The Structural Engineer, Volume 66, No. 7, 5 April 1988
The worried engineer’s guide to quality assurance
A. N. Beal BSc CEng MIStructE MICE
R. H. Thomason & Partners
Most engineers will by now have noticed a substantial bandwagon rolling in their direction, marked ‘quality assurance’. The cognoscenti call it ‘QA’, and there are QA contractors, QA managers, and QA registered firms. The British Standards Institution, at the Government’s behest, is promoting the idea heavily, producing a British Standard on the subject (BS5750) and running a Quality Assurance Services Department, which assesses and registers firms on the basis of their QA and encourages major clients to give work to registered firms.
What exactly is QA? Well, despite the name it is not a system for guaranteeing the quality of products and services; QA is the name given to a management philosophy which, its supporters claim, leads to improved quality. There is no denying their confidence -
Discussions about QA tend often to be dialogues of the deaf, with QA supporters arguing that ‘of course, better quality is a good thing’ and experienced builders and engineers expressing unease about the cost and paperwork involved, wondering whether the results will live up to what is claimed. After all, firms that produce good work come in all shapes and sizes and the quality of their work is not generally proportional to the amount of paper they generate.
What does QA mean for structural engineers?
As noted above, QA is a management philosophy, rather than a test of a firm’s competence. The general principles seem to be (a) make quality the responsibility of a manager who is independent of other functions such as production; (b) use formal, rather than informal, procedures (e.g. develop designs through periodic ‘design review’ meetings rather than letting them just evolve through normal supervision and discussion); (c) make checking and testing standardised and routine, rather than variable and discretionary; (d) write down everything that happens; and (e) ‘audit’ the resulting paperwork to see whether everything that should have been done is recorded as having been done.
In practice QA involves more than just promotion of the principles outlined above -
Regulation of the profession
There is a proliferation of schemes for the registration of ‘firms of assessed capability’ under BS5750 for the production of all kinds of things, from duvets to drainpipes. So far, the only scheme for consulting civil and structural engineers is one operated by BSI, which has published a ‘Quality assurance schedule to B55750: Part 1 Relating to civil and/or structural engineering led multidisciplinary engineering project design’ and is now registering consulting engineers as ‘firms of assessed capability’.
The biggest effect of the BSI scheme on consulting engineers may well not be the actual QA recommendations. It may be the effect on the regulation of our profession. QA-
Even those who would applaud such an idea must worry about some of the details:
(a) Neither IStructE nor ICE was consulted in the preparation of the rules for the scheme. ICE offered to participate but was turned away by BSI.
(b) Registration is costly -
(c) The published QA schedule is rather vague and lacking in detail, so much will depend on BSI’s assessors. The assessors may not be experienced in a firm’s area of work; some of them are not even chartered engineers. If a firm is rejected, it can appeal, but the appeals panel is selected by BSI, with no role for outside bodies such as the professional institutions. BSI refuses to reveal details of the background and qualifications of those who sit on such panels.
(d) The actual quality of work produced by a firm is not considered in the assessment -
QA in the office
Officially, the BSI QA schedule is applicable only to design work where the engineer is the project leader -
BSI seems to be happily registering structural engineering firms and encouraging clients to use them, although the basis for this is not clear -
All these records must be kept for at least 10 years. One curiosity which surfaces in BSI’s ‘Brief guide to BS5750 for design organisations’ is a requirement (which does not appear in the quality assurance schedule) that, when revised documents (such as drawings) are issued, the superseded ones are all supposed to be recalled!
In its management, a firm is required to have a quality manager, responsible for the QA system, who is preferably independent of the various project directors. In running a project, the requirements are that (a) all the various documents referred to above have to be prepared; (b) in addition to normal design development, there have to be periodic, formal ‘design reviews’, with records of their conclusions and actions taken; (c) all calculations, drawings and amendments to drawings have to be checked; and (d) all the various QA forms and documents must be ‘audited’. Anyone who has done checking will know that ‘checking’ can cover anything from ‘casting an eye’ over work to full, thorough checking of all aspects and that there is a world of difference between these in effectiveness and effort involved. Some firms dislike routine checking because they feel it encourages a careless attitude among design engineers, who can come to rely on checkers to pick up their mistakes. Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your point of view), BSI has no policy on what standard of checking should be done -
Some will see this as welcome flexibility, allowing them to do what they think best; for the sceptic, it confirms worries that the BSI scheme amounts to little more than advertising and paperwork and has no real substance.
It would not be difficult for a cynical firm to generate all the paperwork QA requires, while doing nothing serious about the quality of its work -
Despite the many protestations to the contrary, it is pretty clear that QA increases a firm’s costs -
Improving quality is an important task for everyone, but that is not necessarily what ‘quality assurance’ is about. Viewed overall, QA is a very mixed bag of measures -
Clearly, some people in high places have decided that they know what is best for the building industry but somehow, somewhere they are sadly missing the point. The QA bandwagon is now rolling in our direction; are engineers going to do something about it, or are we just going to let it roll all over us?