A holistic, people-centred view of quality

29 July 2014

The AUTANOVE project aims to create a new emergency power supply for Axpo’s Beznau 1&2 in Switzerland. A three-level competence model of the individual worker is proposed to explain how quality can be managed at the team level. By Cyrus Arsiwalla

In the AUTANOVE project four state-of- the-art backup diesel generators will be installed in two new buildings at Beznau. The new system has a different concept and it will decouple Beznau's emergency power supply from the current emergency power system, the Beznau hydroelectric power plant. The new self-sufficient emergency power system will comprise four backup diesel generators (each 3750 kWe) in two new buildings (a computer-generated image of one is shown above at bottom left). The diesel engines are roughly 4m high, and each of the eight associated fuel tanks will hold 107,000 litres of diesel, to enable each generator to run for seven days of full-load operation.

  • Integration into the existing plant: >100km cable, weighing > 300 t
  • Reinforcing steel: about 700 t
  • Number of documents: about 20,000
  • Volume of the buildings: 15000 m3; 4000 m3 concrete; 4500 anchor plates used for load transfer.

Managing such a large project, which involves some 20,000 documents, is complex. For example, tasks that will arise in later phases of the project, such as recording the lessons learned, must be planned so they are carried out during the execution phase. This important responsibility -- the key to success for subsequent projects -- is one of many that falls to the project's quality management team. The quality manager not only has to provide project members with a database tool to record the lessons, but also has to convince all the project members to make the effort to fill it in. The quality of the database depends on workers' willingness to spend the time documenting issues, on the involvement of the most knowledgeable project staff, and on the level of technical detail of the content itself.

This is just one example where the quality of a project depends on more than just the technical skills or competence of project workers. A persuasive leader can create an environment where people are motivated to perform -- perhaps because they are aware of a higher goal -- and in so doing improve holistic quality.

Quality managers must understand that their staff draw on technical, organisational and personal skills simultaneously when performing an action. More often than not, both organisational and personal competences are neglected, especially in technical business areas. However, projects are usually executed by teams within an existing organisation that have their own rules, methods and processes. Managers must be aware of social dynamics in order to manage the project efficiently and deliver high quality.

Because skills and competences are personal abilities, they are related to each other and influence each other. They interact like a spider's web, if I may use this metaphor. Imagine sticking all of one's skills and competences into a spider's web (Figure 1) and then pulling on one of the strands. All of the other strands move in response - some more, others less. Whatever one does and
in whatever way one does it, that action will have an impact on all of one's skills and competences.

Skills and competences of a quality manager (selected)

  • Visionary leadership
  • Holistic thinking and action
  • Conceptual thinking
  • Organisation management
  • Information management
  • Client orientation
  • Bringing people together
  • Risk management
  • Process management
  • Presentation
  • Coaching
  • Motivation and engagement

Sometimes in our daily business or project work the outcome of an action does not meet the requirements -- that is, quality has not been attained. It is important for a quality manager to find out the root cause to initiate countermeasures.

Here is a real example. A supplier was given an order to make a component. The order specified the materials to be used, dimensions, deadline and so on. The component was made and sent to another company for welding. Although the welder followed the exact procedure for the required alloy the component fell apart. It was determined that the wrong alloy had been used. The supplier had to make the component again, and the delivery was delayed.

Why did the supplier use the wrong alloy? It knew that it was for a nuclear application. It knew the specification. It knew that using the specified alloy would require a trip to China to investigate the supplier and specify the order. It had extensive stocks of another alloy that is useful for many other objects but not for nuclear applications. Something happened in the brain of the supplier that led the person in charge to forget that he should have used a better alloy. To meet the time constraints of the order he used the available alloy, which had been adequate for other clients. It is not a lack of communication or missing information. I think it was just a misinterpretation; the supplier extrapolated from past experience to the current situation. From my experience I can tell that this mistake could have been avoided with a kick-off meeting that emphasised the need for a higher-class alloy.

"The quality deviation was not due to the technical specification. It was due to something else: a personal perception."

In this example the technical specification was present and correct; it was provided clearly, and in the standard way. The quality deviation was due to something else: a personal perception.

To understand how personal issues factor in to quality of work, an individual's skills and competences shown in the spider's web diagram are separated into three different levels: technical, organisational and personal (Figure 2). This model is meant to show that quality cannot be guaranteed merely by supplying the required technical skills.In addition the right processes must be in place at the organisational level to dictate for example how project members will communicate with each other. Moreover, one must also have a profound understanding of social interactions to be able to support other people in terms of their sense of self.

Personal skills are divided into two types: social competences and self competences. The former are interpersonal skills such as communication, leadership and negotiation. The latter are abilities such as conceptual or strategic thinking or persistence with a boring task. How to act with other people in specific situations is not taught in university lessons, but is the sort of thing that is taught at home, at school (outside of lessons), in the daily working environment and during coaching sessions.

Over the years of my work in different industries I have noticed a trend of increasing complexity in project work. There are more rules and regulations, more authorities involved, more suppliers to coordinate and so on. The demands in terms of management and leadership have grown. So project managers (and managers in general) need more than just technical knowledge. As a manager one has to lead people to cooperate and collaborate to meet their goals. For this reason, personal skills have become more important - although of course without technical and methodological know-how one will not succeed either. However, at the same time I have also noticed that the people tend to choose project leaders based only on their technical skills; any lack in psychological education and training is ignored.

Because some people have not learned these skills, they are often my focus in one- to-one coaching with my staff. I teach people to try to get away from their emotions to get a perspective of what their counterparts are thinking, to follow the rules of polite behaviour and to accept that other people have different but equally-valid perspectives. Having understood that, they can work to try to convince other people to achieve the same goal.

"I am convinced that people who are aware that their skills and competences take effect on a technical, organisational and social dynamic level can act more efficiently and effectively."

On the internet I recently found a description of a welder's skill set (by Emma Woolley on careerbear.com): problem-solving, maths and science, endurance and interpersonal skills. This description fits well into the three-level-model. I am convinced that people who are aware that their skills and competences take effect on all three levels can act more efficiently and effectively. At the end of the day, well-developed strengths are the real human resources, which means that people "have resources" rather than "being resources".

These statements bring me to consider the role of a quality manager. A quality manager does not have the same function as a quality controller or quality assurance specialist. Rather, he or she has a managerial function that encompasses speciality skills (for example those needed in infrastructure projects) as well as the meta-disciplinary competences listed in the box above. I am convinced that nowadays a quality manager that wishes to support an efficient project team must coach staff not only in terms of methodologies but also in terms of self and social competences.

Cyrus Arsiwalla, quality manager, strategic projects, Axpo Power AG, Switzerland

Figure 2: The three-level model of skills
Figure 1: Skills in a spider's web
New emergency power building, bottom left

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