QA/QC: An Engineering Prerogative

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By Bill Edwards, CPP, PSP, PCI, CIMP, CPD and co-author Benjamin Murphy, PE

In the Architecture/Engineering/Construction (AEC) community, we are living in an unprecedented time of fast-paced deadlines, where every minute is money and remote work has blurred the definition of “working hours.” In such an environment, one concept takes center stage: Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC). With the industry running at lightspeed, how does QA/QC evolve, and how does a team integrate QA/QC into the design in a manner that maintains the pace of the rest of the project. First, we must understand the importance and purpose of QA/QC. Then, we must establish the key components of a successful QA/QC program, reimagined for today’s world.  

From a design perspective, civil engineering creates the backbone of a successful design. It provides the (ideally unnoticed) framework for the artistry of architecture and the sustainability of the infrastructure. The civil design tells us how to layout our site, where to place our utilities, where to add or move grades, and where to plan for construction risk (such as with high groundwater, clay soils, sandy soils, high floodplains, etc.). A successful civil design ensures utilities will be accessible to the whole community, structures and people are protected from flood and weather risks, provides a balance between the built environment and natural landscape, and provides access for various modes of transit and users of a variety of mobilities. The civil plan is the skeleton of the built environment and has a tangible impact on project cost and complexity. To provide a successful civil engineering design, a comprehensive and well-executed QA/QC program is essential.

Any QA/QC program, policy, process, or procedure must be inculcated into the culture of all engineering teams. While everyone is working hard to meet tight deadlines and expectations, everyone must also be an active contributor to the QA/QC process to deliver a successful project. Further, all team members must understand the processes of the QA/QC program and protocols to ensure consistent execution across teams and projects. It starts with senior leadership developing a program or policy that fits the company’s mission and vision and expands with the input of key staff, HR and admin staff, business development staff, and even design engineers, all of whom bring unique perspectives and priorities needed to produce quality deliverables. 

A solid QA/QC program focuses on security and safety, constructability, design excellence, and value engineering to deliver a project that is executed as intended. In most cases, devising an easily implementable QA/QC program. Below are important concepts to integrate into or consider when developing a successful QA/QC program:

1. Determine a Cost-Scalable QA/QC Program. One of the challenges with QA/QC is how to cater a program to a very small project versus a very large, complicated project. Developing multiple levels of QA/QC can help qualify and quantify QA/QC based on project size or complexity. Smaller projects with a minimal fee may be reviewed internally by the team working on the project.  Projects with more complexities including more resources, more design submittals, permitting hurdles, and challenging stakeholders, should be reviewed by an engineer or project team that is separate from the team working on the project. In some cases, projects may even warrant outside resources in the form of a 3rd Party Peer Review.

2. Develop a QA/QC program that is easily trackable. To be successfully implemented and trackable, QA/QC programs must identify specific metrics, timelines, and measures of execution. These can be as simple as a QA/QC submittal schedule or checklists of completion (Program example provided if the editorial review finds it necessary).

3. Ensure QA/QC is adopted firmwide. Inculcate QA/QC into the company culture. Every member of the firm, from top to bottom, is responsible for quality. The formal QA/QC process must be carried out by all project managers from a leadership perspective. Additionally, making QA/QC a company priority should include company-wide training on policy and regular quality checks or reminders. 

4. Include project review. All levels of QA/QC should include project reviews from a design perspective.  QA/QC is focused on the deliverable to the client.  Administrative needs of projects are conducted in a separate forum with internal company leadership. For small projects, the review may be internal to the project team. For large or complex projects, external team review is essential. 

5. Include the cost of QA/QC in all project fees upfront. As with the overall QA/QC Program, the cost of QA/QC should scale with the size and complexity of the project but should always be included when budgeting a project fee. Establish a standard rate or system for calculating QA/QC services based on project scale. 

6. Determine a flow chart of expected project milestones. An example would be to follow design phases and execute QA/QC reviews before each deliverable moves forward with the submittal.  

7. Include cross-discipline reviews. Cross-discipline review is critical for complex projects to ensure all design team members are coordinated and the project is constructable. Leverage the expertise in your firm for cross-discipline review, and/or utilize external resources if necessary to make sure that all components will work together.

8. Include client check-ins throughout the project stages.  Requesting formal feedback from the client on project execution is “a way” to keep a pulse on performance and will cut-off potential issues in the long run.  

9. Account for QA/QC time needs when establishing deadlines, budgets, and
staffing projections.

10. Include stakeholder engagement. QA/QC policy should define levels of stakeholder engagement for various project types and levels. This should also be considered in project scheduling and budgeting, to ensure that external stakeholders, in addition to and outside of the client, are considered in the project. 

11. Implement! Implement! Implement! No program is successful as just words on paper. It requires a champion and accountability from top to bottom to truly achieve a successful program.

QA/QC development and execution takes time and intentionality, and underwriting mistakes and risk is time well spent. Civil engineering is one of the first major design steps in projects and affects the entire design team. When design becomes reality on the ground, many factors take shape to create opportunities for reflection concerning the original idea, the design development, the construction execution, and the QA/QC process. Leaders in the civil engineering industry should think about design from the lens of training the next generation to be cognizant and proactive with QA/QC to combine skills with experience. In the end, elite engineering companies think about QA/QC as a matter of routine. This is the sign of a great company.  

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