Value your Signature

29 March 2017


Martin Knights, an independent consultant and former president of the International Tunnelling Association, asks what lies beneath your signature in this reaction to a comment at the recent Harding Memorial Lecture, hosted by the British Tunnelling Society

They say that you should be careful for what you wish, so what do we consciously wish for in a signature? At a recent BTS evening event the audience was reminded of the underlying values that support the act of adding your signature to a document and l reflected on the wider implications of the `signature`; both personal and corporate. Are there growing influences that have degraded the symbolic act of signing and do they detract from the worth of the signature? Have contemporary processes, systems and layers of checking and assurance been a poor substitute for the intrinsic importance of pledging your commitment and all the responsibilities that are implicit in lending your signature? Have we forgotten to recognise the worth of the professional Engineer who is signing the document and, importantly, why the need to stand back and reflect on this `loss` of recognition?

Professionals are required to follow codes of ethics, integrity and importantly to know our limits as well. The signature should be a reflection of what we are, i.e., our training and experience, knowledge, professionalism and reputation. Surely these values are inherent and embedded in a signature representing a confirmation, agreement, and commitment of the document that is being signed.

Well, I think that we all acknowledge that in signing a document we subconsciously have some sort of implicit knowledge of the responsibilities and potential liabilities in doing so. But it’s a sort of misty acknowledgement, and often a fleeting thought, subliminally pushed to the back of our minds because of the need to deal with responsibilities, schedules, deadlines and diaries; part of the contemporary workload being the layers of oversight influenced by `robust` project governance procedures, i.e., checking of the checkers. More will be written on this later.

When we send e-mails with automatic signatures are we aware whether we are making a personal comment and or a statement on behalf of the body that we represent? The instinctive reaction to respond with an unthinking/unclear informal exchange (because it’s easy and tempting to do so) probably creates more e-mail exchange. If the sender had thought more about the content of the original message, along with a conscious awareness of the act of adding an automatic signature, would this be a required behaviour to help to raise the trust and value of a signature. I think this was the case when letters were the norm where a lot more consideration was given to the content of memos, messages and letters.

A senior tunnelling colleague recently drafted an article for a technical journal where he stated that currently there actually wasn’t an acute shortage of skilled engineers; it was just that the industry had actually placed the right talent in the wrong roles and not necessarily in the right organisations (reminding the author of a famous Eric Morecombe and Andre Previn sketch). My colleague fervently believes that layers of assurance, oversight and `fuzzy` responsibility enacted by layers of players (LoPs) have created the perceived shortage. LoPs have been largely encouraged by tunnelling clients and their procurement fashionistas who believe that by doing so the project risks were being appropriately mitigated and managed. But in doing so this creates layers of sign-offs that are supposedly adding value and comfort for the owner, but the sum value of all the LoP signatures dilutes the whole purpose of ownership of responsibility, with each ‘LoP’ needing to be seen to add ‘their’ value and sense of purpose.

If we could rebuild a culture that mirrored the responsibilities, respect and expectations of what lies behind the intent of a signature we might just return to behaviours more in keeping with the traditional role of The Engineer. The added benefit of which might dispense with the layers of `responsibility outsourcing`. Would the signee (knowing that the `buck actually stopped` with them) be more thorough and diligent in making sure that they did indeed understand what they were signing? Would they spend more time ensuring that they could honour and deliver the requirements and have dealt with the responsibilities of doing so?

To be clear many of the issues raised by my article have happened because our profession let it happen. Since the 1970s we stood by and watched the outsourcing of responsibilities that were inherently part of the Engineer’s role. In doing so we created ‘LoPs’ and diluted the effectiveness of our duties and the overseeing role of The Engineer. The value of the Engineer’s signature has in effect been outsourced and the controlling mind (which went with the value of the Engineer’s signature) ebbs and flows in the complex tide of project processes and governance and LoPs.

Change in behaviours can`t happen overnight. But gradually, signature by signature, we could as professionals force ourselves to consider the commitment that we make for what we sign off. And, most importantly, are we indeed competent to sign? Hesitate and let the pen hover over the dotted line or tick box the next time you are required to provide your signature in a professional capacity. Have you thought about why you signing? In signing you are knowingly, as professional, undertaking a commitment (or on behalf of an organisation) that you are knowledgeable of, and that you stand by what you pledge. So value and respect your signature. By so doing you will improve the behaviours our industry, our own professional self-esteem and it will improve the value of and respect for The Engineer.