Reducing Errors in the Design Office – Bill Kimber


How can we reduce the quantity and severity of errors in the design office? As much as 37% of project increases in cost and schedule can be traced back to changes in the original contracted scope.


A change in scope can been defined as; “an unexpected development that will change the requirements and results in cost growth and time extension.”


All Contract changes must be well documented using procedures that should already be in place. Procedures are designed to allow accurate documenting of project changes and the transmission of updated costs to the client for approval. The costs and terms are added to the original project documentation after client approval and become part of the amended contract.



All members of the project team must be intimately familiar with project scope and deliverables. The team must bring to the project management team’s attention any deviations or perceived deviations from scope and schedule. The project team review and deviations and then has the option to ignore additional costs of a change or to gain client approval in advance of doing the work and pass the costs on.

In the rush to reduce project cost and duration we tend to rush to judgement and focus only on individual incidents apparently contributing to over runs. This can lead to wasted time and energy while attempting to fix not the problem but the symptom. The project team must take the time to identify underlying problems and to implement a strategy that will bring about the desired changes. Identifying and reducing or eliminating the real problems will have the greatest overall effect on error reduction, in other words do not attack the symptom – find and eliminate the problem at its source.

The four main contributors to work overruns in the design office are;

  • Rework

  • Design errors

  • Change in scope

  • Failure to follow codes, unapproved attempts at value engineering and failure to follow procedures resulting in inconsistencies.

Taken Industry wide design errors contribute around 29% of project over runs, 13% is attributable to needless rework, 37% to scope changes and 21% to the mysterious “other”. Most engineering companies already have management tools in place to reduce error numbers significantly. To create a direct impact on project cost and schedule significant error reduction is usually a matter of either instituting and/or enforcing proper checking, audit and workflow procedures.

It is obvious that a poorly defined scope of work will inevitably produce disastrous results. It inevitably leads to large increases in the time and money needed to complete the project. The inaccurate or incomplete scope of work will result in dissention between the engineering firm, the field contractor and the client. The fallout from a poorly defined scope of work does not usually become apparent until near the end of the project as client, contractor and the firm all struggle to reach agreement on what is the scope, often after the work is essentially complete.

The emphasis in a tight economy is to spend minimum money while still receiving accurate and complete project documentation. The rush to complete contract documentation can be a contributing factor to poor deliverables definition. There may be little time between the initial project award and the project kickoff and “canned” deliverables lists are used leading to incomplete documenting of the project scope, schedule and required deliverables.

Without a solid idea of what is to be done or even when we will be done;

- Accurate detailed planning is impossible

- Realistic schedules and budgets cannot be produced

- Many changes will appear as the project progresses.

- The incidence of change will increase dramatically as participants approach project completion.

It is essential that the owner, the designers and engineers fully review all bid documents in order to be confident they understand the scope, owner’s objectives, requirements and motivation. Failure to do so will inevitably result in project failure.

The project failure definitions show that failure does not always involve explosions and fire. There are a lot of factors that can lead to a project being labeled a failure.

There are at least 5 common definitions of project failure:

1. Judgment Call

The stakeholders (or some subset of stakeholders) decide if a project is a success or failure. For example, a project board may make this decision as part of project closure activities. In other words, a project is a failure if its stakeholders consider it a failure. This is the most accepted definition of project failure.

2. Delivery to Plan

Any project that fails to meet time, budget and quality targets is considered a failure.

This is a relatively strict definition that may lead project managers to pad schedules and budgets with excessive contingency.

3. On-time Delivery

Any project that is late is considered a failure.

Organizations in highly competitive, time-to-market driven industries are sometimes tolerant of cost overruns if a project meets its target launch date.

4. Financial Results Match Projections

Any project that fails to meet the financial forecasts set out in its business plan is considered a failure.

In many ways, this is the most effective definition. It's hard to mark a successful investment as a failure.

5. Minimum Return

The project fails to meet a minimum return criterion (e.g. a minimum ROI target).

This approach marks a project as successful if it pays back (even if it comes short of the financial forecasts in the business case).

Speaking of Errors

While no firm can or even should warrant that every drawing and design will be completely error free the team is obligated to do all in their power to minimize errors. The principals for any project must establish a comprehensive quality control program and most importantly enforce those policies throughout the project lifecycle. It is not enough to simply point to the processes and procedures but the firm must be able to capably demonstrate processes are being used and that all changes, additions, drawing issues etc. are properly documented in advance by the client. The request for additional funds from the client must always be accompanied by a comprehensive, realistic estimate of the final cost and any impact on schedule. The estimate must be signed and approved by every discipline involved in the change. Only each discipline can define and estimate what its time commitment will be.

When processes are not followed, and documentation of changes and additions is inconsistent it rapidly becomes too late to present changes to the client. Work must be approved in advance. The company can end absorbing the cost of changes or forced to negotiate an unfavorable settlement, depending entirely on how understanding the client is regarding the changes and the underlying reasons for the change. 

When engineers and designers are given adequate time to develop complete design documents and work within a quality assurance system, the incidence of errors will be reduced dramatically. The caveat to this is that the engineers and checkers must be given enough time to properly review drawings. Without enough time to check the drawings “cycling” is guaranteed with drawings coming back to the design office many times for countless small (and often needless) changes. A well run and enforced system allows time for all those involved to review the design before it is presented to the client.

Each firm must establish a realistic estimate of hours or project percentage based on design hours for the checking of drawings. This might be 10% of the hours for pipeline projects or for facility drawings checking can be as much as 20% of the drafting hours. The checking allocation has to be determined based on the individual groups experience. Should there be inadequate hours allotted for checking no one can claim to be properly checking drawings.

As part of a total quality management system firms must have well developed quality control plans as a check and balance system to reduce the number of design errors and rework. Reduction in errors and rework is possible with better coordination between disciplines (e.g. between Engineering and Design or between civil design and mechanical design) A good quality control system establishes criteria for review of all the documents within a package. Effective coordination and review can only be present when effective communication is part of the engineering and design process.

Classification of errors;

Skill and performance based errors

This type of error is based in “memory failures”, the individual knows what to do but because of time constraints, pressure to complete or simply forgetting the error is committed.

Rule and knowledge based errors

These are straight mistakes and are as a result of a set of rules for a particular task not being followed. For example deviating from the standard drawing or “go by” for a particular function.

Intentional violations/non compliance

This is an intentional deviation from process and procedures (usually as a result of time constraints. For Example; drawings issued without adequate review, check sheets not used, no rechecking of drawings after changes made, notes added to drawings - the potential list is endless).

Design errors

Design errors are mistakes that happen in spite of stringent rules and processes.


If group members have worked long hours under tremendous pressure for many weeks to meet deadlines, they will be not only physically tired but mentally exhausted. There is a real need for down time. Lacking that down time, the individual will simply lose momentum and be unable to perform. There will also be also a lowering of morale after so long without any real break. Each firm must realistically assess when it is time to add additional persons to the project team and cut back on excessive overtime.

Adverse behavior

Deals with the way an individual who commits an error is handled. This is rooted in a firm’s culture and in situations where individuals feel powerless to seek answers and guidance, errors are inevitable.

Inadequate training of drafters and designers

Insufficient knowledge, ability and skills can contribute to subtle errors that in the rush to issue are difficult to detect while clients seem particularly adept at spotting these same errors. Having the combination of knowledge and information is essential in reducing errors in drafting and design. Constant training and upgrading of individual team members is a valued part not only of reducing errors but in employee retention.

Ineffective utilization of software

Lack of training on corporate software results in wasted time on any project. Learning software “on the job” is seldom productive. Employees that are receiving good training remain engaged and are more likely to stay with an employer than those not receiving training.

Inadequate quality assurance

While many companies have a quality assurance program in place these are not always followed. Ongoing use of quality guidelines is important to the successful production of high quality documents. The use of check sheets, enforcement of squad check guidelines, maintaining master stick files, regularly updating and using a complete deliverables list and tracking drawing deliverables (percentages complete, due dates etc.). These are all tasks that may be considered secondary but are essential in the smooth execution of a project.

Unreasonable client/end user/internal expectations

Very short time frames with major changes near the finish of a task are the new norm. Additions come late, are often not properly documented and many times changes are complete before being signed off by client representatives.

So, given that what can we do to reduce errors

Audit your projects

To reduce design errors is not a simple task. The culture in a company may need to be challenged, people may need to be moved or replaced, execution methods for projects may need to change and projects need to be subjected to multiple internal audits such as:

- Startup Audit

- Midpoint Audit

- Completion Audit

These audits can be pointed to defining a single problem area and fix only a single situation or for an entire project that is not performing to expectations. The audits are valuable even if all is well to assure the project team and client that nothing is going awry.

Other Solutions

- Develop design document review check lists that are kept on file for each drawing.

- Strictly enforce the use of check lists and hold accountable those who indicate a task is done on the check list when in fact is was never done.

- Ensure each discipline has the time, information and workforce to complete the project. Careful project tracking of design drawings is essential so the drafting leads can forecast future requirements or schedule deviations. The leads must also to be held accountable for meeting deadlines once the lead has confirmed that deadlines will be met. If the deadlines are not attainable the leads have to prepare a recovery plan.

- Require discipline coordination meetings with all disciplines working on a given area of a project. These meetings are generally held weekly on a Monday and include;

    I.           What did you do last week?

    II.           What are you going to do this week?

    III.           What are you going to be working on next week?

    IV.           What deadlines and deliverables are upcoming in the next 2-3 weeks and can you met those dates?

    V.           Are you missing any information that is preventing your team advancing with the schedule.

- Along with an update on the project, any additions and deletions. A well-run weekly meeting should take no more than half an hour. It pays dividends in increased project awareness, increased production and team motivation.

- Confirm client and internal expectations of what the design and drafting team is expected to deliver and when. Stick to it.

- Ensure the entire team is aware of the original scope, scope changes, PEP and schedule. This means that the scope and schedule have to be readily available to all.

- Establish what the quality assurance and quality control procedures for the project are and enforce their use.

- A thorough and realistic assessment of each drafter and designer’s skill levels firstly at the 3-month mark and then annually. To develop a superior team, first determine strengths and weaknesses and act decisively to take advantage of strengths and correct weaknesses.

- Before issue every drawing should be subjected to a “cold eyes” review from a senior engineer and senior designer - this part is important – someone that has not worked on the drawings being issued. There must be time and money in the budget for this.

- Document, Document, Document. It is far better to have too much paper than to be unable to produce documentation when urgently needed – by the judge for instance……………..

- Develop a learning program for the drafters and designers. The topics need to stress;

    I.           Construction methods – too many designers and engineers do not understand how projects are built

    II.           drafting and design standards – both the client and corporate standards

    III.           Project Standards submitted by the client for the project

    IV.           Project execution for design departments

    V.           Software learning or upgrades for company software and any software specified by the client

    VI.           Provide advanced training for leads and potential leads. This will help keep present and future team leaders motivated and engaged as they see a path forward. They need to be familiar with;

        o  Policies and procedures

        o  Project tracking

        o  Leads duties and responsibilities

    VII.           Advanced training for checkers and potential checkers to assist in use of the corporate checking and design guidelines

        o  Policies and procedures

        o  Checking procedure

        o  Check sheets

The list of topics and training that can be presented to drafters, designers and engineers is endless. Each round of training increases their value to the company and in the end contributes to reducing errors and omissions. The easiest and most cost-effective way to present internal courses is to assign staff member (volunteer) who has the appropriate skillset to present (assist them in their decision to volunteer). By having employees present topics, it improves presentation and public speaking skills as well as refreshing their individual skills.

Sources: Material taken from or referred to include;

1.      Design Error Classification, Causation and prevention in construction engineering. R. Lopez, P. Love Ph.D., D. Edwards Ph.D., P. Davis Ph.D.

2.      Evaluating the perception of design errors in the construction industry. By G.N. Suther R.A., Lieutenant, civil engineering corps, United States Navy.

3.      Lessons Learned from Execution of Oil Sands and SAGD Projects. Alnoor Halari, MSc and Dr George Jereas, PhD, P Eng.

 4.     Internet Sources