For the last few years, Vista has developed a Quality Assurance program around a rotating QA Lead position.
Brian Hausermann completed his 1-year term as Vista’s Acting Quality Assurance Lead at the beginning of 2020 and took part in this interview shortly thereafter.
He says he enjoyed his time as the QA Lead and that he would gladly do it again. He also believes that his experience has helped make him a better Project Manager (his current role).
Click the questions below to read the transcript of Brian’s interview.
I was asked.
I mean, I was aware that Vista was moving towards a rotating position and I knew that the previous Lead’s tenure was wrapping up. So, when management asked, I said I’d be interested in it.
What drove that decision was that, in this environment, any chance that you get to do something altogether different, you should take it. I think the downturn has created an environment where you need to be flexible… you need to be able to do new things.
And so, the opportunity arose.
Not as a Lead or a Coordinator. Quality has always been an element of doing business at the companies that I’ve worked with throughout my career. Whether it’s taking part in audits, getting audited, or developing systems and processes just to make things work better.
I’ve always been in environments where quality plays an important role. As a Project Engineer or a Project Manager, quality is part of your daily life.
Yes, if you’re on the operations side, the quality approach revolves more around the traditional 12 total quality management (TQM) processes where the Six Sigma and Japanese Kaizen methods have been adopted by different industries. For example, if you’ve got a product coming out of the pipeline, how do you ensure that the product is meeting spec all the time? And if there are operational upsets, what tools do you use to diagnose the issue? Whereas on the engineering side, there is more of an auditing function. Ensuring that the design teams are following the procedures to the best of their abilities. So that’s more of a manual effort. Whereas in operating environments there is a lot more automation. Imagine if you’re producing 200,000 or 300,000 barrels per day of a chemical, there are a lot of more automated quality systems put in place to ensure that consistency is met.
Well, Vista is an ISO 9001 certified company. We use that standard as a backbone structure to organize our quality system. I mean, there are a couple of different ways that you could do this. ISO 9000 is probably one of the most recognized quality systems. We use that as a structure, and we have developed a quality management system and processes that are in line with the ISO standards. And I think what we do uniquely at Vista is that we focus on ensuring that our quality systems are fit-for-purpose. When we write standards, we’re always very careful to ensure that it gives our project teams options to do things right and to not be too prescriptive. I think if a quality system becomes too prescriptive, then the company doesn’t have a chance to adjust to different market conditions if it must. You lose flexibility.
The main benefit to having a rotating QA Lead position is that you develop quality expertise across the Project Management and leadership teams. It creates a better practice… sort of a more pragmatic understanding of how quality works. It becomes a more fundamental tool rather than something that just has to be done because someone requested it. As QA Lead, I experienced working through nonconformance reports and doing root cause analysis of things that have gone wrong and having developed proof systems to prevent those things from happening again. Having worked through these experiences, I can say that your perspective moves from sort of a more checkbox approach to something that you understand inherently. And if you understand it inherently or fundamentally, you’re more likely to be able to improve the system or to make the system more efficient so that it meets the need. I think it’s about developing a more comprehensive understanding, not just that things have to get done, but understanding why they need be done and how they support the business.
There are some disadvantages to a rotating role. Like with any new job, you might not have had the same exposure to certain concepts and there is time required to get up to speed. Quality is a field of study that’s been around since WWII, you know, back to the days of Deming and others. The idea of total quality management, of big systems that the best automobile manufacturers in the world follow to ensure that all the widgets coming off their lines are right. And so, the rotating system may preclude the use of more sophisticated quality tools that have been developed over the years because you just haven’t spent enough time in the field of study. Like anything, it’s a trade-off. But I think the rotating system is well suited to Vista’s business.
The main responsibility of the Quality Lead is to steward the entire Quality System on the path of the company. Some of the simpler tasks are to maintain the Quality Management System, the database of systems and procedures that we developed. There are hundreds of documents in the QMS right now so there is a maintenance aspect to ensure that processes are up to date. When updates are approved, you need to ensure that they’re properly filed and disseminated throughout the company so that when someone goes and looks for a process or a procedure, that they’re treating the controlled copy. So that’s one aspect. One of the more interesting aspects of getting involved in the non-conformance reports and the after-action reviews and root cause analysis… things that haven’t gone so well. In terms of professionally managing risk and consequence for the company, it’s important to understand what went wrong so that you can prevent those failures. I found this objective investigation aspect of the role to be quite interesting.
Well, there are a couple of different tools that you can use. At Vista, we like everything we do to be fit-for-purpose. In terms of root cause analysis, I like to use the 5 Whys process where you’re asking questions. If I get five whys in a row, I’ll understand or steer a group to have that kind of open discussion and talk about what could have gone better or why did it go sideways on us. It was a matter of picking the right investigative tool and method. It also involves doing pre-work, going into the product files to see how your teams documented their work.
- Where was the work appropriately checked?
- Was it checked by the right people?
- Was it filed in the right folders?
The most challenging aspect of quality is that you run into individuals… I’m speaking in a general sense, and I have maybe been guilty of this at one time as well… when you work on a project, you kind of tacitly believe that quality is important. But you don’t necessarily believe in processes leading to better quality. You understand that quality is inherent to the survival of the company. Because if we make big mistakes, there are big consequences. And, there are certainly companies that have probably gone under because the quality mistakes that they’ve made are so large that the consequences forced them into a liquidity crisis. But when you’re working on a project and doing the check-print process and you’re looking at the quality systems and how the company wants it structured, you’re not always drawing a link between the two. And so, you hear things like, “We could do this faster if we didn’t have to do all the quality checks,” or “I don’t see how this check print process can actually reduce error rates”. It’s a matter of education, of educating individuals to understand that there is value in doing things systematically and doing things consistently and, most importantly, ensuring that there is always a check by an independent person. It’s a constant conversation with everyone to highlight how the combination of those three things will actually improve the bottom line.
It was a mix of casual chats and audits. I also sent out Quality Bulletins in response to many of the questions that I would get and did one specifically about why we check. You know, a lot of processes have been developed by quality professionals over the years, and developing checking procedures is largely about human psychology. You’re more likely to find your neighbor’s mistake than your own. It’s very important to have that checking procedure in place and just as important that the checking procedure has been documented. And that’s another challenge that sometimes you see when conducting audits, that checking has happened, but it hasn’t been documented properly. So, if you ever had to prove that you’ve been following the system, you wouldn’t be able to. We need to make sure that the stamps and dates are correct, and that people are using the right colors on checking procedures. That’s the main challenge of quality. It’s about ensuring people work consistently to a set of standards all the time.
Yeah, definitely. We’ve all heard the jokes about quality and concrete life jackets. That joke has been around for decades.
There are two main learnings I took from being in the role.
- The first one is that ISO 9001 is sort of seen as a quality system, but it’s really about process. It’s a standard that drives processes within a company. And adherence to those processes is really what develops better efficiencies and out of that, quality is the outcome. That’s one of the main things I’ve picked up: that ISO 9001 is not about quality, it’s about systematic process and quality is an outcome.That’s really important when you are designing your processes and understanding how the company actually works.
- And the second thing I learned is that quality, especially in our context because we provide a consulting service, is about human psychology.It is about why people make mistakes and how we deal with them. There are certainly human factors to engineering, and human psychology needs to be accounted for when designing quality systems.
I think it will, yeah. I think any new skills that you can pick up will always improve your project management abilities. Having been the Acting QA Lead will give me a better line of sight to where things have not gone so well on projects. It’s about being able to provide tangible feedback on how things can go wrong and how it might affect your schedule, and eventually the operation at the site. Sometimes you can be so focused on the front-end of the project that you’re never around to see things operate. By focusing on NCRs, we’re hopefully using that experience so that the entire company can benefit.
Well, there were numerous procedures and a quality system manual that were updated. Also, I was tasked with updating our engineering and project professional management practice plan. And one thing that I like to highlight is that I introduced the Quality Bulletins and hope that we keep doing that moving forward. Those were one-pagers that were sent to the company and posted on the intranet. I tried to broadcast some of the lessons learned in a format that people could understand quickly and sort of pick up on what needs to be done to avoid the dragons. It was just a means of communicating lessons learned that we sort of picked up through the whole NCR, RCA process. The goal is for everyone in the company to benefit from lessons learned and I thought that a bulletin was the best way to spread the word.
I think for the next QA Lead, the most important thing to understand is to view quality not just sort of in the engineering context but to understand how it applies across whatever human endeavor that we choose to take on. Every industry has got some form of system, whether it’s the automotive, manufacturing, or even the healthcare sector. They have systems that they’ve developed and it’s important to try to take the time to understand how different companies have approached quality, and not just within the EPC environment. Try to see how it all fits together.
Well, we conducted many audits, and some were scheduled and others were driven by NCRs or something that happened. That’s a sort of a fundamental tenant of ISO, that you can have a process, but you also need to hold people to task. And the only way that you can do that reliably is to have an audit function that challenges teams to not just tell me, but to show me that you are done. That’s one of the major benefits of Vista’s data-centric execution model and A technical data portal (also known as digital project hub) is a web-based application that allows users to organize, validate and collabo…, which is that we can largely automate the audit trail.
As part of the ISO certification, we are obligated to do an annual certification process. No, it wasn’t stressful. The reality is we have a good system in place. Those that have gone before me have created this system that, I think, is pretty robust. It’s well thought out. It’s well documented. We have a history of applying it to work, and I didn’t think there was a chance that we could come out looking bad in an external audit. We do have some findings that are opportunities to get better. And I imagine that in future years they’ll probably come up with additional findings. And that’s just part of the process. I mean, I’d be more worried if there were no findings. Because then the question is, have you looked hard enough? Can we really be perfect? And in terms of quality, I don’t think you can. It’s a continuous process of auditing, understanding causes and looking for ways to improve.