Structural safety and Owl

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Uit het archief … een stukje van mijn hand uit het tijdperk Dekker en de zoektocht naar maatregelen op het gebied van constructieve veiligheid. Het verhaal is nog steeds relevant. Waarom in het Engels? Ik heb geen idee (meer).

November 18, 2007

It is at the end of the year. The leaves are starting to fall and the weather is turning nasty. There is this frog … he is somewhat unhappy and for a good reason, he is cold and does not know what to do about it. He is in need of a solution so he turns to his friend Bear. “Bear I am so cold! Do you know what I can do to get warm?” Bear really wants to help Frog but he can’t, he has no clue, nothing comes to mind. Wait … he did think of something: “You should go ask Owl, he is wise and probably knows what to do.” So Frog goes to visit Owl and sure enough, Owl wants to help. “Let me think about this. Come back in a week and I will have an answer for you.” That’s promising! Frog is happy with a solution almost in reach. After a week he is back and yes, Owl has the solution. “What you should do is get yourself some feathers. That’ all, problem solved.” Frog is ecstatic. Yes, Owl is the wise one and knows about this stuff. After about a week Frog is once again back to visit Owl. “What’s the problem now Frog?” Frog replies: “You told me about the feathers and at first I was quite happy with your advice but there is a small problem … I don’t know how to grow feathers? Owl: “Now listen Frog, I am here for the greater scheme of things, the big picture, so don’t bother me with the details.”

Building bigger, faster, more complex structures comes with a price. The general idea being: the lowest price! There is a slight problem … something has to give. Quite often it’s the quality. Health, safety and more recently environmental friendly and sustainable construction, these are items high on the political agenda. In laws and regulations you will find minimum requirements to guarantee that structures stay upright. It looks simple but in reality things go wrong and sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

Quite often people compare the construction business to the automobile industry. The similarity is in the process, designing something to meet certain specification, building it and then actually making it available for use. Simple! There is a slight difference. In building a car you prototype. You design one and build 5 million. In building real estate, every structure is unique every construction effort is unique. The circumstances differ every time. In an automobile plant you can control every aspect. On a construction site this turns out to be somewhat more problematic and complex. It’s all about the money. Are you willing to pay a little extra to make sure you get what you pay for? This is not always the case.

This week I had two meetings on structural safety. One was an expert meeting and the other one was more informative, a debate on the “how to.” The expert meeting was organized by our government. Groups of experts were asked to come up with solutions. I was very surprised. It worked! I am very much used to people getting stuck in trying to define and redefine the problem. It is kind of like school. If you don’t know the answer you can reword the question and make that into an answer. In this meeting this was not the case! We were immediately put to work, no discussions, it was “Let’s try to get ideas that will work, practical ideas.” Our goal: come up with solutions, ideas that are feasible: how do we get more grip on structural safety. The feasible ideas had a focus on controlling the process, the quality in every step of the construction effort. It made sense to me. To be honest, the event was not what I had expected. It was much much better. The results will be used to formulate recommendations and what not. We will see …

The “debate” was quite different. Government officials and the who’s who from the industry made an effort to talk about the “why”, responsibilities, the importance, blame, shame etc. The point … being heard, noticed. As for practical solutions, they were few, nothing very concrete. Our former minister, Mrs. Dekker, head of the committee asked to study the problem and formulate recommendations, had a very clear view on the matter. Her take on this: more regulations are probably not what we are after, it is all about improving process control. Yes! I am a believer. I think she is right on the mark. When it comes to regulations the aim should be to make it easier, more transparent not add complexity. Next to that, regulations in themselves are no guarantee. Better process control has potential. There are some parallels with certification and ISO standards. Having said that, more artillery along those lines can create more of a false sense of security. Many companies have tried to come to grips with quality control through ISO certification and many now have a big hangover and a lot of paperwork. It’s like the process of building a concrete life jacket. In this example concrete is the stuff made by using cement. If you wrote down how to make a life jacket out of cement, which is possible, you can produce a quality product. It won’t work but it is quality! On the other hand, if you don’t follow these specifications but you are able to produce a life jacket that will actually help you float, you end up with a product which is by definition “not quality.”

Like in the story with the frog, we can only wait on a wise recommendation from Owl. In the meantime … take care of the details and the rest will take care of itself.

Pieter Plass

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