QA/QC and CAD: Why It Doesn’t Matter (Because You Don’t Do Either)

This is a letter to CAD managers in the production world.

Actually it is more than that. This is a letter to CAD managers, project managers, engineers, architects, CEOs, and anyone else who is involved in the production of design projects.

It’s a letter with a simple message: Stop worrying about “QA / QC.” That makes it a letter that is contrary to everything the industry tells you. Just stop.

Stop worrying about “quality assurance” and stop fretting over “quality control.” Why? The answer is simple: You should stop worrying about “QA / QC” because you don’t do either.

Oh sure, you think you have some sort of QA / QC plan, but do you? Have you ever really sat down to document this scheme that will ensure that every plan set that leaves your office is perfect? Have you ever executed this plan to guarantee that every cost estimate is free of errors? Probably not.

Now ask yourself this: Have you ever been in a meeting to discuss an issue related to a problem sheet that made its way to the construction site? Have you ever been called into a conference call with your boss and/or a client regarding a cost overrun because of a “1” that should have been a “7” on the cost estimate, which resulted in thousands of red dollars? I am willing to bet that more than a few of you have.

I am also willing to bet that you had the “QA / QC” chat after that. “Well CAD manager, who was checking the sheets?” “You, project engineer, did you double/triple/double-double check these numbers?” And of course this is where someone puts on their paper management hat. That would be the one that is disposable and only comes out when there is trouble. “How do we prevent this in the future?”

How, indeed.

The Difference

First of all, it would do you well to realize that “prevent this” is not a plan. Furthermore, it would do you an even better turn to realize that what you need is a process, not a plan. So what is the difference?

I’m glad you asked.

Allow me to say that I have no interest in what Webster’s or the Oxford English Dictionary has to say on the matter. This is a discussion of practical application and in practical application, a “plan” is some ethereal thing that you make up and “plan” to do. Usually the plan is triggered by some catastrophe happening and the “plan” is remediation. In the very best scenario, the plan is put into action just long enough for someone to feel that the red danger light has turned off and now we can all go back to what we were doing. That of course assumes that the “plan,” will continue to be carried out. Naturally that will not be the case.

Plans, by the very nature of how people think of them, are things that start and finish. You “plan” to rob a bank, but at some point you’re done robbing it. You can only rob that bank so much before you are stealing the doors off the cabinets. What is the point of that? No, in the minds of everyday, busy people, plans are single-use, time-limited events that have a beginning and an end.

Now, let’s say you plan to rob a series of banks. In fact, you plan to rob a bank every week for the rest of your life. Well then, assuming that you do not run out of banks, you have transformed your plan into a process, because a process is something that runs in the background. To most people, a process starts and just goes on and on like a Mobius strip or uroboros. But more importantly, a process DOES something—it has an effect on the world.

A plan? Well a plan is what you make when you “plan” to do something, but do not actually DO it.

What we, as individuals and industries, need to prevent dramatic and even not-so-dramatic errors is a process.

So What Does It All Mean?

You might be wondering what the difference “plan” and “process” have to do with “QA” and “QC.” On the surface, very little. That is, until you realize that most people do not understand the difference between quality assurance and quality control. In fact, a huge segment of the population may not even know there is a difference. They just assume that “QA / QC” is one thing.

In application, quality assurance and quality control are two very different things.

Quality assurance is a system or set of checks put in place to guarantee that the processes used in production are as flawless as possible, thus producing as few errors as possible. For CAD managers this means ensuring that everyone understands the intended goal, that company standards (which are a form of QA themselves) are followed, standard details are used, and training is consistent and up to date. For engineers or architects, quality assurance takes the form of understanding current design trends, following building code regulations, using valid and applicable calculation methods, and maintaining a clear line of communication to the client.

There are as many examples of what quality assurance can mean as there are people who can and should employ methods of quality control. However, in every case, it is an ongoing process.

Quality control, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the production method. In fact, with few exceptions, quality control has no place other than after the finish line. That is to say that you perform quality control after something is produced so you can “control its quality” before you ship to the client.

One could argue that quality control is carried out through the life of a project. In reality, if you look very close, what is happening is quality control that is performed as some sub-processes produce a component of the overall project. For instance, you may, and should, have quality control checks for the elevations of a new house plan project. That is QC performed as elevations are completed in the “produce elevations” sub-process. But until there is something to check, you cannot quality check.

Like quality assurance, quality control is an ongoing process that should span across the full range of your firm’s projects. These are things we do, and we do them forever, not just for this project or the next.

What’s In It for You?

Isn’t that what we all want to know? What does knowing the difference between quality assurance and quality control do for you? For that matter, what good is it to know the difference between a plan and a process? Because knowledge is power! No, really.

Now that we have a firm understanding of all four terms, we can begin to paint a portrait of how they fit into the frenetic existence that is the day-to-day life of most design firms.

Putting it All Together So it Doesn’t Fall Apart

Let’s all assume that, at some level, you participate in the design production process. That is to say, you are a CAD professional, CAD manager, project manager, engineer, or architect. Your daily lives, at work anyway, revolve around reliably creating error-free designs and delivering them to your clients.

In order to achieve this state of error-free delivery we must plan to create processes for quality-assured production. I say processes because no design is created in a single phase and every phase of design deserves its own process, if not multiple processes. We must also plan to create separate processes to control the quality of the designs delivered to our clients.

Making the effort to create and document these processes may seem like an overhead cost, and it is. More than that, this is a preventative cost. This is money well-spent to create an environment directed towards the creation of error-free documents that are delivered on time to pleased clients.

Enacting these processes is not without effort. It is like a diet for your design document production. That means that it takes directed effort that is not without sacrifice. That means it must be a steady, continued effort that will yield slow, but positive results. This is how we remove the superfluous fat that is weighing down the quality of our work. And no, it isn’t easy.

Taking production samples from the CAD room and assuring their correctness and quality is the responsibility of not only the drafter, but the CAD manager and the project manager. This is not some aspect we can just assume is being done. The continued sampling of the documents produced by our CAD staff cannot be limited to the CAD manager alone, but should also include the project manager and project engineer. Quality assurance is a task that rests on the shoulders of many people.

In contrast, controlling the quality of the documents sent to your clients is a task that must be narrowed. While a single document or design element may be sampled multiple times, it should not be applied to every document. A scope that wide would bring production to a halt. Quality control, however, is a task that must be applied to every document, but only once, as the document reaches a finished state. For this reason it is both reasonable and wise to choke quality control down to the fewest possible people. This is the surest way to maintain a continuity not only throughout a set of documents, but also across many projects. This continuity is the brand by which your firm will come to be known.

And Now?

So a plan is how we decide to, and in fact, develop a process. The process is how we execute quality assurance in the development of design documents. The design documents that travel through quality control will emerge error-free and of the highest quality possible. And it is this work that establishes your brand which, in turn, brings new work to your firm.

The difference between quality assurance and quality control is a subtle one, but still important. So is the difference between the applicable meaning of plan and process, in the context of document production. With the understanding of those four simple concepts you have the basic framework by which to reimagine the place you work, the way you work, and the product of your work.

Now stop worrying about QA / QC and do something about it.

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