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Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

Posting up a broad topic to get some insightful responses (hopefully) from those that are sole practitioners or those running small firms (<5). We've got some new regulations coming in that have a whole slew of formalized regulations coming into place that changes the operation of many. I'm not against these regulations and the formalization of the regulations is actually helpful in the "self-reflecting about what's important to you and your work" kind of way. However, if followed by the book I may have to turn my office into Ft. Knox just to preserve all the documentation for 10+ years.

1. What works for you folks in terms of keeping your documentation? Is it reasonable and/or practical to keep hardcopy and physical of every sealed document and how are you doing so in a self-run office?

2. How do you operate as a solo-engineer in terms of running calcs, PDFing and organizing emails, and issuing documents? Is it just a case of having a disciplined process and learning to maintain that discipline while designing on the fly (as we often do)?

3. How do you perform "checks" on your work and document them? Is everyone filling out checklists to satisfy the documentation requirements?

4. How much documentation/tracking is required in your area?

5. Are you maintaining completely electronic records/backups or also doubling up in the physical realm?

I think I do a decent job of it now and, to be honest, I mainly handle bread&butter small (structural) jobs that keep the lights on so the risk level is smaller compared to a big corporate system with many many hands in the pie. But the regulations are generally the same and I'm wondering what other solo-geers do to satisfy their systems whether formalized or self-managed.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

1) Not at all. I only have about 180sf for my office...trying to keep even 5 years of hard copies would be impossible. I keep hard copies until the job is done, then scan them and recycle the paper.

2) Not well. I have mounds of sticky notes, scrap paper, etc. piled up where I think of something, do a quick calculation, and then move on. It's a horrible "system" that I'm trying to break. My goal: I have a calculation folder - both hard copy and electronically - where I'm supposed to put my calcs as I do them and index them in a master file to keep track. I also have folders in my email to sort (which I rarely do) and an email folder in the job folder to archive the emails after the job closes. Again, another process that often gets neglected in the rush.

3) This one is tough. On bigger projects I hire another engineer I work closely with to review my work. He provides me with redlines and a sealed letter. On small stuff...it's tough if I'm doing the drafting myself. When I see a problem, I just fix it.

4) None. The statute of repose for construction related suits (including design) is 5 years from delivery of plans or breach of administrative duty, so 5-7 years is the typical document retention period. But I'm unaware of any mandatory engineering QC documentation system unless doing work for the federal government. Many Navy jobs I've worked on required that all redlines, calcs, etc. be submitted along with the final documents for review as evidence of a QC program. NSPE has a white paper on document retention that I'm thinking of incorporating to the extent it applies to me.

5) If the project is active (in design), I'll keep physical records - sometimes I'll keep them physical if I know it's rolling straight into construction. If it's going to sit on the shelf for a while or after construction finishes, I scan and destroy the paper copies.

I think we serve a similar, if distant, market. I do a lot of residential and minor commercial...nothing glamorous or overly complex.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

Yes. I agree we serve similar markets, and it appears we got into it at around the same time. So, it's always nice to hear your experiences on this board.

I empathize with a lot of you have said, right down to the 180 sf office! I don't keep a master file for calculations, but I do scan and save PDFs everytime I get to a checkpoint. I've found that using a master PDF file with title block is helpful, and documenting my decisions with screenshots and rationale. It also helps to make repetitive work have a good canned solution. That being said, I'm starting to use other canned solutions (ie. building code tables, span tables) and I'm not sure how to document these. Nor do I think it is necessary to some extent...

I'm so hesitant to keep the paper records because of the office space available. Finding office space is $$$ and not worth it IMO considering the scope of work I do. Then again, having a 3rd bedroom in the apartment which is essentially an Engineering/Zen Hall is a bit of a big ask with the family in tow.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

1. I started on my own a year ago. I started fully paperless, i dont even own a printer. keeps things neater and easier.

2. keep a filing system, try to stick to it but dont handcuff yourself to it. its nice if everything is in the right compartment, but it absolutely has to be in the right bucket. anything important, email, etc chuck it in the file.

3. I am developing checksheets. very useful. so every project i have, has a checklist to run through before finished signed work goes out the door. keeps my work tidy, especially important if i havent been sleeping enough or have a foggy mental day. This is one thing i picked up at large orgs that i believe small orgs should do, but dont, and become disorganized, quality slips, meanwhile they say "they dont have the time". if you keep checklists, you dont need to keep anything in your head. much less chaos going on upstairs. I sit down to work and there isnt a million things to remember to do, there is a process to follow. much easier. less stress.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

Totally. The checklist thing has been such a drag when I've worked in large orgs. But as a solo...I get it and it totally works and it actually doesn't take that much time if you set it up ready to go. It's akin to pilots. Imagine flying a plane without a checklist before you lift off...

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

Good call on the checklists. At my last firm I worked with another engineer to develop some. He's carried on since I left and last I spoke to him had made good headway in squaring away their quality program. I should get to work on some...

Are a pilot skeletron? If so, we have something else in common, though I haven't done it in 12 years. I prefer my wings to be attached to mast these days.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

No. Not a pilot, although I wish I was at some point in life. My dad worked with ATC at the airport a lot, so there was always that influence. And a good friend used me as his guinea pig while getting flying hours.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

It was fun. Part of me wants to do it again. Then I look at my kids, the occurrence rates of GA accidents, and the exception in my life insurance policy for piloting an aircraft...

Looking around for a few canned checklists:

Los Angeles Community College District

I used to have a massive binder filled with multi-discipline project management guidance, coordination tips, checklists, etc. If I can find it I'll scan some of the contents.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

Quote (phamEng)

NSPE has a white paper on document retention

Good link to that white paper. The NSPE seems to recommend document retention the statute of repose plus 3 years (not totally sure why the 3 years). In NYS the statute of repose is not actually defined but apparently 10yrs by convention, but who knows because the lawyers always make it complicated. What's the difference between 13 years and forever? It's pretty onerous because over that time horizon technology changes. God forbid you have old CD's or tape drives, or you no longer pay for a subscription to your analysis software. Paper isn't even possible with a lot of data types.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

I suspect that this is related to the recent (seems ongoing) changes in BC? I can provide you a bit of info, as I just had my first EGBC audit and learned a few things:
- I retain documents digital-only. Every scrap of paper gets quickly scanned and goes into a project folder that I keep stored on a little server (Synology brand device). That server has two hard drives. One is the primary, and the other is a clone that gets copied over every night. Additionally, I back up to "the cloud" during off hours with a service called Backblaze. The Synology device is quite easy to use and set up to do all of this. The net result is that my data is stored securely, locally backed up, and remotely backed up. This meets all of EGBC's requirements.
- I retain documents indefinitely. I have been operating for three years as my own company, and have about 100 GB of data stored on the server. That's project files, photographs, codes & standards, etc. It seems like it will take me quite a while before the volume of data becomes unwieldy, and by that time, I am sure that our current technology will be viewed by the youg-uns as akin to chipping commandments on stone tablets.
- I do the vast majority of calculations in Mathcad, Excel, and some proprietary programs. That makes it easy to keep everything documented digitally. I got my wrist slapped a bit about the way that I was (or wasn't) organizing emails sufficiently during the audit, so I am now testing a new system to keep everything better organized.
- In the audit, I learned that I need to be religious about the processes and documenting everything. Projects start with a Basis of Design document that lays out standard parameters, then I have documented checking forms for checking my own work, I often mark up PDFs of my own work and save them to show that I did check and find errors or quibbles. BC requires those independent reviews of structural work, and on the little bit of work that I do in BC, I get those done by an acquaintance. Documenting those is critical, too. I also got my wrist slapped for a lack of some documented checking. I will occasionally check individual member outputs from software by grabbing a design table (CISC, Wood Design Manual, etc). That doesn't lend itself well to documentation of the check, and they raised that as an issue.

Some things that I have to figure out as BC continues to transition to the new Professional Governance Act:
- These new documented risk assessments seem like another sheet of paper that I have to shuffle for EVERY project, and that seems annoying. I need to set up a blanket risk assessment for most of my routine work.
- I need to look over the new CPD requirements, as they seem kinda unique from my home province. This is getting annoying. I have to report CPD to three provincial regulators and for one other professional association. It's getting to the point where I spend as much time taking courses and seminars as I do documenting those things on four separate excel sheets.

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

@Craig_H: Thanks for the input. A lot of what you mentioned has been in the back of my mind as I get my document/policies together. It's rewarding, but also time-consuming to say the least...

1. It seems that digital storage can be done, if it is done right. Thanks for the feedback and recommendations about the secure, local, and remote back-ups. I will check that out. I think they would not be impressed that I only keep secure and local copies, nor the frequency that I back-up at.

2. Your digital retention sounds similar to mine: scanning sheets as soon as they are done and printing PDF. I've started marking up PDFs as a method to show that I've "checked" the output. I'm finding it incredibly difficult to justify an efficient way to save emails and keep my momentum. It seems like I would just be doubling up on what Google is intended on doing. But I should make an effort of saving particular "checkpoint" emails just for records.

3. With regards to being religious to the procedures: that is why I want to tweak their sole practitioner template to suit my own needs and be responsible for that procedure. I know that it's going to get me in hot water, unfortunately, but I just see the templates as a really demanding set of micro-managed procedures that don't necessarily apply at my scale. However, I am committed to making alternate (dare I say, equivalent) procedures that control my flow how I want it to be controlled.

4. Weird about the checks from standardized tables...it seems that is almost a loophole because you are allowed to design with those values (ie. CWC's Engineering Wood Design Manual is a method of design).

5. The documented risk assessment is a PITA. Another sheet of paper. I've set it up in Bluebeam as a template with boxes that I tick or fill out, print to PDF and it's done. It does become a minimal addition to the project documentation, but these things start to add up.

6. I don't find the CPD difficult to achieve, but I'm nearly always in a course, seminar, etc. which obviously doesn't work with a lot of people's situations. It is becoming more and more demanding, and the reporting of it is also time consuming. I'm glad the associations are starting to have their own programmed trackers so you don't have to go back calculate everything. I still think the limit on the 3-year rolling period is absolute garbage. You should be able to bank time.

Thanks for the candid advice. I wish there was more sharing of this audit process and examples of what passed and didn't pass (ie. a lessons learned on the actual process). Still trying to find out who will be scouring my records for the little one-off beams I so often get called up to design. Have fun with the paperwork!

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

Quote (skeletron)

Still trying to find out who will be scouring my records for the little one-off beams I so often get called up to design.

Yup, that's where I am finding things most annoying: the projects that should be a quick check and pump it out the door are getting to be almost 50% filling out forms. Design Basis form, documented check form, actually document the damn check, document the risk assessment for this piddly little job, get an independent review if it supports more than dust and pigeon poo, save everything neat and tidy, don't forget to organize the emails... The required admin is getting pretty extensive. Same with CPD: I always have way more hours than I need, but am tired of making sure it's all documented properly for each regulator, for the differing year-ends that each of them have. The paper shuffling is getting pretty intense!

RE: Quality Management Systems for small firm practices

You have to wonder with that amount of cloud backing up on everyone's system...what are the environmental aspects? I say that a bit cheekily, but also I think it is a forgotten "cost" in the whole scheme of doing things in the cloud. Given the push for "embodied carbon" (SE2050 and similar), how are organizations considering the impact of the actual design portion of their designs.

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