Will registration of engineers prevent failures like the Opal Towers in Sydney?

Happy Australia Day!

Happy India Republic Day!

Engineers Australia is pushing for mandatory registration of engineers and other key professionals in the Australian construction industry, following recommendations from a report by Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir prepared for the Building Minister’s Forum.

Despite welcome recommendations in the report to improve the standard of documentation and formal checking, our research showed that engineers are disinclined to perform rigorous checking of design documents, even when they are required to in the context of strict quality assurance systems for hazardous installations.

Our research has revealed a fairly consistent pattern in which engineers delegate checking to juniors, or skip it altogether.  In one instance we encountered, design checking that would normally be the job of senior engineers was delegated to a part-time vacation student, the least knowledgeable and least experienced person in the office, apparently because “the senior engineers did not have time”.

In our research we were shown documents that had passed through apparently rigorous checking by several engineers (all of whom had signed to confirm they had checked the documents).  Yet even a casual inspection revealed obvious mistakes such as missing diagrams, diagrams with text that was impossible to read, missing pages, even missing chapters.

In a seminar a few years ago provided to engineers interested in sub-sea oil and gas installations, a senior quality assurance engineer from the head office of a major international petroleum corporation explained how they had discovered that their engineers where choosing not to perform “recommended, but optional checking” for hazardous installations.  Therefore they had modified their procedures to make the checking mandatory.  I thought to myself at the time…. “h’mmm, that won’t work, the engineers will sign to say they have done the checking when they have not done it.”  A couple of years later, the company suffered a catastrophic failure which cost several lives and billions of dollars, almost resulting in bankruptcy for the corporation.  Was that a direct consequence?  Probably not in that instance, but the culture continued.  Even after the disaster, the chief operating officer was recorded in a public interview saying “you can never have perfect safety: you always have to compromise safety to achieve commercially viable production!”.

Our research findings on checking engineering design documents were extremely embarrassing for all concerned.  But the interesting question was “why is this such a consistent pattern of behaviour?”  Could it be related to value perceptions by engineers?  After all, psychological theories on motivation often link motivation to value perceptions.

Recently Bill Williams and I published a paper and a book chapter on engineering value creation.  Before this work was published, as far as we could determine, there was no theory formally linking engineering with economic value creation.  In the absence of a theory, engineering students don’t have the chance to learn how to create economic value from their work: its difficult or impossible to teach something without theoretical foundations.

If you doubt this, think what it would be like to learn arithmetic in primary school. Children only need to learn up to 10 times tables to be able to multiply or divide any number by another.  This would not be possible without number theory: without that multiplication would only be possible by memorizing the result of multiplying or dividing every possible combination of numbers.

In the intellectual vacuum that has been sustained by the absence of understanding engineering value creation, engineers develop their own ideas on what creates value: certainty, precision, innovation, design, challenging problem solving…. and humanitarian engineering too.  Many engineers see checking and inspection work as tedious, boring, time-consuming, and something that gets in the way of “productive engineering”.  The result…. many errors that could have been detected and corrected at the design stage only become evident at construction (e.g. parts won’t fit) or worse, after construction when fixing the mistakes is extremely costly.  Even if no lives are lost.

From a commercial standpoint, there are many reasons why rigorous checking adds value, or protects existing value in engineering infrastructure.  However, few if any engineers, we found, have more than a superficial understanding of value creation, mostly framed in terms of saving direct costs.  With no rigorous theoretical foundation to learn from, that’s not surprising.

It took several years to identify (tentatively) the underlying psychological factors, the motivations to prioritize other work over checking and inspections.  Without understanding how checking work creates value, it is tempting for engineers to prioritize other work that, subconsciously, they think adds more value.

Well, now there is a published theory and it is beginning to attract some interest in research, education and industry circles.  Importantly, it provides several explanations on how checking and inspection work contributes to commercial value, either value creation or value protection.

In November I was invited to China for the APEC Small and Medium Enterprise Business Forum in Shenzhen in November to talk about these ideas.

However, for many engineers, even to talk about value creation provokes more than one yawn.  “It’s a fuzzy concept, hard to get your head around….”  is typical of many responses.  Yet it is THE reason why companies employ engineers.

Perhaps you can suggest ways I can explain these ideas better, in a way that more quickly grabs the attention of young engineers…. by all means write some comments if you have some ideas.

In the meantime, registration for engineers is overdue, and a positive step for all industries where there are huge consequences for failures that affect safety, health or the environment.  However, compulsion and disciplinary consequences are probably not enough by themselves.  A better understanding on engineering value creation could be very helpful as well.

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