Invest in training to improve quality

July 2004 » Columns » GEOMATICS
Time and money are the reasons managers use to delay or prevent training programs. But the reluctance often occurs because developing an effective program requires research, thought, and creativity.
Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E.

Businesses sometimes are loath to invest in an ongoing training program for their surveying staffs. Time and money are the reasons managers use to delay or prevent its development and operation. But the reluctance often occurs because developing an effective training program requires research, thought, and creativity.

These same managers, however, have an easier time investing in advanced technology equipment in the quest for efficiency or for improving their competitive standing. Many times, these investments are based on financial assessments that use fundamental assumptions that equipment vendors provide about productivity increases. Managers rationalize that by spending $25,000 for an advanced total station or $40,000 for an RTK system they will recoup their investment in short order, given projected efficiency improvements. Whether or not the rationale is correct, personnel training is an easily overlooked factor in the assessment, which can change the predicted financial outcome.

Illustrating this point requires some simple assumptions. Charges and profitability vary from firm to firm, but assume that a surveying crew is charged out at $200 per hour for 40 hours per week, and that 5 percent of that revenue is profit. Annual revenue from the surveying crew is $400,000, and the profit is $20,000. (You can make analogous calculations based upon your own operation.)

Let's say that once a month, a mistake is discovered that involves redoing a day's worth of work. (You may think this is high or low, or that it is possible to work without making mistakes. You might think that one day of redoing work per week is more appropriate; apply your own rule of thumb.) The reduction, at eight hours per month for 12 months, is $19,200 in revenue and corresponding profit. This means that approximately every twentieth hour of "work" is a non-revenue hour.

Let's say the investment in new equipment is expected to increase work productivity by 25 percent. If we assume that the crew is able to be totally up to speed and make no mistakes due to unfamiliarity with the equipment or lack of training on the new technology, but continues doing the same average of one mistake, once a month, it now (theoretically) only takes six hours a month to make the correction. But with a 25-percent increase in productivity comes the likely increase of mistakes because more work is being done. Most financial assessments for equipment investment rely on the potential for generating more revenues with the time made available by the additional productivity. If the proportional likelihood of mistakes remains the same, the number of mistakes per month increases to 1.25, and, therefore, the correction effort remains at (approximately) eight hours per month. If you increase the amount of work you do without specifically working to reduce the rate of bad outcomes, the number of bad outcomes is likely to increase with the increased workload.

Based on audits of field survey methods and processes and feedback at seminars on effective use of instrumentation, it is my opinion that field crews often do not get to integrate into their operations the processes that the new equipment designers had in mind. This may happen because they are not given the time to gain an independent understanding of the new technology, or they are not provided with competent training. It may be something as simple as not being provided ready access to resources, such as instruction manuals and handbooks.

Thus, between not ideally changing the paradigm to reflect the new technology and following processes that are patently wrong, the potential is high for wreaking havoc on the fundamental financial assumptions in the equipment investment.

Going back to my hypothetical case, keep in mind that we did not specify the cause of the one-per-month mistakes. Regardless, any lack of understanding of the new technology only adds to the mistake-creation problem. Thus, if quality improvement is one of the objectives of a surveying business, unit, or crew, improving the technology but not providing training not only tends to keep the mistake rate at the status quo, it has potential for making it worse.

Constant drilling in procedures and processes, reviewing the processes, modifying the processes, applying the changes, monitoring the effectiveness of the changes, and, based on the monitoring, making further refinements, tends to have a positive effect on quality. To be an effective component of the quality-assurance process, therefore, training should cover the full range of activities—mental and physical—that is performed by the survey teams. By analyzing mistakes and designing methods and processes to eliminate or reduce future mistakes of the same type, training can be developed that capitalizes on the lessons learned, and subsequently reduces the rate of mistakes.

The most common mistakes include poor communication; incorrect assumptions; equipment malfunctions; operator, field crew, and office staff mistakes; calculation errors; data entry errors; and mistakes in source data. Training to reduce mistakes from these causes—as long as it is well thought out and presented and the effects of the training are monitored—may suffice as the only quality improvement program many organizations need. Nevertheless, it is impossible to speak of quality in an organization's work if part of the process for controlling it doesn't include training.

Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E., is a geomatics consultant. He can be reached at paiva@cenews.com.


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