Finding Balance


Finding Balance

Design efficiency is critical,
but it can’t overshadow design quality.

One Minute Poll: How Do You Handle QC During Design?

Dan Morris is worried about mistakes. He’s been with Apex Technology for 16 years, 14 of which he’s spent managing the truss design department. “We know what we’re doing, but that doesn’t mean the little things can’t trip you up,” says Morris. “In other industries you can make a mistake every day and no one will notice.” In truss design, however, a single mistake can be extremely costly, especially if it leads to extensive site repairs or litigation. 

Those mistakes are particularly easy to make when staff is short on expertise. “Truss designers are hard to come by, especially experienced truss designers,” he says. “In order for you to really become good at it, you’re looking at four, five, six, seven years of work.” That learning curve is indicative of just how complex the industry is. Morris puts it succinctly: “there’s a lot to take in.”

With that in mind, Morris has made quality control (QC) his passion and priority. After finding issues in the field, he initiated a QC process to avoid repeating those same mistakes. Now, Morris says, “we do a lot of QC on the front end to hopefully avoid mistakes on the back end.”

In managing a design team, Dan Morris walks the fine line between saying “Get these out!” and “Don’t screw up!”

A key part of that process is the design checklist. It’s an editable PDF that all of Morris’ designers fill in. It’s simple, but effective. “Did you check your 3D view to make sure you don’t have trusses sticking out of your roof?” is one question Morris wants all his designers to ask themselves on every project. “Is your lumber correct? Is the job marked ‘design complete’?” As Morris points out, “the tasks are easy, but one missed step can throw off the whole project.”

“The key is the QC needs to be separate from the design,” said Morris. “Design a roof, and then inspect the design. Assemble a truss, and then inspect the component. Each step is separate.”

So many problems can be fixed, Morris says, “if you just spend a few minutes on the front end.” A decade ago, he explains, “each designer had his own issue.” One might do fine on everything but tray ceilings, another might catch every detail of ceiling design but struggle with elevations. A checklist standardizes the review process across individual designers, helping ensure that problems are uncovered no matter who is doing the design.

Design QC Checklist

The great thing about a design QC checklist like the one Morris uses is that it can be part of a scalable effort. A large, national building company will put a different level of effort into a QC program than a small custom builder will, but both can achieve the same thing: significant cost savings by catching issues early.

Morris insists that there are a lot of easy things to catch long before you look for snug joints and perfectly placed plates. To emphasize the point, Morris divides his checklist into multiple sections. The top part reflects the order in which a designer creates a job, making it simple to catch easily overlooked items during the design process. The bottom part of the checklist is the QC portion. When the designer has completed the job, he checks each item on the QC list and then submits the design for a peer review. Every item is deceptively simple. “I know it sounds silly and everybody should know this,” Morris says, “but design is a huge part of everybody’s business.”

Of course, Morris says, that’s not the only concern. “It’s not just how much money mistakes cost,” he explains, it’s also about a company’s reputation and how much trust customers have in your product and process. “You’re building a custom product in an assembly line environment,” Morris summarizes, “and you’re having someone else put it together.” It’s a tricky process with involvement from many parties, lots of opportunity for problems, and a lot of responsibility when things go wrong. So it’s baffling, he says, that “some companies really look at mistakes as a cost of doing business. In some ways they are,” he admits, but not at Apex.

“Our company has a zero tolerance on mistakes,” Morris says, because that front-end effort is what limits downstream issues, callbacks and repairs. In contributing to buildings that shelter people on a daily basis, checking that everything is done correctly is matter of ensuring basic safety for trusting customers. Morris wants his fellow component manufacturers to remember: “You’re up there with brain surgeons and pilots.”

About the Author: Dale Erlandson joined SBCA staff last fall as the assistant editor of SBC Magazine. She has written for a variety of publications over the last decade and thrives on the challenge of learning something new and passing that knowledge along through the written word.