Measuring Engineering Quality

How can we measure the quality of an engineering service?

What is quality and why should we measure it? This is a question that has been asked, debated and answered many times. However, as an Engineering Director, I was never entirely happy with the answers in the context of an engineering service e.g. design, survey or optimisation.

So, what is quality when it comes to an engineering service? I find that it is often more informative to ask the person buying the service than the person providing it.

An engineer is likely to reply, "Compliance with ISO 9001, with thorough checks and reviews to ensure that there are no mistakes".

A client is likely to reply, "Giving me exactly what I want, efficiently. A service that is provided by people that listen to my needs, have the right skills and experience to deliver and are diligent in their approach".

I prefer the second answer, but how do you measure that? Even more fundamentally, why would you want to?

Why measure quality?

Most engineering service providers would like to consider themselves a quality organisation providing quality services. Many will say something along those lines on their website and in their marketing material. Why, because that's what clients are looking for. But, what if a client asks them to prove it? Often, they will point proudly to their ISO 9001 certification.

If a provider wants to differentiate itself, it needs to demonstrate to clients that it really does measure the quality of its services and makes continued efforts to improve that quality. Those that don't, tend to spend a lot of time and money dealing with dissatisfied clients, performing re-work and defending compensation claims.

How to measure quality?

I believe that the client's answer to "what is quality?" provides some excellent clues and suggests that there are two main aspects.

1. "Giving me exactly what I want, efficiently". We need to measure the differential between what the client wanted and what we gave them and we need to measure the time and cost involved.

2. "A service that is provided by people that listen to my needs, have the right skills and experience to deliver and are diligent in their approach". We need to measure how well equipped we are to deliver the service before we even begin.

The first aspect is essentially a measure of our product quality. The second is a measure of our ability to deliver a quality service, our technical maturity.

By choosing the right metrics against those two aspects, we can quickly and easily determine how far away we are from where we want to be, whether we are heading in the right direction and where to focus our attention in making improvements.

The metrics do not have to conform to any detailed numerical standards, they do not have to give a precise and absolute measure and it is perfectly acceptable for them to involve an element of subjectivity. Far too many people set complex metrics requiring data that either doesn't exist or is very difficult and time-consuming to compile.

Rather than try to count all the hours spent re-working a solution that failed its review, let's simply ask whether we delivered to budget, yes or no. Rather than burden the client with lengthy customer satisfaction surveys, let's record whether the client has (a) expressed delight with the service, (b) complained about the service, (c) been ambivalent.

Different metrics can be chosen to suit the nature of the service and the objectives of the business. A simple score can be applied to each metric that can then be rolled up with the others to provide a project, programme or enterprise level quality indicator.

Diagnostics and improvements

There is little point in measuring quality without acting on the results. The improvement process should be:

· Examine the measures for trends

· Identify areas of concern and prioritise

· Determine the root cause

· Identify and implement improvements

A good quality measurement system will always highlight the potential for improvement. The right metrics will allow effective diagnosis of any issues and aid prioritisation. The improvements themselves are most effective when identified and implemented by the people doing the work rather than a senior manager or quality professional.

Prioritisation is important. Driving real improvements is hard and it is impossible to do so effectively when there are too many. Thinking about quality in terms of the two aspects - product quality and technical maturity - is useful. Achieving high levels of technical maturity will provide sustainable product quality, whilst addressing product quality issues will attend to short-term business priorities.