Monday, May 6, 2013

Stock Condition Surveys - Part 2 – A Consultant’s Perspective

Above all, the success of a stock condition survey will be down to good organisation, management and leadership

In last week’s article I discussed various reasons that may motivate a Client into undertaking a stock condition survey and identified a number of key factors that need to considered prior to engaging a consultant for delivery of the surveys.  This week, after a brief explanation of how data capture has evolved over recent years, I want to view things from ‘the other side of the fence’ and discuss issues that a consultant may encounter in both the pre and survey stages.

A short history of data capture
'Older' Psion Handheld Data Collector - Source:

Over recent years technology had moved on at a rapid pace and there are now numerous hardware and software packages on the market that enable surveyors to carry out surveys ‘electronically’.  I have been lucky enough to be involved in stock condition surveys over the last 20 years, which initially were all undertaken on site by hand, usually with a pre-prepared proforma.  This then developed into the first iteration of electronic data capture in the form Psion handheld’s.  These were large ‘bulky’ pieces of equipment which were difficult to navigate through, and were extremely limited in their capacity to store data.  At the end of each day it was necessary to upload the information from the handheld via a docking station, which often led to ‘technical issues’ which sometimes resulted in data being lost, which was very frustrating.  Battery life was also an issue for Psion handhelds, where it was necessary to take back up battery packs with us to allow us to stay on site for a full day.  As technology advanced we started trialling onsite data collection with smaller and slimmer PDA’s and Palm Pilots.  In the early days these were extremely ‘sluggish’ on site, as the capacity to store data was often limited.  I can remember that one of my clients had produced a proforma that required recording of so many attributes that the PDA became unusable. We had to recommend a significant re-drafting of the proforma in order to be able to continue with the survey.  Nowadays tablet’s have emerged as the new way of collecting on-site data.  These have built in camera’s, have much larger built in memories, are light weight and can offer unparalleled back up facilities.  With a number of specialist stock survey software packages available we now have both hardware and software to make the whole process faster and more efficient. Although it is worth stating that however advanced hardware and software may become,  the accuracy and value of the data will always come down to the knowledge and expertise of the surveyor.

Pre-survey stage

It is highly unlikely that the cost of a stock condition survey will exceed OJEU thresholds therefore the content of a tender submission will be down to the requirements of each individual Client.  At this stage it is vitally important for a Consultant to read the tender documents thoroughly to establish the scope of the survey and therefore assess the resources that will be needed to deliver what the client is expecting.  Although very significant, resources do not just relate to the survey team.  Purchasing hardware and obtaining software licences can be extremely expensive, which if not adequately considered could significantly reduce the profitability for the Consultant. Also, a Client is likely to have their own in house Asset Management system/database and are likely to require data collected during a stock condition survey to be compatible with their system. There are numerous examples of asset management software such as Orchard or Atrium to name a few, however a Consultant will need to become familiar with a Client’s particular system, which will involve consultation and possible training. In fact establishing a Client’s existing asset management processes and systems is fundamental to helping to a Consultant deliver a successful stock condition survey.

The deadline is also fundamentally important in planning the survey and also for fee calculation.  A delivery programme should be formulated at the earliest possibly opportunity, working back from the client’s deadline. The programme should include all pre and post survey activities including consultation with the Client, planning, pilot surveys, training of staff, arranging access, on site surveys, quality assurance checks, moderation and validation, reporting, etc.  The amount of inspections that are required (which will be determined by the target sample size) will determine how many surveyors will be needed.  It may be that during the preparation of the programme that a Consultant will realise they will need more surveyors than they first thought in order to achieve the deadline. This will subsequently impact on the amount of hardware and software licences that are needed and therefore the fee that is likely to be charged. 

Survey stage

Once a Consultant has been awarded a contract to deliver a stock condition survey there are number of things that can be done to ensure that the deadline is met and that the data collected in accurate and consistent:

Good leadership – It is extremely important that a Consultant appoints an experienced member of staff to oversee and take charge of the stock survey, right through to completion.  This individual should have been involved in the tender process and therefore understand the Client’s requirements, be able to manage a large team of surveyors, be able to incorporate and manage a robust quality assurance system and act as liaison with the Client. A Consultant should never underestimate the complexity of delivering a stock condition survey and unless a suitable ‘leader’ is appointed to manage the project, then the whole process can become chaotic and poorly managed and will ultimately result in failure.

Training – Quality of data and consistency are important in ensuring that the data can be confidently used in the future for a variety of different things.  Achieving this however is always one of the biggest challenges a Consultant will face and one of the biggest frustrations that a Client will encounter if the information received is of poor quality.  The problem with undertaking any inspection is that different surveyors could inspect exactly the same building but actually produce a different assessment of an element or an attribute.  This is human nature and although impossible to avoid, it is possible to manage.  What a Consultant should be trying to achieve is that surveyors are looking at elements/attributes in the same way and although they may not arrive at identical assessments, they should be very similar.

Prior to letting my surveyors undertake on-site surveys I would give them lots of information which would include definitions of physical condition, priority, user effect and risk rating etc. (This would vary from survey to survey, depending on the Client brief).  The table below provides an example of typical definitions that could be used:

Average Physical Condition
User Effect Rating - Effect on users of the building
Risk Rating - Effect of condition of the feature/element have on user
A - Good
1 - Urgent Work  (0- 3 months )
1 - Significant effect
1 - High Risk
B - Satisfactory
2 - Essential Work (3 - 24 Months )
2 - Some Effect
2 - Medium Risk
C - Poor
3 - Desirable Work (24-60 Months)
3 - Little Effect
3 - Low Risk
D-  Bad
4 Work not to be carried out Within 5 year plan

I would then arrange a half day workshop with the whole survey team, including administration support staff, where amongst other things we would discuss the definitions and use examples to assess how individual surveyors would consider a particular element/attribute. During this meeting we would also discuss and use the hardware/software that was going to be used for data collection, discuss access issues, time-frames and the quality assurance procedure.  These types of meeting are invaluable as it gives the survey team the opportunity to understand what is expected and raise any questions they may have.

Quality Assurance Procedures – As discussed throughout this article, quality assurance processes are an extremely important part of the whole process.  When managing large condition surveys I would spend a few days out on site with each member of the survey team during the first few weeks of the survey. This enabled my surveyors to ‘iron out’ any uncertainties whilst I was present and to ask further questions as needed.  When the data was uploaded I was able to view this through the relevant asset management database and I was able to add filters so that I could generate numerous reports throughout the whole time that the data was being collected.  I was then able to question things that appeared to have been missed where data fields were empty, or ask questions where surveyors had identified high priority issues etc.  This enabled data to be corrected where necessary and sometimes identified surveyors who I needed to spend more time with who clearly required more training.

To consider every aspect of a stock condition survey in such a short article would be impossible.  Hopefully, I have discussed some typical aspects of what can be a complex process to manage and deliver.  Above all, the success of a stock condition survey will be down to good organisation, management and leadership which will incorporate all of the various factors I have discussed above.  Once the process is set up and organised correctly the data collection is usually reasonably straightforward. In order for this to be achieved there needs to be a great deal of planning and consultation many months before the data is collected onsite, if this is not undertaken then a Consultant is likely to encounter serious difficulties in meeting the expectations of their Client.

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