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With the increased emphasis on the role of electricity in rural development and poverty alleviation, it is very important that future photovoltaic (PV) - based rural electrification programmes are seen to bring real benefits to rural communities in developing countries. Many previous projects have not met with the degree of success they might have because of a lack of quality at some point in the delivery chain. This lack of quality has been seen at all levels in the implementation process – be it a lack of competent personnel within an implementing agency, a lack of well trained installation and maintenance technicians or poor hardware quality.
By imposing a quality remit on an implementation programme, the likelihood of a project’s success can be substantially enhanced. It is generally acknowledged that recognised standards lead to increased quality of a given product. However, the issue of quality assurance goes beyond compliance with technical standards. In order for a PV implementation programme to be successful, it needs to be designed with quality assurance in mind throughout the implementation process, not just when hardware is procured. Quality assurance has important implications for, inter alia, programme design, selection of equipment and supplier, checking compliance of systems/components delivered, installation and commissioning, ongoing maintenance, and training of personnel at various levels.
For a PV implementation programme, or indeed any rural electrification programme, there are three important areas of quality control:
- quality management – which covers the operational procedures of the organisations involved – from PV system installers and hardware suppliers to technical consultants, financiers and service providers.
- technical standards – compliance with technical standards provides a degree of assurance that components and systems meet agreed performance criteria (also see: Publication - Pico-PV Quality Standards; Lighting Global 2018)
- quality of training – ensures that system design, installation, commissioning and maintenance personnel have been trained to an agreed level of competence.
A requirement that recognised levels of quality are maintained in each of these three areas will help to ensure the success of a programme. Furthermore, the use of quality management systems, certified components and practitioners and accredited training programmes is of direct benefit to all the stakeholders in a rural electrification programme. The spin-offs of this improved reliability have repercussions throughout the length of the supply chain and impacts on every stakeholder within the programme, as well as within sectors that have yet to fully recognise the market potential that PV technology represents.
The aim of any quality assurance system is to ensure that quality is consistent and of a certain defined level, thus ensuring that the end-user gets a functional PV system which has a reasonable life expectancy, and the funding agency gets value for money. The value of a quality assurance system is in improving the repeatability of an organisation's processes. The basis of any quality management system is a documentation trail; regular feedback from employees, customers, and suppliers; and, the recognition by customers, partners and clients of the value of the organisation’s adherence to a set of recognised quality standards.
Who Benefits from Quality Management and Compliance with Standards?
The use of quality management systems, certified components and practitioners and accredited training programmes is of direct benefit to all the stakeholders in a rural electrification programme. This benefit primarily arises from the improved reliability and performance of the PV system and in particular the reduced maintenance requirements and costs, though there are additional benefits from the creation of local, sustainable jobs. The spin-offs of this improved reliability have repercussions throughout the length of the supply chain and impacts on every stakeholder within the programme. An outline of how these impacts are felt by the various stakeholders is given in the following sections.
The finance community is understandably risk averse and seeks to minimise its exposure to high risk investments as much as possible. The fact that PV is perceived as a new, high risk technology means the finance sector starts from a position of caution when considering investments in the technology or in companies selling the technology. Furthermore, the target market for the technology is the rural poor in remote parts of developing countries who have little or no collateral to provide against a loan. These two facts mean that it is extremely difficult to raise finance for the purchase/supply of PV into this market. However, the recent recognition that energy has a pivotal role to play in helping to meet the millennium development targets, will result in an expansion of renewable energy-based rural electrification. In the light of this, increasing pressure will come to bear on the financial sector to play its role in the provision of modern energy services.
In its turn, the finance sector will seek to protect itself from the perceived increased risks. Quality management systems are important in providing a basis for conventional risk analysis in evaluating loans and investment opportunities for PV equipment and PV implementation projects. The finance sector will look to the PV industry overall, or to national governments, to provide a qualifying framework, either through licensing or certification of hardware, training, and practitioners. Such a framework will allow them to evaluate the qualifications of organisations or individuals requesting funds, receiving funds, or installing the equipment and systems provided with the funds. The concern of the finance community is that, if the systems cease to function, the owners might refuse continued payment. (It should be noted that technical failures are not the only reason for non-payment of loan installments or service fees. However, if a system ceases to operate and is not repaired promptly, it is inevitable that any payments from the end-user will be very difficult to collect.)
As the finance organisation does not want to repossess the equipment, it wants to ensure that the systems perform as expected at least until they are fully re-paid. Typically, the finance professionals involved in making loans are not experienced in technical matters in general, and are certainly not experts in PV. They rely mainly on external consultants, but also on documentation on an individual’s, an organisation’s, or the equipment’s qualifications in their assessments. Without such documentation, it is difficult for the financial professional to approve loans.
For development organisations providing financing and funding, there may be technical experts available as well as managerial, economic and social experts. However, even experienced professionals may not be able to accurately evaluate the capabilities of those individuals or organisations requesting support and funding or the quality of PV equipment proposed. A qualifying certificate can help in the selection of a contractor but it is important to recognise that contractors should be assessed against a range of relevant criteria.
In many countries, there are a number of government ministries involved with the planning and implementation of rural and remote energy installation and infrastructure programmes. These might include ministries with responsibilities for the following: energy, trade, finance, environment, education, employment, planning, military, economic and social affairs, education, and health. Either directly or indirectly, these ministries are responsible to those supplying the funding, and to the beneficiaries of the programme plans. In order to better ensure the success of programmes they manage, they should include requirements for certified hardware, accredited training organisations, and certified practitioners in the terms of reference for their programmes.
In order to ensure that these requirements can be met, it is important that an infrastructure for quality control is established and – when necessary – subsidies provided to lower the high up-front costs of establishing such an infrastructure. These subsidies may be required to assist small local manufacturing and installation companies to develop quality management systems, particularly if they are made a requirement for accessing donor funded programmes. Training on quality control issues and the promotion of approaches focussed on quality help to promote the sustainable implementation of rural electrification/development programmes.
This infrastructure not only provides greater assurances of the success of projects, but it provides a means to encourage local development and support the creation of sustainable local jobs within the context of the social requirements and needs of the local communities. Specifying the requirement of quality hardware, training, and practitioner systems as a project component provides longer-term local benefits.
Service Delivery Chain
While quality management systems for products and practitioners in the service delivery chain will inevitably represent an added cost, it must also be viewed as a source of benefit.
Using products of recognised quality and consistency from manufacturers using quality management systems can improve system reliability, reducing the frequency and expense of maintenance calls; it can assist in relations with the manufacturer, providing for a better working relationship and product/delivery quality based on experience; and it can improve customer satisfaction, providing reliable systems that perform as expected and encourage interest by a larger customer base.
In addition, using installation and maintenance practitioners that are certified to recognised knowledge and skills competency standards provides a number of clear benefits. One benefit is that a practitioner is more likely to properly and safely install the system, reducing the potential for system failures and improving customer satisfaction. In addition, as the direct interface with the customer, the certified practitioner will be better able to provide customer education on the uses and limitations of the system and the customer-dependent maintenance issues. The certified practitioner will also be able to most efficiently evaluate, troubleshoot, and provide maintenance on a wider range of potential systems failures.
For the employer in the service delivery chain, having access to certified hardware allows for an equitable means to evaluate purchases and to plan and budget for the terms of any maintenance or warranty work. And, when considering potential employees, having a certification available provides a means to evaluate the skills of the candidates in a more objective manner and, by pre-qualifying employees, may reduce the need for companies to provide extensive and expensive training.
Finally, companies in the service delivery chain have a commercial advantage in the market if they are able to demonstrate their adherence to quality management systems and their use of certified equipment and personnel. Large programme sponsors, government agencies, and organisations such as utilities are likely to appreciate and understand the value of quality management systems when considering procurements.
Ultimately, the customer is the one most directly affected by the use of quality management systems, or the lack of them, and is the least able to access alternative means of assessing hardware quality or practitioner competency. If the customer's system fails, it does not matter whether it was due to incorrect operation, poor quality hardware or poor design, installation, and maintenance; all the customer knows is that the system does not work. If the system fails, the customer may lose the investment made in the system or may cease to make instalment payments. Without some means to qualify the hardware or practitioners, customers are left to decide based on the best marketing or the lowest price, neither of which is a good way to ensure a reliable and cost-effective system. With a quality management systems framework in place, though, manufacturers are encouraged to improve the quality of their products, and practitioners are encouraged to improve the quality of their work, just to compete in a market where the customers have the tools available to make informed decisions.
An Overview of Quality Management Systems
While quality management systems and continuous quality improvement are often associated with large organisations that have substantial resources, they are just as important for small businesses with few employees. Quality management systems often simply document and formalise the work processes which are already in place in an organisation. The implementation of a quality management system can be a daunting task and small companies will need assistance to do this – both in terms of resources and expertise. It is also not an instant process – to implement such a system can take a number of years and this may be a significant handicap in the implementation of quality management systems within development aid projects.
The development of a formal quality management system requires the participation of all employees involved in the aspects of the business that affect the ultimate quality of the products and services. They must feel ownership in the process if it is to succeed. In addition, it requires a commitment on the part of the senior management — not just a hollow dictate to create a document that has no use or relevance. Without the mandate and full support of the senior management for the implementation of a quality management system, the work in developing the system will be a wasted exercise.
For a quality management system to succeed, it must extend beyond the immediate scope of the organisation and include its customers as well as its subcontractors and suppliers. A quality management system that is certified to the ISO 9001:2000 standard imposes the requirement for using pre-approved contractors and suppliers in order to extend the quality obligation one step further down the supply chain. The quality management system should include communication with customers in order to identify their requirements with regards to the product/service, delivery and maintenance/service needs. For suppliers and subcontractors, it is important to assess the quality of the products and services they supply as well as their quality management systems, to ensure accountability for the quality of their products and services.
The implementation of a recognised quality management system, along with using product standards and best practices taken from the industry, will lead to increased national and international business opportunities. A recognised quality management system can provide an entree to new customers, along with the potential for new financing options. Perhaps most important, though, it improves the efficiency of the business and the reliability of the products and services, leading to increased profits and additional opportunities.
What is a Quality Management System?
A quality management system provides a framework within which an organisation operates and against which its performance can be assessed. A quality management system provides an organisation with important tools to assist it in improving its internal systems for manufacturing products or providing services.
By providing a mechanism for continual assessment, processes within an organisation, be it a manufacturing process or an installation process, can be checked for consistency, quality of results, and success of continual improvement procedures. Furthermore, the quality management system ensures that the documentation necessary to evaluate any portion of the process is available and, more importantly, auditable.
In general a quality management system involves:
- a documented way of working within an organisation that is understood by everyone involved, from the most senior manager to the newest employee;
- a system of documenting development efforts, work procedures, work performed, testing, modifications, customer feedback, etc.;
- regular reviews and evaluation of critical aspects of the organisation and the quality management system itself;
- using results of reviews and customer feedback to improve the quality of the organisation's work.
Benefits of a Quality Management System
Working to a quality management system has a number of benefits for the organisation, its clients and suppliers.
A documented quality management system, meeting recognised standards:
- demonstrates an organisation's commitment to quality;
- helps to have a better focus on business objectives and customer expectations;
- leads to better quality products and services;
- indicates consistency and efficiency of work processes;
- provides a solid foundation for continuous improvement;
- improves the performance of the organisation and hence leads to a more competitive business;
- encourages customer confidence in the quality of the products and services provided by the organisation;
- encourages investor and financier confidence;
- potentially opens up access to more markets.
Implementing a quality management system provides a level of rigour and discipline necessary for continual improvement and validation. It provides an organisation with the opportunity to identify system inefficiencies, track and correct deficiencies, and continually improve the manufacturing, delivery, training, service, and maintenance processes, all with the potential to reduce the organisation's costs and significantly improve its profits and product/service quality. Apart from improving business practices, implementation of a quality management system can also provide a competitive advantage through the recognition by customers of the advantages of doing business with an organisation that has implemented such a system.
What a Quality Management System Does Not Do
While a quality management system provides many benefits, it is not a quick solution to all problems and does not, in the first instance, guarantee high quality products.
It is only a means and a tool and cannot take the place of good management and planning.
It is important to be aware of the following:
- A quality management system, by itself, will not automatically lead to improvements or high quality products or services
- Quality management system standards should not be confused with product standards
- Implementing a formal quality management system may result in a greater administrative burden – it is important not to let this happen
- A quality management system is a tool that should build on the systems and procedures that are already in place in an organisation
Commitment to Quality
A clear commitment to quality is essential for an organisation to maximise the benefits of implementing a quality management system. A formal, written quality policy should have the backing of the most senior management.
The quality policy should:
- Confirm the organisation’s commitment to quality
- Identify what the quality objectives are
- Establish how the objectives relate to the customers' expectations
To be most effective, there should be a single manager responsible for the quality management system, reporting directly to senior management. This manager must have the seniority, authority and responsibility to develop, implement, and maintain the quality management system and its documentation. This manager is also responsible for ensuring that all employees are familiar with the quality policies and their implementation.
The core of a quality management system is the Quality Manual, which details the procedures and practices and against which the company's activities must be measured. Regular internal audits are necessary to ensure that the practice and the spirit of the quality management system are maintained.
It is important that the organisation documents every aspect of its activities and the feedback and comments from its customers and clients. The Quality Manual should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis, and this process should be documented. All aspects of personnel activity and management should also be documented, included hiring of personnel and services, training, skills, experience, and any employee actions or sanctions.
Continual Quality Improvement
To ensure that the work of the company is current and of the desired quality, it is necessary to perform internal audits and regularly solicit customer/client feedback. With information gained from these, the procedures and practices of the organisation should be reviewed and adapted, where necessary. The organisation's management should be kept informed and involved in this process.
An important aspect of a quality management system is ensuring that the staff within an organisation are competent to undertake the tasks assigned to them. This can be achieved through an ongoing system of regular assessment of training needs, management commitment to provide necessary training for staff, and documenting training activities undertaken by staff.
Organisations may have their quality management system certified in order to add credibility. This means that an independent auditor will carry out an audit on an organisation's quality management system, including its Quality Manual, quality procedures, internal reviews, etc.
The elements outlined above reflect the essentials of the ISO 9001:2000 standard.
- ↑ http://www.ecn.nl/fileadmin/ecn/units/bs/JEPP/energyforthepoor.pdf
- ↑ IEA PVPS: The Role of Quality Management, Hardware Certification and Accredited Training in PV Programmes in Developing Countries, September 2003.