Is commercial gain or technical excellence more important? It is a dilemma that is ever more frequenting playing on engineers’ minds in a world of tighter budgets that call for smarter solutions, added value and, above all, cost savings for the client.
talking point yuli doulala rigby
Surely technical excellence should never be compromised in the name of any commercial gain but is that really the case?
We all like to boast about our success stories, which is great and the right thing to do. One of the greatest rewards of being an engineer is that feeling of pride when our efforts in developing an engineered solution to solve a problem becomes reality and our design turns into a real life, successfully constructed project, whether being a new highway, a bridge, a house, a remediated landslide, the list of what, we, engineers do is endless. Because as Prince Philip once said: “What God did not create, engineers did!”
But what happens when things go wrong? Who should take responsibility for pointing out and correcting errors? How would your approach differ if the error is by your own omission or if you are just an observer because the issue is beyond your scope of works?
I would hope that professional standards mean that most would flag their own omissions in order prevent a highly probable disaster, rather than hoping nobody will notice and save any embarrassment.
But what if the issue is outside of your remit? Would you as readily flag it up, even if you know that this might upset the client and might compromise your commercial gains? Or would you turn a blind eye? Just how fine is the line between beyond your scope of works and your duty as a professional engineer to warn?
For any professionally qualified engineer, the rules of the ICE code of professional conduct are clearly stated, and in particular rule no 3: “All members shall have full regard for the public interest, particularly in relation to matters of health and safety, and in relation to the well-being of future generations.”
But how easy is it to follow these rules when, from a commercial position, pointing out an error could be almost as damaging as an actual failure and can have a wider impact on the industry in damaging supply chain perception of a particular solution?
I hope you will never be in a position to have to consider these issues, but these situations do arise and your actions can affect more than just the current project and have wider ramifications.
While the focus at the point of the error being spotted must be to resolve the issue and prevent a potential failure, we also need to find a way to share lessons learnt more easily. At the moment many key lessons, which prevent mistakes of the past being repeated, are lost because of the call for confidentiality or for legal reasons.
Without this clear insight into what went wrong and why, not only can the same things happen again, but it could also make an individual who spots an error feel like they are the first to be in that situation.
My personal view is that professional engineers must always stand firm by our educated, technically sound decisions and must exercise our duty to warn beyond and above any contract’s scope of works and beyond and above any commercial gain or pressure. Then we can all sleep soundly at night.
- Chaido Doulala-Rigby is chief civil engineer with Tensar International and the current chair of the International Geosynthentics Society, UK Chapter