“I think it's very important to have a feedback loop, where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing it better. I think that's the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” -- Elon Musk.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” I remember calling to my big sister Wendy when we were kids. She was always better at hiding than I was, but I never gave up. She might get bored and come out. Or call to me so I could find her faster, but I never gave up.

These days, if you swap out “my sister Wendy” for “Truth,” that pretty much sums up the core value of my company – a dogged, almost compulsive, search for the truth at all costs.

Tank Linings and Concrete Secondary Containments

In a typical consulting project, say, an internal tank lining, or concrete secondary containment area, there is confusion. If there was an existing coating that failed, we need to understand why, or at least, what we need to do differently during mitigation. (Related reading: 5 Coating Defects That Can Be Avoided By Adhering To Coating Specs.) Perhaps a rigid coating was put on the concrete and an elastomer was required. Or with an internal tank lining, we may specify a 3-coat baked phenolic system at 8 to 10 mils, or a 100% solids one-coat at 75 to 100 mils.

The point is, as we drill down into the project, a consensus begins to build. In fact, right after I wrote that line, I found this quote from Elon Musk, “(Physics is) a good framework for thinking. …boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.”

When Musk was considered Space X and reusable rocket components, he had a general idea that, over time, became more and more specific until the final rocket component was developed.

Return to Fundamentals to Gain Consensus on Difficult Problems

Just this past fall, for example, I received a call from an overseas client. We had no purchase order with this division, yet they needed my advice, and quickly. I was torn. While I would have liked a PO, there was simply no time. They were asking me to weigh in on a roughly $750,000 project that was at a go/no-go point. And I only had a couple of days to make a decision.

They had erected a large concrete water tank seven years prior (picture an Olympic swimming pool sitting on-grade). In its design, they knew it would leak, and “chased cracks” with crack injection for the first few years. Then it stopped leaking. Everything was fine.

They were only able to take it out of service once every seven years and it was critical to the functioning of the facility. They had gone as far as using a submersible to inspect the bare, concrete walls of the tank interior for any distress.

The sent over documentation and we had a variety of conversions, the last of which went something like this:

Me: “So it looked like the underwater inspection didn’t show any distress. Is that correct?”

Engineer: “Yes. No internal distress.”

Me: “Is the rebar sufficiently positioned below the concrete surface on the tank interior to protect it from the tank contents?

Engineer: “Yes.”

Me: “Is there anything in the tank other than water that would promote corrosion (of the rebar) or erosion of the concrete, like chlorides?”

Engineer: “Nope.”

I then asked the million-dollar questions, “Then why are you considering coating the interior.”

I knew the answer before he gave it and it always goes something like this.

“Well, we talked to a contractor (and you can replace contractor with engineering firm, coating manufacturer, etc.) and they thought it was a good idea.” He went out to explain the “justifications” these other vendors had come up with. That the tank could only be accessed once every seven years. It’s a good idea. Belt and suspenders. The rebar will eventually rust. Blah, blah, blah. (Related reading: Correcting and Preventing Concrete Corrosion.)

My response was direct. There was no data to support that any corrosion, erosion or other method of degradation was taking place inside this tank or would anytime soon. “Unless I’m missing something,” I said, “There’s no technical justification to coat the interior of this tank. And, by the way, the coating you’re considering using is non-optimal anyway.”

They called me a few days later to say they cancelled the lining project. I asked about a retroactive PO for our services, but never heard back, lol.

Back to our search for consensus and our current project.

We have been working on the most complex and costly project we have ever come across, or, frankly, heard of or read about. Limited to what can be shared, suffice it to say that a material was applied to a substrate and the material has degraded. For complex reasons, it has been decided to leave some of the material in place and repair the remainder.

And the project is exceptionally large in terms of scope, accessibility, cost and duration. We’ve contacted close to 30 different material suppliers to start the process of gaining a consensus as to what materials (or generic type of material) would work, and what application techniques. We’ve reviewed 100’s if not 1000’s of documents and spoke to dozens of different individuals. Yet the deeper we dug, the more confusing the situation and the more elusive consensus.

To cite just one example, we had a conference call with an engineering firm that started out somewhat hostile and accusatory. We had recommended consideration of solution A (applying a material over an existing distressed material in a certain manner). One of the engineers challenged the recommendation and asked, “Wouldn’t the application you’re suggesting potentially lead to water being held against the substrate?” He was correct, but arguing the point was going to be useless. So I paused and asked, “Is there any system you can think of that doesn’t have that risk?”

There was a long pause, and finally he said, “I’d never thought of that. No, I guess all of the materials available have that risk.”

The process was growing increasingly complex and frustrating. Vendors were becoming impatient, as we were the de facto gatekeepers to the solutions we would recommend to our client.

And then, one day, I was at my Brazilian Jujitsu class. I’ve studied and taught martial arts for years, but I am a struggling white belt in BJJ. The instructor, Jeff, is among the best I’ve ever trained with. He was teaching a technique and said something pertaining to hips, weight distribution and fundamentals, and then, finally, something like, “If you are rolling and forget what to do, go back to the fundamentals.”

Bingo. It was that kernel of truth that would not only make me less horrible at BJJ, but would allow me to approach our project with renewed focus.

Going back to the fundamentals in this case, and, in fact, most cases, meant finding the data (come out, come out, wherever you are).

Forget the unsubstantiated anecdotes (of which there were many), ignore the tone of some of the participants. A keen eye for verifiable data was the knife I used to cut through the confusion, the questionable incentives of some, and the ignorance of others. And very quickly consensus began to build: not among everyone, but among those people involved who were highly technically competent.

I also tended to contact those individuals less likely to agree with me (other than my wife and three daughters), and I count myself fortunate that there are many. I didn’t want to talk to people that were supportive. I wanted to talk to highly competent, honest, people who couldn’t help but challenged me, my assumptions and my direction.

As coating, corrosion and material professionals, it is incumbent upon us to constantly separate the wheat from the chaff and think critically. We need to have a “feedback loop” either externally, where we talk to peers, or internally, “Am I missing something? What could I be doing differently? Are there any other alternatives?”

For those of us who are inspectors, how many times have we heard a contractor say, “It’ll be fine. We’ve always done it that way.” When that happens, inspectors must trust the data and, ideally, work towards consensus with the contractor and others.

For consultants specifying solutions, we must separate the sales jargon from the established performance characteristics of products or procedures. That’s why I prefer to talk to technical support rather than sales folks.

Finding the Failure Mode

I recall working on a substantial failure of a several-hundred-meter long concrete trench. Everyone was focused on the mode of failure, moisture content of the concrete, was the material mixed properly, etc. They were all looking for the smoking gun, but they were looking in the wrong place.

I was focused on the email chain between the engineering firm and the material supplier that led to the application specification. The engineering firm was relying on the material supplier, who was not focused on the details. No one in the email chain was invested in the outcome. No one was asking questions. There was no feedback loop and no consensus. There was no consensus because no one was looking for it.

The technical reason for the trench failure was moisture in the concrete, but the smoking gun was a lack of technical curiosity, a search for the truth and, ultimately, a lack of consensus.