The International Organization for Standardization known as ISO has a family of quality management systems (QMS). The set of standards are known as ISO 9000 series and we are specifically talking about ISO 9001:2015. This standard specifies requirements for an organization’s QMS. Certification requires the candidate company to demonstrate its ability to provide consistent services to meet client requirements and is designed to enhance the customer experience.
ISO 9001 is used by more than one million companies in more than 170 countries around the world. These range from manufacturing, pharmaceutical, construction, and civil engineering firms among many others. Having experience working for civil engineering firms both under the guidelines of ISO 9001 and without it, I offer my take on how your certification may be falling short for you and your clients.
1) A Generic Standard
The structure of the standard is geared towards establishing standard processes and procedures. These can then be repeated and verified throughout the lifecycle of a product or service’s development. The standard has seven quality management principles that include:
- Customer focus
- Engagement of people
- Process approach
- Evidence-based decision making
- Relationship management
The standard looks at all aspects of civil engineering including plan production and the business itself. Companies that seek certification are required to document standards for a variety of business and engineering practices.
All-in-all, I understand the intent and goals of the program but it is up to each company to determine the depth that they want to dive into standardizing processes. This is further compounded in the civil engineering industry. Combine this with the number of employees and the scope of the projects that are designed by the firm and it gets even harder. Unlike a manufacturing company, there are never two of the same civil engineering projects or deliverables. Every plan and report is different and it is based on the specific situation to be found on that project. ISO 9001 and the procedures implemented can only go so far “standardizing” civil engineering design. As I result, I have seen the standard fall short of meeting the expectations of clients and even company leaders. Unique situations create the opportunity for a lot of perceived or actual “non-compliance” situations.
RECOMMENDATION: I fully support, endorse, and recommend the standardization of civil engineering design processes when possible! With that in mind, be sure to provide guidance to design and project management staff for their flexibility in performing their duties and developing the project deliverables. Provide team members with the ability to recommend adjustments in the standards. Rules will need to change as regulatory standards change or differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
2) An Opportunity for ISO Complacency
The preparation of civil engineering deliverables is under the responsible charge of Professional Engineers or Land Surveyors. The licensed professional is legally responsible for the content and accuracy of the works they ultimately sign and seal. Since not every designer or project manager is licensed, these employees are working under the responsible charge of the licensed professional.
In manufacturing, Quality Control would be performed by random checking and testing of a sample of work. This is evident in structural and geotechnical engineering where a small volume of concrete is retrieved in testing cylinders while concrete is being poured. Once tested, a passing result is applied to an entire load of concrete.
In my experience with ISO 9001:2015, there was an established process for checking plans. This included a senior staff member, preferably the responsible professional, who would review the plans and then provide markups to a designer to correct or complete. The plans would then be backchecked first by the designer and then by the initial reviewer. At the end of this process, the responsible professional would sign & seal plans, and out the door, they would go.
When asked, “was it checked” the answer was almost always, “yes.” This simple question creates the opportunity for a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the question that was asked. Of course, the plan could have been “checked” but was it checked per this standard or someone else’s?
RECOMMENDATION: The checking of engineering documents and deliverables is vital to the success of any civil engineering firm. While civil engineering is thought of as a “service” industry, the truth is the client is almost always buying a deliverable of some kind. Minimize the opportunity for miscommunication by establishing terminology that is easily understood and everyone knows! “Was this ISO checked?”
3) An extra Hurdle or two
With the ISO standard creating procedures for many aspects of the business, corporate leadership puts into place expectations designed to maintain consistency between staff, teams, and even offices. Depending on the intensity of these procedures and the pertinence to your job, some steps in the process may seem unnecessary, time-wasting, and complicated.
RECOMMENDATION: Leadership should be putting into place standards that make sense. Keep in mind and recognize when changes may need to be made. Principle 5 includes the ability to find ways to improve, which is critical to engineering and critical to the success of an ISO program. Having the ability to make changes to procedures through their own process gives staff the opportunity to share their perspectives and needs to perform their jobs to the highest standard.
Overall, I understand and appreciate the ISO system I worked under. It created the structure a company with more than a thousand employees and two dozen offices across the country needs. The manual was a guide for new staff and emerging leaders. It opened the door to a comprehensive understanding of expectations in various roles and responsibility levels.
At the same time, it was sometimes exploited or ignored. This was generally the result of leadership at the lower levels of the company, but it exposed other managers to liability and challenges.
Like anything, things evolve. The need to revisit, change, upgrade, and improve things will happen and ISO 9001 is no different. The standard itself is on its 5th edition and I would anticipate another update in the next couple of years.
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