for May delivery, since it takes about five months to complete the manufacture.

In late April, the manufacturer confirmed a delivery date in early May, which meant with a two-week installation period we would have our new tower up and running by mid-May.

Mid-May came, and went, however, and the manufacturer stated that due to unforeseen circumstances (probably small details that someone forgot to make sure of, but we will never know) our cooling tower delivery date was now June 1st, which meant June 15th for an up-and-running date.

So the contractor pulled the appropriate permits from the DOT to close off the street and a permit for the crane to hoist the old tower down and the new tower up. June 1st arrived, and so did our brand new shining tower. Three hours into the operation, inspectors from the Department of Buildings arrived and asked to see permits. Our contractor proudly showed the two inspectors the permits, and with a smile one inspector said, “This is fine, but I need to see the other permit—the one from the Department of Buildings.”

The inspectors said that in order to HVAC work, you need permitting from the DOB. Well, the contractor knows that—so he didn’t have one. So the inspectors placed a “stop work order” on the job. The crane was sent away, and so was the remaining half of our cooling tower. The cost of the crane is about $20,000 per day, which the contractor had to absorb.

Okay, lesson learned, right? Pay attention to details.

A new installation day was set for Sunday, June 8. The crane rigger pulled the DOT permits to close the street and lift the cooling tower, and the contractor now had the DOB permits. So June 7th came and everyone was sharing information when it was learned that the rigger had his permit for June 8th (Sunday)…and the contractor had his permit for June 7th (Saturday). Again, communication and attention to details failed spectacularly. Needless to say, the tower installation was not going to happen that weekend.

And then the 95-degrees-plus heat wave hit.

In all of this, where was the engineer who was our project manager? He was to have acted as the conductor of an orchestra, making sure everyone was on the same page and that the project was being performed according to the signed contracts. Guess the engineer didn’t pay attention to the details. Guess both the rigger and the contractor didn’t pay attention to details, either.

And where was I, you might ask? Guess I put too much faith in the engineer, and the contractor, and the rigger. While it’s not the job of a super or resident manager to pay that much attention to details, I should have followed my gut.

So, three lessons learned:

As the super or resident manager, make sure you pay attention to the details and make sure everyone else conducting the work is also.

Make sure that everyone is communicating with one another, and make sure everyone is on the same page.

You need to do this regardless of whether or not you paid an engineer to do it, or if the managing agent is supposed to, because the bottom line is that the building is your ship and you need to command it. In the words of General Colin Powell: “ If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception— it is a prevailing attitude.”

Peter Grech is a building manager, superintendent and president of the New York Superintendents Technical Association.

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