No one would argue that company standards and policies are not important tools to promote quality and efficiency from employees. Obviously, the larger a company is, the more valuable such written policies become. However, most of the content has been repeated so many times it may be indistinguishable from firm to firm. For any given company, it is important to have administrative rules regarding personnel matters, financial data, and perhaps safety and insurance rules—often these are required by external regulations. Further, an A/E/C firm will have standards pertaining to its specific services and desired product quality. These may be design and drafting standards, checklists, review procedures, or proposal templates. Variations from firm to firm are the result of different business philosophies and the visions of each firms’ leaders. As crucial as the policies themselves may be from a regulatory standpoint, they usually are simply a manifestation of the corporate culture and, ultimately, a means to ensure institutional continuity over time.
A company’s people may be its greatest asset, as so many mission statements profess, but the corporate culture is what decides who should work there in the first place. Every new hire—whether they are a staff member several levels removed from the top or another board member selected to round out a founding partnership—must be receptive to the judgment of the existing leadership. Regardless of its importance and its direct influence on policy, however, culture cannot be strictly regulated. Especially in a service industry dependent on professional judgment, the culture and policies can only be considered guidelines, no matter how rigidly written. This is not due to any particular shortcoming on the part of the policies or its writers, it is simply an acknowledgment that certain business practices may be beyond the printed word. Short of bona fide illegality, there is no penalty for violations but that of separation from the firm.
Typically, the firm’s founders set the tone for future hiring and work practices. These "self-selected" entrepreneurial visionaries often create and nurture an environment in which project management itself may depend on an entrepreneurial method to fulfill their business goals. Since a coherent and consistent transfer of knowledge becomes more unlikely with each new employee (as in the famous "telephone game"), it is necessary to codify some of the more important practices into a formal policy.
However, it should become clear that there is only so much regulation that is possible before it affects the operation of the firm itself. A firm that emphasizes creativity and innovative solutions—and what self-respecting engineering firm doesn’t—runs contrary to the concept of rigid "cookbook" procedures. Since it is nevertheless necessary to have these procedures, it becomes much more important to find employees who are willing to follow the rules, but be intelligent enough to know when to bend or break them.
Additionally, it is difficult to develop and apply rigid procedures to engineering because it is often challenging to fully describe the creative process. Just as studies have shown that the physical act of catching a falling ball cannot be accurately explained, even by the person performing it, there are many subconscious judgments and evaluations that take place during the design process. In the old days, this hurdle was overcome by a formal apprenticeship that spanned several years and allowed the student to gradually observe, absorb, and practice the trade under the teacher’s guidance. Without this opportunity, our engineering interns are often handed the various codes that dictate the products of our profession and told to "do it this way". Even more remarkable is that many possess the insight to see beyond the codes and question, "Why?" Not only is this an admirable trait, it is an absolute necessity to properly practice the art of engineering.
Whatever form your firm adopts in its quest for success, there will be a constant struggle between the rigid requirements of policy and the need to push the envelope of convention. It is up to the leaders to strike a balance and provide the proper guidance to their staff. They will need to foster a true culture without rigidly following some of the policies required to get there.
Jason Burke, P.E., works for Allied Engineering in Billings, Mont.
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