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Special Report: Tim Springer – A Reluctant, Rebellious Guru

Written by Heidi Schwartz. Posted in Facility Management, Magazine, Professional Development, Special Reports, Topics

Tagged: , ,

Published on June 30, 2002 with No Comments

By Heidi Schwartz
Published in the June 2002 issue of Today’s Facility Manager magazine

With his quiet demeanor and vast amount of practical knowledge, Dr. Tim Springer is the ideal facility management troubleshooter. He clearly gives the impression of being capable of handling facility management challenge.

Early in his career, Springer served as a faculty member at Illinois State University and Director of the Facilities Management program at the Center for International Facilities Research (CIFR) at Grand Valley State University. He was chairperson of the Human Environment and Design Department at Michigan State University, where he developed and led the graduate program in Facilities Design and Management.

Nowadays, Springer splits his time between two endeavors: as president of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. (Human Environment Research Organization) and as principal of Foresight Associates LLC—his latest undertaking. His landmark work, “Improving Productivity in the Workplace: Reports From The Field,” is a reference for all leading workplace designers.

In spite of this busy schedule, this researcher, educator, and entrepreneur still finds time to write and speak extensively on a wide variety of issues affecting facility managers and their environments. After his general session presentation at Facility Forum 2002, TFM Editor/Co-Publisher Heidi Schwartz had the opportunity to find out more about his views on the changing workplace.

TFM: You’ve been described as “a recognized authority on strategy development, decision making, organizational leadership, environment and behavior, ergonomics, and productivity in high technology workplaces.” How does it feel to be such a well respected resource?

TS: I guess it makes me feel old to be called called a guru, although sometimes I do feel I’ve been around forever. Part of being recognized as having expertise in an area is just simply paying attention and sticking with it long enough so that when everything old becomes new again, you’re ready.

I will say the education experience has helped. I thought I knew quite a bit about the field, but having to teach others at the graduate level is both educational and enviable.

TFM: How did you actually get involved in the facility management profession?

TS: After graduate school, I earned a doctorate in human factors from the University of South Dakota. I decided I wanted to work in business, so I ended up accepting a job at State Farm Insurance.

The company was looking for someone to help them design a solution for employees who used two monitors, and someone was bright enough to recommend hiring a human factors person. Consequently, I spent four years doing research which came to be known as facility management related.

Eventually, my workplace performance research caught the attention of people from Herman Miller who were forming the FMI (the Facility Management Institute). Actually I spoke at several FMI events; in fact, that was where I first met my partner in Foresight Associates, Steve Lockwood. We were both early members of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) and essentially grew up with the facility management profession.

TFM: What has inspired you?

TS: I have had the opportunity to meet some incredible people. Those who I most respect are the living representation of that saying, “do what you love and love what you do and never work a day in your life.”

TFM: Who are some of the people you admire?

TS: I got to know Mike Tatum and worked with him closely for a number of years. He was just a remarkable guy in that he maintained his childlike joy of discovery–both the simple and complex things.

I’m in awe of people who have natural talent but are not “in your face” about it; instead, they have fun with it. The fact that there are people like that who work in this arena is also inspiring.

I’ve had the opportunity to rub elbows with the greats: Caesar Pelli, Niels Diffrient, Neville Lewis, Mike Brill, all those folks. I was treated as an equal even when I was (in many cases) still wet behind the ears. I was accepted by the people who actually were gurus and had the chance to learn from them.

TFM: Is there any collaboration that resulted in something that made you particularly proud?

TS: When I was fairly new to the consulting game, possibly 1986, Niels Diffrient asked for me specifically to do an ergonomic evaluation of a new product design. This gave me the chance to spend a week with Niels at his studio, and it was just the two of us going through his design rationale. He showed me the different solutions he tried. This gave me a true understanding of how this great man figured things out. More important to me was the fact he was interested in what I had to say and incorporated some of my suggestions.

I would also have to say the 14 years of collaboration with Mike Brill and the people at BOSTI are something I’m proud of too. That experience allowed me to contribute to some of the leading examples of effective workplace solutions.

TFM: What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome?

TS: For quite a while after I started out in this business, I was treated as if I were simply too young. I earned my Ph.D. at 25 and started consulting at 30, and I had to work harder to show I was an expert. So I guess that was an early challenge. Of course, that’s not a problem today.

TFM: What has been the most significant change in the workplace and why?

TS: Probably the biggest change is the pace of change and the focus on cost cutting. Beyond that, I think the general level of education, understanding, and awareness on the part of facility managers is quite impressive. As a tribute to the profession, the end users themselves know quite a bit. To be a provider these days is a huge challenge–whether it’s a product or service–because there’s so much knowledge available.

TFM: What observations would you like to share regarding the uglification of the urban American landscape? Is there anything commercial real estate professionals can do to prevent this from growing into a bigger problem?

TS: It’s actually scary to see how much land is being consumed. Companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on corporate headquarters and new campuses, but with headcount reductions and downsizing, these buildings are emptying out. These buildings are more than just facilities, they’re often part of the community. Consequently, the environmental, economic, and cultural impact could be devastating if conditions continue as they have.

Fortunately, I think there are some interesting opportunities here. Believe it or not, as tragic as the events of last year were, I hope one of the things that has come out of it is an opportunity to rethink things in terms of relative importance. There is an opportunity to go beyond how many rentable square feet can be put on a particular piece of property.

Let’s ask the question, what is New York going to do with the World Trade Center site. Most of the suggestions are to replace the Twin Towers, but I think we have to ask if that makes any sense. And if so, do you replace them with what they were? Or do you consider changing the face of the financial district. It’s really a complex issue. There’s symbolism, emotion, business concerns, transportation, infrastructure–all the issues are there.

TFM: Over the past year, what news event has had the biggest impact on fms and how they do their jobs? How are fms responding?

TS: I think facility managers deserve some kind of appropriate acknowledgement for doing their jobs in such difficult times. It’s part of their jobs to secure the premises and take the steps necessary to make sure the people who walk in and out of the building every day feel safe. I think they should be proud of what they’ve accomplished.

I will say, though, we’re not done with this by any means. However, I don’t know how they can anticipate what will come next.

We are more subject to terrorist acts because we enjoy more freedom than another other country in the world. My big concern is that people don’t realize that freedom isn’t free, and we shouldn’t give it up lightly. Quite frankly, I’m not ready for a national identity card, but there must be other ways to protect our people and property. Does it mean we check everybody who comes into our buildings? Probably.

We’re also going to have to take another look at training. That falls squarely in the lap of the facility manager. Does this mean fire drills? Perhaps. Still, do you manage the exception and make the rule for the majority of the cases? You can’t prepare for the unthinkable.

TFM: What’s your prediction for ergonomics?

TS: Politics have dictated the future of ergonomics, and that will continue. The Republicans have killed the funding for the NIOSH studies and OSHA enforcement, and I don’t see that changing until Congress and/or the Administration change…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In all honesty, I think the ergonomics standards or guidelines are like the ADA–great concept, but almost impossible to enforce. The ADA gets defined in the courts by who wins what lawsuit regarding compliance. Do you really want the ergonomic police coming in to tell you how to set up your facilities?

There’s enough incentive on the part of business to do what’s necessary. Those who don’t see the value would get around compliance anyway. If you can offer businesses the incentive and show them the value, then change would happen faster than waiting on the government.

TFM: How can facility professionals be convinced that workplace productivity is an integral part of the success of their facilities? How do they effectively convey that message to upper management?

TS: If you’re in business to make profit, any change you make should be justified in terms of its impact on performance. How do you translate that in terms of standard accounting practices into dollar impact? If you want to talk to business people, you need to speak the language they understand. Facility managers understand these theories, but when they go back to work, they’re smacked in the face with “how are you going to cut 10% out of your budget?”

If we don’t change that paradigm by beginning to say things like, “hey, we understand you treat this as a cost, but if you have no lights, you have no business. This is the true impact of what you charge me with managing. We can do it cheaply or we can do it right; if we do it right, you’re going to get better output.”

I think there is a fear among facility managers about talking to folks upstairs, but the people upstairs are saying, “what the hell is wrong with those guys?” Facility managers think the big bosses must do things differently, but they still put their socks on one foot at a time.

There are major opportunities for facilities managers to educate and inform their organizations on how important workplaces are to business. For example, it’s amazing that really bright business people can become dumb as a box of rocks when they’re faced with a building project. They just blindly throw money at the situation and say, “here, do it for us.”

There has to be somebody in between who says, “wait a minute! What are you doing and why are you doing it? What impact is it going to have?” Facility decisions must weigh the impact on the people with what the people are then, in turn, able to do either for clients or customers. This translates into profits, which is where the meat of that discussion lies.

And if you ask the people who do the work, they’ll tell you what really matters. Facility managers need to get outside of their own heads and talk to all kinds of people who do different jobs.

It’s difficult to go and talk to all those folks. In terms of upper management, I recommend reading what the bosses read. Find out what the issues are. Begin to educate yourselves in terms of the broader business, because what you do affects the broader business.

TFM: You say facility professionals should start reading outside of their immediate field. What are you reading these days, and what would you recommend?

TS: Well, besides Stupid White Men by Michael Moore, I’m reading Profit Beyond Measure: Extraordinary Results Through Attention To Work And People, by Johnson and Brøms. It’s a fascinating examination of management by means, not management by results. I think it’s a pretty important book. I also recommend Leading The Revolution, by Gary Hamel, another interesting book.

TFM: What kind of response do you get when you make statements like “people and organizations feel they are drowning in data and dying for knowledge”?

TS: Most of the time, we get nods of the head. Sometimes facility managers come to us in a bewildered state. Take ergonomics, for instance. They’ll say, “What are we supposed to do? Where do we start? How do we fix this?”

We ask them not to get too far down the road based on assumptions. When we get to a decision point or solution, it should be based on what we know, not what we think we know.

TFM: Why is there currently such a pressing need for strategic facility planning?

TS: Until recently, the idea that buildings and workplaces can have a significant impact on organizations’ performance and profits has not been accepted. The market hasn’t necessarily been right or accepting. But with head count cut beyond the bone, and processes that have been reengineered to death, businesses are still looking for ways to be more efficient and effective. Facilities and real estate are the last great untapped potential.

TFM: Can you give me a brief explanation of the strategic facility planning process?

TS: Basically, it’s about understanding the business side–values, vision, mission, goals, and objectives–and linking to those elements in ways that show how the facility can be supportive. This is accomplished through the rapid prototyping process.

Prototypes don’t have to be fancy, but they get people involved. In as little as three or four days, you learn a whole lot about whether or not the ideas you have will work.

Prototyping should be an ongoing process, because most organizations change so rapidly. The only way to respond is with knowledge, and the only way to get knowledge is to analyze what works and what doesn’t.

TFM: What kind of impact can strategic facility planning have on a facility executive and his/or her place in the organizations?

TS: Strategic facility planning gives facility professionals the tools to talk to the chiefs first, and eventually get a seat at the chiefs’ tables. IT gets this; they get it big time. Why do organizations have chief information officers? Because they can demonstrate, in business terms, the impact of what they do on the profitability and the shareholder value. They understand their survival depends on the ability to say, “X number of dollars spent on IT translates into Y dollars of revenue and Z dollars of profit.”

Facility managers need to–and can–play the same game, play it better, and win. And after all, that’s what it’s all about.

About Heidi Schwartz

Heidi Schwartz

Schwartz joined Group C Media in April 1989 as managing editor of Today's Facility Manager (TFM) magazine (formerly Business Interiors) where she was subsequently promoted to editor/co-publisher of the monthly trade magazine for facility management professionals. In September 2012, she took over the newly created position of internet director for TFM's parent company, Group C Media, where she is charged with developing content and creating online strategies for TFM and its sister publication, Business Facilities. Schwartz can be reached at

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