What makes the truly exceptional companies different ?

Posted on Categories Thought Leadership

Do you recall the 1994 book entitled Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras?

In this book the authors asked: “What makes the truly exceptional companies different from the comparison companies and what were the common practices these enduringly great companies followed throughout their history?”

One of their conclusions was that innovating allows companies to keep products and services updated to surpass their competitors. They use Boeing as an example of an innovative leader and rival McDonnell Douglas, which eventually merged with Boeing, as a company struggling to meet airline industry standards. The authors conclude that McDonnell Douglas did not envision how frequently industry innovations might happen or how quickly and cost effectively they could be implemented.

The companies with visionary leaders cited in this book questioned whether their vision was long or short term. We are always testing the boundaries of our ability to clearly see into the future and worry more now about adapting and being nimble when unforeseen events and innovations occur. To address this at Black & Veatch, we ensure that every critical human infrastructure project that we design and construct has a focus on being smart, sustainable and resilient with both cost and timing being important considerations.

Let’s start by reviewing what it means to be “smart” in the context of engineering and construction. Smart sensors and data analytics enable energy, water and telecommunications infrastructure to be designed and operated in smarter, more efficient, reliable and interactive ways. This helps identify potential operational issues while providing situational intelligence to capture and understand multiple data streams quickly and improve the delivery and performance of critical services.

This smart infrastructure collects and analyzes data faster and more effectively to achieve actionable information that improves city systems. We must think about the best ways to integrate smart functionality into everyday infrastructure such as lighting, streets, buildings and other common structures. Replacing our grandfather’s infrastructure with similar products and services would be a mistake.

We can now hear, see and smell with remote sensors to improve the safety of our communities. It is now possible to collect and analyze data on virtually everything to help us more accurately predict the future and make ongoing decisions that will improve the quality of life. Today, we give permissions to every application that we download to monitor our every move. Some of the inherent benefit of this knowledge includes gunshot detection technology to assist police, systems that detect fire-related toxins and alert EMTs and firefighters. In addition, sensors can provide greater opportunities to identify crime suspects for law enforcement.



Sustainability is a balance between social, environmental and economic needs. We must renew our environmental resources for the well-being of current and future generations while taking into account long-term environmental impacts. Life cycle cost analysis has historically addressed at least one question about sustainability. When a product reaches the end of its useful life we now consider how it might be recycled into another product. For example, in a typical structure demolition there are piles of recyclable materials such as bricks, metal and electrical components. Very little of this is wasted as long as there is a viable market for recycling the materials.

Strength and endurance are no longer the only leading indicators in product selection. In addition to product life, we now consider the resource from which the product is derived and if we are replenishing that resource. For water resources, there is currently much more emphasis on water reuse and the full cycle of water in lieu of only water treatment and discharge.


LEED certification for buildings has led the industry in defining vertical construction sustainability. In addition, the engineering and public works industry recently developed a tool called Envision (www.sustainableinfrastructure.org ) that addresses sustainability, cost and community needs as measures for successful sustainable projects.

Lastly, resiliency is also focused our ever changing environment. This is capability to better prepare for and quickly recover from natural or man-made disasters so that negative impacts are mitigated. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that every one dollar invested in community resilience will reduce disaster damages by four dollars. However, there is currently no incentive for local cities to work together on cooperative resilient planning to mutually account and support a metropolitan region in the event of a disaster. The unusual storm patterns, drought durations, sea elevation increases and other Mother Nature induced events have caused us to consider how future patterns may be different from the past.

In the absence of predictability, at what limits should we reasonably protect our systems? The answer is in establishing priorities around the environmental, social and economic impacts that are cornerstones of sustainable design and then prioritizing for the level of resilience that you want to achieve. It is essential that bordering communities share their planning documents related to disaster recovery both before an event occurs, which better coordinates efforts and lowers recovery time.

I don’t know if Thomas Edison gave consideration to smart, sustainable and resilient infrastructure but the inventor of today certainly should. We must look to the future for ways to leverage smart applications. We need to preserve and protect our vital resources through sustainability. And we should fortify what we treasure to the extent that our monetary resources allow. So it’s not good enough to just replace old with new. As my father always told me “Change is inevitable but progress is optional.”

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