All Quality Errors are Not Equal

When we think about errors, it is easy to remember the ones that caused you headaches. It might have been a contractor’s confusion that resulted in a back charge or an inspector’s stop work order. These errors types of problems can cause anxiety, changes in work schedules, and financial discord, but all errors are not created equally. Let’s examine how different errors can impact and influence your finished product.

Error Classification

Quality Assessment, error classification.  By Brian Wagner PE

Engineering mistakes can range across a broad spectrum. Insignificant errors can be spelling mistakes or poor drafting where text labels overwrite other information. At the other end of the spectrum, the application of an incorrect factor of safety and different scenarios where engineer-created situations can result in the loss of life. In the middle lies errors that can cause confusion or result in monetary impacts.

Quality management is designed to identify and correct mistakes before the final version is released to the end user. As professionals, we always target perfection, however, that is an extremely hard target to attain every time. This makes it important to consider how each unidentified error influences the success of a project. It is also important to target certain types of errors in the quality management process.


Errors like spelling mistakes or poor drafting can cause a user of the document to hesitate. An incorrect spelling here or there is not uncommon, but an overabundance of mistakes will lead the user to question the overall quality of the document.

Consider a non-technical project owner reading a stormwater management report that you submitted to the approval authority for approval. In my experience, many clients don’t necessarily understand the ins and outs of a complicated stormwater management design. They do however understand basic spelling and grammar. When they read the narrative explaining the design and find several errors, they may begin to question the overall quality of the work.

At the end of the day, most errors classified in the Hesitation Category will be overlooked and ignored since they don’t significantly impact the finished product.


Mistakes that cause the user to question something are normally classified in the Confusion Category. Obviously, these can result in the user asking questions and resolving the issue, however, these errors also result in misinterpretation when assumptions prevail.

Examples of Confusion errors can include inconsistent information like two different pipe inverts for the same location or references to conflicting specifications. A common error I see is in references. “See sheet X” or “See detail this sheet” but when you go to find the information it is in a different location or missing entirely.

In an ideal scenario, these points of confusion can be clarified and cause a “no harm, no foul” result.


Problems that result in financial impacts to a project are where mistakes normally begin to be considered “bad”. Up to this point, mistakes can be corrected on a formal or informal basis, but when money is involved, documentation is a must.

Monetary Category errors can include incorrect specifications causing the contractor to bid on a project incorrectly. They can be utility crossing conflicts that may result in rework or changes in the field during construction. Errors that cause project delays can also have financial impacts on the owner and even the design engineer. These situations are the reason engineers have professional liability insurance.

When the expense of the mistake is conveyed back to the professional who produced the work, it is clearly in the Monetary Category.


The Professional Engineer’s Creed as written by the National Society of Professional Engineers states, “to place before profit, the honor and standing of the profession before personal advantage, and the public welfare above all other considerations.” The goal of every engineer should always be to account for the safety and welfare of life.

Errors that result in a potential impact on safety are critical to the success of any project. The prospect of injury or loss of life should never be overlooked. Safety errors should be the priority to seek out and rectify in your quality management process. Examples can include the use of an incorrect factor of safety, and creating an unsafe condition such as a dam breach condition that could adversely affect the adjoining property owner’s house.

In certain situations, safety concerns can not always be completely extinguished. When this is the case, it is important to confirm adequate information is conveyed in the document. Consider a construction scenario where a pre-cast concrete wall will be erected. Perhaps collapse zones need to be identified during construction and staff need to be properly educated in the field.

The utmost priority of any quality management review should be to correct any situation that could result in an impact on safety.


Errors and mistakes come in all sizes and types. Depending on the work you are producing, you may classify an error one way. Someone else may classify it differently. It is important to recognize the sliding scale and blur between different categories. In the graphic, we use green to identify the Hesitation Category of errors, but that does not make them okay.

All errors, no matter the scope should be rectified when identified in the review process. I encourage you to recognize and look for critical errors that result in a classification of Safety or Monetary mistakes, prioritizing finding them first. These are the ones that will cost you, personally and professionally.

If this resonates with you, let’s continue the conversation! Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top