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Watering Concrete

We had a frustrating experience recently introducing someone to Partnership Economics. I’ll call him “Bob.” Talking with Bob and then getting his unfounded pushback reminded me of frustrating pushback I received from some co-workers at the start of my career.

Back in the day, toward the beginning of my junior year as an engineering undergraduate, I caught a huge break when I was hired as the process engineer for a modular building manufacturer named Cardinal Industries. At the time Cardinal was experiencing explosive growth as one of the largest residential builders in the nation and had just opened its fourth facility, this one in Atlanta for which I was hired.

The quickest way to describe what I did is to say I was responsible for the design compliance and quality control side of making twelve foot by twenty-four foot cubes, like giant Lego blocks, that were trucked and pieced together in the field to create homes, apartments, motels, and light commercial buildings. What would have been stick-built on site in a traditional construction project, for a Cardinal project took place inside its manufacturing facilities where we had a high degree of control over the inventory, process, assembly, and quality of these Lego-like cubes. On the site development side, all the land clearing, grading, foundation and utility installation, and paving work were done in the traditional way.

An aspect of my responsibilities that I liked was being able to practice on the job what I was learning in school. Usually that went well - getting traditional thinkers like the manufacturing workers to do something different based on new information. But that didn’t always go well or had mixed results, and when it didn’t go as I hoped I would feel frustrated. I remembered the lesson and frustration from one of those experiences after talking with Bob.

Here’s how that lesson went down. During one expansion of the Atlanta facility, we built and set a bunch of these cubes, configured as new admin offices, adjacent to the manufacturing plant. Newly poured concrete sidewalks connected the existing concrete apron in front of the plant to exterior doors of the new offices. A few days after the sidewalks were poured, I noticed the new concrete drying out under the hot Georgia sun. I knew from my materials design courses that concrete does not harden by drying out but it hardens by curing. Curing is a chemical reaction that requires moisture for the concrete to reach its maximum strength, usually twenty-one to twenty-eight days. Much like a cake that crumbles and breaks apart because the cook didn’t add enough water or milk, concrete without sufficient moisture during the curing period risks spalling (the concrete equivalent of the cake crumbling apart). The crew that installed the concrete didn’t cover it or do anything else to make sure it had enough moisture to properly cure, and they were long gone on other projects, so I took it upon myself to water the concrete sidewalks every couple of days for the next few weeks.

The first week or so I had lots of conversations with co-workers from the manufacturing side, not the site development side, who stopped to ask why I was so stupid as to water the sidewalks. Many of them listened to my explanation and seemed to appreciate learning something new. A handful of guys from the plant, however, decided to ignore my reasoning and make jokes about my watering the sidewalks. Maybe they were teasing in good-natured jest, maybe they long-ago decided nothing beyond their scope of work mattered, but I became frustrated with them because they didn’t seem to want to understand the reasoning for my actions. I even considering abandoning what I knew was the right thing to do so they’d stop teasing me and making comments at our staff meetings, but I didn’t.

Late one afternoon before leaving work, I was watering the sidewalks when the regional vice-president walked up from behind and asked what I was doing. A little nervous, I explained about concrete curing while he just stared at me. About that time, to make matters worse – at least in my youthful perspective – two of the guys who liked to bust me about the watering exited the plant and walked toward us. They knew the vice-president and called out to him, laughing about me wasting water on the sidewalks and what was he going to do about it. The vice-president just smiled, exchanged a barb or two with them, and then walked down the wet sidewalk to his office.

A few days later I was called down to the vice-president’s office. I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed it was like being called to the principal’s office and I was in trouble. I imagined him showing me the water bill and docking my pay, or worse. But as I quickly learned, he knew all about concrete curing and the need to keep new concrete moist. He also knew I had recently applied for a new position, which would be a promotion that moved me out of the plant to the field with a meaningful raise, and he had called me into his office to give me that promotion. I was floored, but from then on I had a supportive advocate while at Cardinal.

The memory of that concrete watering experience bubbled up after being frustrated by our conversation with Bob, and I soon recognized it for the unexpected gift that it is. Instead of continuing to be as frustrated with Bob, someone whom we assumed because of his training and reputation would recognize the transformative value of economic mutuality and mutual benefit, that memory helped me understand Bob was a variation of the guys who chose to ignore how concrete cures and laugh at me working to bring the concrete to its full strength. My frustration with Bob has diminished but it lingers, because his pushback also seems to come from a place of choosing to ignore. Maybe Bob has a plantation system position to protect; maybe it’s just not yet Bob’s time to hear or learn a better way. Whatever the underlying cause, we'd prefer that he had a reasoned explanation for his pushback.

Explaining and advocating for Partnership Economics will face challenges, like the people who would laugh at watering fresh concrete without stopping to ask ‘why?’. We’ll need to practice not becoming overly frustrated while we wait for them to choose to hear. Others will hear and learn and become supportive advocates, like my former vice-president. Meanwhile, we’ll keep watering Partnership Economics and encourage others to do the same.

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