How are we doing?

Source: Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

I spent a large part of this week online at the annual meeting of the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) of ABET.

What does it mean?

The EAC has about 140 members who serve as chairs for teams that review BS and MS engineering programs in the US and around the world. Most BS engineering programs in the US are ABET accredited. Graduates of accredited programs have certain privileges. Some companies preferentially hire only graduates of ABET accredited programs. Graduates are eligible to take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, the first step in becoming a licensed professional engineer. Most importantly, prospective students know that an ABET accredited program and has been found to meet certain criteria for the program.

Maintaining ABET accreditation requires that, every six years, the program submit a program report demonstrating that the program meets eight criteria concerning students (evaluating student performance, monitoring their progress, and advising them), program educational objectives (what graduates are expected to attain within a few years after graduation), student outcomes (what students are expected to know and be able to do by the time of graduation), continuous improvement (documented processes for assessing and evaluating the extent to which student outcomes are being met and using those results for continuous improvement), curriculum (a minimum number of semester house of math and science and of engineering topics, as well as a broad education and a culminating major engineering design experience), faculty (of sufficient number and with appropriate competencies and qualifications), facilities, and institutional support. The team reviews this report and visits the program to determine if the criteria have been met.

The program has the opportunity to correct errors of fact in the report and to submit additional information in a process that lasts almost an entire year. Reflecting its commitment to processes, continuous improvement, and certification, ABET’s own processes are ISO 9001:2015 certified. ABET holds itself to similar standards as those used to judge the programs. Each program report is edited by the team chair and, in turn, three more editors, each with increasing ABET experience. At the July meeting, team chairs meet in panels to review the reports, taking into account suggestions made by a consistency committee who have reviewed all reports. Finally, the entire EAC approves the hundreds of reports, mostly on a consent agenda, but a handful of programs are discussed and voted on by the entire EAC. I cannot, of course, discuss any of the reports or discussions because confidentiality is a requirement of all our activities. Only the final results are available publicly, in this list of accredited programs.

Program evaluators and team chairs undergo training and retraining. I did an online refresher training before the meeting and attended three additional live training sessions during the week. Everyone evaluates everyone, with the programs giving feedback and team chairs and team members all evaluating each other.

While the ABET meeting has always taken place in July in Baltimore, we met online in 2020 and 2021. We also did virtual instead of in person visits this year, a change that required even more training for team chairs and evaluators.

All the people I have mentioned, except for the very highest editors in the review process, are volunteers.

What does it mean for you?

I am very pleased to be involved in such an excellent organization. I do not pretend that I enjoy every moment, that I do not get sometimes frustrated or even angry, nor that ABET does not make mistakes, but the overwhelming emphasis on processes and continuous improvement creates an environment that is, mostly, a good one to work in or, in this case, to volunteer in.

Also, in my 40 years as an engineering professor, especially in my 21 years as a department chair, I participated in many ABET reviews as part of the program being reviewed. Again, I didn’t enjoy every moment, I sometimes got frustrated or even angry, and I thought ABET made some mistakes, but I saw continuous improvement in ABET. I also found that the criteria and the need for accreditation provided wide but effective guideways for our programs.

My message for you is that all the developments and methods for continuous improvement really work. An emphasis on processes, using teams, training people well, providing avenues for feedback, etc., etc. –  it all works to create an organization that functions well.

To me, the essence of continuous improvement is continuously asking “how are we doing?” and then answering that question by collecting and evaluating data. That framework is the core of industrial engineering, my field of expertise.

COVID required all of us, including ABET to move many activities online instead of in person. ABET visits will be virtual again this year, but we will return to an in person meeting in July 2022, so discussions have already begun on what features of online meetings could and should perhaps be maintained in an in person meeting. Since the 140 members of EAC almost all already sit in front of personal computers at the in person meeting, in order to access the many documents we need to review during the meeting, can we use some online features in the future? For example, at our roll call for the newly seated Commission for 2021-2022, we used Zoom features to enable all of us to actually see all of the commissioners as they gave a simple “here.” In a room of 140 people, that is not possible. That is a simple and perhaps unimportant feature, but it personalized the meeting in a nice way. In fact, when anyone spoke I could see and hear them better than I sometimes do during in person meetings.  Also, Zoom provides an easy way to move into and out of the waiting room Commissioners who need to be excused from discussions of particular programs due to conflicts of interest.

Of course, in person meetings have advantages, most notable the hallway conversations. We are looking forward to being back to together in July 2022 but reflecting on how our processes might change – for continuous improvement.

Where can I learn more?

The ABET website has more information about how ABET operates. ABET has other commissions besides the EAC that accredit programs in Applied and Natural Science, Computing, Engineering and Technology.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Clean water

Image source: US Library of Commerce, 1943, which states that the image has no know restrictions on use. “Trampas, New Mexico. Water is precious at the home of Juan Lopez, majordomo (mayor), but the family try hard to keep clean and neat, even though they do use the same water and the same towel.”

What’s new?

On 1 July 2021, Our World in Data published data on people’s access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and basic handwashing facilities. One in four people do not have access to safe drinking water. Nearly half of the world do not have access to safe sanitation. Nearly one-third of the world do not have access to basic handwashing facilities.

What does it mean?

Public health measures, especially access to clean water, are widely agreed by historians to have had the largest impact on quality and length of human life, even as compared to such amazing discoveries as antibiotics and vaccines. As summarized by Claire Ninde of the San Juan Basin Public Health agency:

Over the last 200 years, U.S. life expectancy has more than doubled to almost 80 years (78.8 in 2015), with vast improvements in health and quality of life. However, while most people imagine medical advancements to be the reason for this increase, the largest gain in life expectancy occurred between 1880 and 1920 due to public health improvements such as control of infectious diseases, more abundant and safer foods, cleaner water, and other nonmedical social improvements.

In a 2008 article in the American Journal of Infection Control, three authors discussed the intertwined effects of personal and community changes:

[H]ygiene improvements at the individual and community levels, such as sanitary living conditions and practices and potable water and sewage facilities, have played a major role in reducing morbidity and mortality from infections ….

For example, frequent handwashing – an individual level behavior – can be effective only if people have access to clean water – a community level improvement. Of course, it is worth noting that while the need is great in many parts of the world, even in the US, these basic systems are sometimes lacking; see Flint, Michigan.

Engineers have an obvious and large role in such community improvements. As the CDC states:

Engineers are an integral part of the public health team that helps define what is possible, identify existing limitations, and shape workable solutions. Their efforts have contributed immensely to reducing disease and preventing injury in the United States and around the world.

The data reviewed by Our World in Data are part of a review of progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which were set in 2015. Engineers are playing important roles in progress on these Goals. For example, in its 2019 endorsement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the American Society of Civil Engineers said

By helping meet the SDGs the engineering profession contributes to a world where all people have access to the knowledge and resources with which to meet their basic human needs and promote sustainable development in such areas as water supply and sanitation, food production and processing, housing and construction, energy, transportation and communication, income generation, and employment creation.

What does it mean for you?

The positive effect of individual and community level efforts in sanitation provides a lesson in how simple measures consistently applied can have amazing results. I am sure you can easily generate examples from manufacturing (regular maintenance and scheduled safety checks), from customer service (regularly thanking customers), and so forth, of how simple improvements can have positive effects in your organization. What are the simple behaviors, consistently performed, that could have big paybacks for your organization?

The other lesson is that obtaining such effects relies both on individual efforts but also on community – or system – improvements. Just as people can keep their hands clean only if they have access to clean water, improvements in the actions of individual workers require the creation of systems that support those actions. For example, exhortations to be safe must be supported by the provision of safe systems, equipment to keep workers safe, and other such measures.

Where can I learn more?

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are explained here. It is supported by a plan of action described here.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent review of public health historically and currently.


Maintenance worker José Rodriguez paints a wall. 1994, St. Joseph’s Hospital (Paterson, N.J.) Source: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center. This photo is in the public domain.

What’s new?

The New York Times, as well as other sources, reported that maintenance and repairs had been neglected for many years in the Champlain Towers South condo building in Florida that collapsed with significant loss of life on 24 June. The Times quotes an undated letter from the board to residents before the collapse: “For the last few years, your board has recognized that our building has been neglected, repairs have been repeatedly postponed or simply patched up, and our property values have remained sadly below what they should be.” Much more information will be and should be explored to determine definitively the causes of the collapse.

What does it mean?

I recall many years ago that a friend who was considering buying a house for the first time asked how to buy one that would need little maintenance. I laughed and said it was impossible. I have always tried to do the right thing by the three houses I have owned. In my first house, I chose to make an expensive long-lasting repair to a creek wall near the house, rather than a quick fix, knowing that I was unlikely to benefit from the long-term ownership of that house nor from a corresponding increase in the value of the house. I took similar action regarding repair of the outside deck in my second house, and last summer we had a metal roof put on our 20-year-old house, a roof that will surely outlive us.

For engineers, the field of engineering economy deals with the economics of long-lived assets. The ABET criteria for accreditation of an undergraduate program in engineering include as a required student outcome “an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors.”

The total cost of ownership of ownership is a concept that should be familiar to every business. The initial cost of equipment is only a fraction of the total cost of ownership. For example, this brochure from the South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service advises that for high cost agricultural machines, “25% of the purchase price will approximate annual total cost” to operate and maintain the equipment.

Every long-lived piece of property should be acquired only with the financial commitment to its safe operation and maintenance over the planned lifetime. Any other approach risks lives and the financial sustainability of the organization.

A discussion on reddit pointed me to an article on Slate that puts the Florida collapse in the context of the growth of condominiums in the 1970s and the inability of homeowner associations to handle the maintenance costs with fees set too low by developers who cared more about profitable sales than about long-term sustainability. The author draws the analogy with municipal governments that have survived on low taxes by deferring maintenance and failing to plan for replacement:

Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn has written persuasively about this phenomenon in the suburbs, whose low-tax model only works until the end of the infrastructure life cycle, at which point sprawl becomes very expensive to maintain. In the king-size homeowners association known as California, it’s become common for even the richest jurisdictions to be unable to afford basic repairs to roads and bridges that are reaching the end of their useful life.

The reddit discussion includes several laments about the neglect of maintenance in various industries, including water systems, software, and manufacturing. The overall message is that too many people emphasize the short term over the long term. One comment points to The Long Now Foundation, founded, it almost hardly needs saying, by Stewart Brand, which “hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.”

What does it mean for you?

I have twice used the word sustainability in this article. The Florida collapse has highlighted our poor infrastructure at a time when debate is underway for funding improvements. Recent events have highlighted many societal practices that are simply unsustainable: buildings collapse and so do people. How can you ensure that your organization is sustainable in all of its practices?

At a minimum, you should reexamine the maintenance practices of your organization. Do you know the maintenance schedules and actual practices of your organization? Are you using up resources and people without adequate planning for sustainability?

I have always liked the word “custodian” meaning someone who has the responsibility for looking after something. You and I are custodians of the resources we currently own or manage. We should strive to leave those resources in at least as good a state as they were when we acquired them.

Where can I learn more?

An Internet search on total cost of ownership or life cycle analysis will turn up many useful pages, and many companies willing to help you perform these analyses well. Total preventive maintenance is another useful subject for search.

The ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure is an excellent source of information on the status of the country’s public infrastructure.