Quality Assurance

A guide for measuring your snow-removal performance.

So it is snowing out. And you (or maybe the folks who work for you) are out there doing some plowing. Maybe you are clearing city streets or a parking lot or something else. And as the storm winds down, your crew gets done and you begin wondering to yourself, “How well did we do this time?” And maybe you're taking it a step further, asking, “If we did not do as well as we could, how could we do better next time?”

Those are very good questions to ask, but not very easy ones to answer, which is often the case with the good questions. And again, as is the case with all good questions, they tend to raise additional questions, until you very rapidly find yourself overwhelmed by all the questions and just think, “what the heck!” and get on with whatever needs doing. The issue of quality control in winter maintenance (and that is at the heart of those questions) is not an easy issue to tackle, but hopefully the following thoughts will at least create a rough guide to how you might implement some quality control into your winter maintenance activities.

Clear communication

There is an old saying “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” While this probably explains (if only we knew how) why it is that men (myself included) don’t like to ask for directions, it also contains a lot of truth and is applicable far beyond the obvious aspect of basic navigation. In winter maintenance the meaning of the saying may be “If you do not know what you are trying to achieve, you probably won’t get it done.”

At this point you are probably thinking that this is:

  1. obvious and
  2. not terribly helpful.

Let’s see if I can move a bit beyond that. Let’s suppose you have as a job clearing snow from a parking lot. What do you need to do to get that done? Or perhaps more importantly, what is your client expecting when you have finished? Obviously they are expecting the snow to be gone from, at the very least, most of the parking lot. But are they also expecting you to haul the snow somewhere else? That’s unlikely, but is it made clear in your contract? If they expect all the snow to be gone and instead find it piled into a neat, but very obvious and substantial pile, you will hear from them. That is a most basic aspect of communication—you and your client need to be on the same page with everything clearly articulated.

OK, it’s unlikely they expect you to haul all the snow, but have you discussed where the snow will be piled? That can be surprisingly important, because if it is in the right place, the melt-water from the plowed snow will go directly into a drainage system. If, however, the snow is piled in a “wrong” place, then the melt-water might go across quite a bit of the parking lot before it gets into a drainage system. Your client may not be too happy about that because what melts in the daytime may re-freeze at night.

The issue here is that you cannot do a quality job for a client unless and until you have established what the client’s expectations are. That is the very first step—and even that is not enough. You have to make sure that you and your client are speaking the same language (i.e., there is no room for misunderstandings) because, without that, you may think you have the expectations nailed down, without that being the case. The big issue in this regard is jargon. Anyone who works in any field (and I think we can classify winter maintenance as a field) acquires jargon that they use without thinking about it. Your clients may not understand the words you use in the same way you do.

All of this sounds like a pain. First I have to be crystal clear about what the client wants, then I have to double check that the client and I actually understand the same thing when we use the same words? Why all this hassle? Well it comes down to process. Doing a quality job means finding a way to both measure and record what you have done. Why would you need to do those two things? Well, if you can measure it, you can improve it. If you can’t or won’t measure it, then you are just guessing and likely not very much will change.

So let’s return to that client—we are trying to figure out exactly what they want and make sure that what they really want is what we think they want! To do that, we not only have to probe their responses, we have to make a record of it. Somewhere we need to find a way to keep a clear and accurate report of the agreement that we reached with them.

Now that really does sound like a pain. If there is one universal truth that I have heard from just about everyone involved in winter maintenance (and many other fields too) it is that any sort of paperwork is a major pain in the rear and all too often ends up not being done or not being done properly. And that right there is a major problem. Because just measuring what we do will not create a quality program—we have to be able to see how things have changed over time, and sadly that means we have to record things when we do them. There are ways around this (you automate everything, basically) but those methods can be expensive and may not be practical for smaller organizations.

Qualifying quality

So where have we got to at this point. We need to be very clear about the expectations from our clients. We need to cover some communication issues with them too. And we need to record those expectations in some way. And at this point we haven’t done thing one with our snow plow—hmmm! However, we are now well equipped to measure whether we have achieved our goals – how did that happen?

Well, we now have a clear written description of what we are going to do. And we have got buy-in from the client. So the next step is simply to go do it. The nice thing is that at this point we have a yardstick that we can measure against—namely the agreement with the client as to what we will do. We have agreed with the client that plowing their parking lot (or whatever the job may be) means moving most of the snow (we’ve discussed with them that directly after we are done, a thin layer of snow will be left in any ruts in the parking lot – it will soon melt once the sun hits it) to a certain area where it can melt over time and drain into a place where refreezing will not create any problems. The next stage in our quality control is simply to measure what we have done against what we said we would do.

Who should do this measuring? Well, if we are an owner-operator, it’s us who will be doing the measuring. We should have a form (yes, I know, more paperwork) for each job that sets out what the job entails and has clear spaces for us to note down or check off that we have done each step of what we need to do before we move on to the next job. Is that cumbersome and time-consuming? Yes, a little bit, but we can then be sure that we did the job correctly—and we have that documented.

What if we have employees who are doing the work for us? How should we handle that? Certainly with a new employee we would need to check their work for the first few times they are out. We will have some employees who are as reliable as a rock and we will have no concerns about having them complete their own quality control logs. But what about some of the others? Each employee should complete their own quality log, and we should run quality checks where we go around and review their work on a random basis (that is, we would not check every job they do, but maybe only one in ten of their jobs, and we would not check every employee every storm). We can then compare our quality logs with our employees and see if there are any discrepancies. Maybe they are doing more than the client wants—in which case, you will need to work with them to help them do what the client wants (and pays for) and no more.

Permanent improvement

The goal behind all of this is two-fold. First, we are trying to ensure that we give our clients what they want and need—to do that we have to know what they want and measure whether or not we meet that goal. Second, we are trying to improve our operations so that we can provide our clients with the best possible service in the most efficient manner possible. That way, they get great service and we get happy clients and proud employees.

Wilfrid A. Nixon, Ph.D, P.E., is professor of civil engineering at the University of Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa) and president of Asset Insight Technologies, LLC.

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