Early in my career, I was taught the trite expression “Fast, good and cheap. Pick two.” The implication is that it is difficult to deliver on all three: schedule, quality and cost. Cost and schedule are easy to measure, but the impact of quality, or lack thereof, is not seen for years.
Reflecting on my 30-plus years in the industry, I see that our utility infrastructure is called on to last much longer than its design life. I see this at BC Hydro, where we are looking to replace an overhead system designed and built in the 1920s, located in the back alleys of a dense urban area, and obviously built for maintainability. That same dense urban core has a dual radial underground system that was designed and built in the 1950s, and obviously built for expandability. What the two systems share is an investment in quality, which has been repaid through system longevity. Does the work we are doing today live up to the same quality standards set by my very insightful predecessors?
In the distribution world, our power lines and cables are in very public areas — in front of, behind, under or over every single customer. Our overriding concern must be safety — to our workers, our customers, third parties we share facilities with and the public exposed to our facilities. Will a compromise on quality also compromise safety? In Canada, our engineering graduates take part in the “Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer,” which obligates us not to pass or be privy to the passing of bad workmanship or faulty material that may endanger others. Safety is my solemn obligation, and as such, so is quality.
We need to ensure quality without paying too much and guarantee that we have not compromised safety. Today there are far too few of us to handle every situation and second guess our suppliers, so let's make it easy on ourselves by dealing with quality suppliers. We need to be able to rely on them to provide quality products and help us deal with new applications. But our suppliers are being driven by the same cost pressures to reduce prices, which can result in reduced product quality and life expectancy. Quality manufacturers want to supply a quality product and will help us apply it correctly, but we need to be willing to pay for it. Let's not force that one last cut in materials and support that takes us too close to the margin. And let's not hold manufacturers who create value through research, new product development and product support to the same price as those who ride their coattails by creating a knockoff product.
Then there is the question of how we define and measure costs. Many people in procurement consider cost and price to be the same thing. Experienced engineers, however, know that cost means the total costs over the full life cycle of the equipment. These include installation, operation, maintenance and end-of-life costs, which are relatively easy to determine, but the cost to repair or replace unreliable devices is not.
We already have a great tool for combining quality and cost effectiveness: our standards. We use specifications to communicate formally with our suppliers, ensuring that we get quality products that are safe and will last as long as we expect them to. We realize economies of scale by harmonizing these specifications through the development of common industry standards. Strangely, though, participation in the utility industry's development of standards seems to have taken a lower priority, even as we look for ways to reduce costs. Fewer utilities are sending their engineers to work on standards committees, but without our involvement, how can the manufacturers know and understand our requirements? How can we understand their constraints and the impacts on product quality and performance? And standards are set to play an evermore critical role, as we now look to layer communications, intelligence and interoperability on our sensing, switching and signalling equipment. Our investment in standards work today will pay dividends in better quality and longer-lasting installations.
Looking at the power system I work on today and how long it has lasted, I come to work each day and recognize that I stand on the shoulders of giants. I am proud to work on the system that they envisioned and built, and to expand and rebuild it to serve tomorrow's needs. We need to make sure that their insistence on quality is transferred to our new generation of engineers, whose work, in many ways, will be even harder with increased performance demands, a more complex regulatory environment, and more complex and rapidly changing technologies. We need to use the time-honoured mentor-protégé relationship for younger staff members to gain the benefit of seasoned colleagues' knowledge and perspective to ensure the continued quality of our power system.
My mentor taught me to take the longest view I can when making serious decisions. How does this reflect in my work today? Schedule, quality, cost? If you make me pick, I'll always pick quality first.
Fred Dennert (Fred.Dennert@bchydro.com) is the division manager of the distribution standards department at BC Hydro and a professional engineer.