Sonya Puterbaugh, Laboratory Assessment Program Director, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how her team schedules assessments for over 2,000 laboratories. Plus, she answers the question "Can we always have our assessment in the off-season?"
AASHTO re:source Q&A Podcast Transcript
Season 4, Episode 11: Mail Call – Scheduling Assessments
Recorded: July 28, 2023
Released: August 8, 2023
Host: Kim Swanson, Communications Manager, AASHTO re:source
Guests: Sonya Puterbaugh, Laboratory Assessment Program Director AASHTO re:source
Note: Please reference AASHTO re:source and AASHTO Accreditation Program policies and procedures online for official guidance on this, and other topics.
Transcription is auto-generated.
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00:00:02 ANNOUNCER: Welcome to AASHTO resource Q & A. We're taking time to discuss construction materials testing and inspection with people in the know. From exploring testing problems and solutions to laboratory best practices and quality management, we're covering topics important to you.
00:00:20 KIM: Welcome to AASHTO resource Q&A, I'm Kim Swanson. Brian is not joining us today. How dare he have some work-life balance, but I am joined by Program Director for the Laboratory Assessment Program, Sonya Puterbaugh. Thank you, Sonya, for joining us today.
00:00:36 SONYA: Thanks for inviting me on the podcast, Kim. I think this is my first episode.
00:00:41 KIM: Is this your first episode? Just assumed it's been four SEASONS, that of course you've been on one before, but is this something you've delegated to other people perhaps?
00:00:51 SONYA: Absolutely very intentionally.
00:00:54 KIM: Well, welcome to your very first podcast episode. The first of many I foresee, we'll see. So, I was hoping today that we could have LAPD themed mail call episode and we do this with Brian regarding some of the Astro accreditation program emails and questions that he gets. But I was thinking that it would be great to have this from an. LAP perspective as well. So, what's been in your inbox? Recently that you think a wider audience would want to hear about.
00:01:27 SONYA: Ohh so, that is a good question and there is actually a recurring e-mail that I get to my inbox every single summer. And this is why do we visit laboratories during their busiest paving season. Why do we come in the summer? So, we understand that in on-site assessment is not usually something that you're looking forward to, but especially in the summer, it seems to be quite a burden. And So, we. Get this a lot.
00:01:54 KIM: Yeah, I even know I've had to answer that when I was in my role as an administrative assistant. I know we got that question a ton. From a laboratories point of view, it seems like a fair question right of I am always slammed. You come about every two years and my goodness, it just always seems like it's in the summer, right when we're slammed with. Work, So, what do? You say to laboratories that reach out to. You with that?
00:02:20 SONYA: The answer, like many answers that you wish, had a very easy answer to it. The answer is complicated and it has to do with the number of labs in our. Program and it has to do with the way that we schedule those labs. So, I'm not. Sure, that all of our customers are aware, but we have over 2000 laboratories in our program that need an on-site assessment roughly every two years.
00:02:45 KIM: We have 2000 customers in the Laboratory assessment program. Roundabouts and geographically, where are all those customers located?
00:02:55 SONYA: They are all across the United States, so, we have laboratories in all 50 states that we. Visit, including the US territories of Puerto Rico and Guam, and we even have labs up in Canada that we consider part of our regular assessment tour. So, all of these laboratories need to be visited within about a two-year period.
00:03:17 KIM: I also know that we have some accredited laboratories outside of the US.
00:03:24 SONYA: We do have. A few labs. In Belgium and at least one lab. In Mexico, that is. Accredited and we have to also visit those labs in the same time.
00:03:35 KIM: That seems like a lot of laboratories. How does the Laboratory Assessment Program manage that?
00:03:42 SONYA: It not only seems like a lot of. It honestly is a lot of labs it takes so, much coordination so. Much So, that we have two positions within the laboratory assessment program that are dedicated to scheduling labs and making sure that these trips happen.
00:04:00 KIM: Once the laboratory submits the request, what are kind of the moving parts that the laboratory assessment staff have to kind of? Go through.
00:04:08 SONYA: So, we can actually take one small step backward too, because before a lab submits their request for assess. That they actually have to be reminded. To do that. And we what we do is we end up predicting where we. Are every six months. We do a six month projection where we say OK, based on the staff that we have currently and how quickly we're moving through the certain part of the country, where do we think we're going to be in three months and in six months and from there we can contact those labs and say, hey, it's time for you to submit a request. So, usually labs will get four and two months notice. Before we're even in their area. And so, they submit the request. So, that's step one. So, you have to do a little bit of future planning there or prediction. And then after all of the requests have been submitted, then the assessment coordinator, the person who spends all of their time with the day-to-day scheduling activities, his name is Jack Quinlan. So, if you have any questions, feel free to contact him about your assessment. He will look at where we are in the country and he will assign. All of our assessors either a city, a state or specific labs to.
00:05:12 KIM: Visit part of that just made me think is well do. We make an effort to not have the same assessor assessing the same labs time and time and time again. Do we try to vary it? If you're assigning specific people to specific labs, or does it not matter as much?
00:05:28 SONYA: It does matter, So, it is important because certain assessors may focus on one area. So, they might have. More of an in-depth knowledge and quality systems. Or they might know a lot about a certain scope of test methods, So, it's good to have a mix of people and not have the same person going to labs over and over and over. So, he does try to vary it. I think naturally because we have So, many labs. If somebody did go to the same lab twice in a row, it would come down to coincidence at that point. So, it is something that that we think is important and something that just naturally happens because. Of the volume of work that we have.
00:06:03 KIM: Once Jack is done. Assigning and distributing like OK Assessor A. Is gonna get. That this city Assessor B is going to get that city, then what happens?
00:06:17 SONYA: So, that distribution, that assignment of areas or labs is done about three months in advance of the actual trip occurring. So, after that is done, then it's up to the assessor to put together a detailed trip of exactly when they're going to the labs, how they're going to fit the labs together. So, Jack assigned somebody 7 laboratories that they need to visit in. A two or three-week period. It's up to that assessor to see how those laboratories fit together in that two or three-week period and then propose a.
00:06:44 KIM: Trip the assessors considering when they're putting together their assessment trip.
00:06:50 SONYA: They are generally considering geography and length of time spent at the facility. So, for example, if you're lucky and you get to stay in one city the whole time, it kind of doesn't matter what order the labs are done. If they're all very close together, but once in a while you might have to do a little bit of driving, So, you might fly into an airport and have to drive all around and maybe end at a different airport. So, you want to make sure that you put your labs in an order. That is convenient and you're driving the least. Amount and then you want to make sure that you have the appropriate amount of time for each assessment So, that if the assessment is supposed to take two days that you do give them two days, you don't. Have to cut it short.
00:07:27 KIM: The assessment trips are generally about two weeks long. Is that the chunk of time that each assessor is working with?
00:07:34 SONYA: Give or take. It kind of depends on the person. Most people go for two week trips, some people three-week trips, we have one assessor, Nancy, who prefers 6 and eight week trips. It really just depends on what kind of travel style you like. What kind of person you are? Like, if you really like to explore and that kind of thing.
00:07:52 KIM: Well, I think that's great to give the assessors that kind of flexibility and kind of not mandating that everybody stay on the road for eight weeks because I feel like that would be not for not everyone's. Cup of tea there.
00:08:05 SONYA: That would be quite a burden if we actually asked for assessor travel availability about 6 months in advance if they have any pre planned vacations or times that they have to be home, they will tell us we will. Note it and then otherwise. We put in blocks of time that we need. People to be traveling.
00:08:22 KIM: So, you said about three months before the actual assessment takes place, these assessors are have planned are planning their trip. Is that OK? So, after they submit their travel chunk of time? Of this is the. Proposed trip for this block of time. What happens next?
00:08:41 SONYA: They submit what we call a travel calendar. Then Jack will go in and approve it, and once it's approved, the labs, which is usually about four to six weeks before the actual trip happens, is when Jack is doing the approval. And once the calendar is approved, then the lab will receive their announcement letter letting them know, hey, we're coming to your lab. These are the days that we're going. To be there these. Are the scopes of testing that we're requested. That we will be. Looking at and we have links to how to prepare for the assessment and all of that.
00:09:13 KIM: What if a laboratory gets their announcement letter and is like whoa, that is not going to work for us. That is, the worst time is that the time that they can make changes or is? That before or after or what?
00:09:25 SONYA: If that date absolutely does not work for a laboratory and there's a lot of. Reasons that it. Might not. Maybe some key critical people will not be. There during that. Maybe there's going to be a. Training class that. Week So, all of the technicians are going to be off getting. Certifications and something. There's a lot of reasons why the date that we select might not work, and if that's the case, we encourage laboratories to contact us right away. So, if a laboratory contacts us within 5 days of receiving their announcement letter and they need to postpone or reschedule their assessment, we will reschedule it with absolutely no consequences.
00:10:01 KIM: Now I'm thinking, OK, So, that's on the laboratory end on the assessor end, the calendar got approved. So, that means they then have to start putting that plan into action. So, does that five days kind of give you the buffer for planning purposes of like, oh, we're not going to actually start booking travel and booking hotels until? After that five days or what's that process?
00:10:23 SONYA: Essentially, that is how it works. So, right after your calendar gets approved, people normally wait a few days, and if they don't hear anything from the laboratories, everything seems to be working out well. Then we'll start booking flights, hotels, rental cars, all the travel accommodations that they need to make this assessment happen. The other reason that we give such a short window that five days for labs to. Call us about rescheduling. Is that at that point we still have time to maybe sub in another lab very quickly because it's still about four to six weeks. At a time if a three-day lab and in your trip cancelled, you can find another three day lab that might be able to go in and then your trip remains the same, but after that, that's when things. Start to get complicated.
00:11:00 KIM: What are the complications after that five-day period?
00:11:04 SONYA: As the assessment date approaches, the closer that it gets, the travel accommodations start becoming more difficult to reschedule. It's really difficult to find a lab that is willing to go at the last minute to sub in, which means you. They're slated to be in the middle of somebody's trip. They might have a few days where we can't get them any work, and So, then we have to start rearranging the other labs and the trip to push them together. It becomes a real difficulty on our end to fix a trip that has a hole in it or try and repair it. So, that is why we have systems in place. To try to avoid that situation.
00:11:40 KIM: If you are trying to repair a trip. Because someone cancelled that's impacting the other labs on the trip, right? So, it's not just impacting us, it's impacting people in that lab, same town asking them to go ahead or go later than they normally would to try to fit that in when they've already planned for whatever date.
00:12:00 SONYA: Does impact the other labs in that area the other labs? On that trip, and honestly, it impacts the lab that would like to postpone as well because we have to try and fit that lab into another trip. But again, we're planning our trips about three months out, So, we might not have time. To get that lab. In in the next couple of months and. That could lead to that lab meeting. And out of sequence. Which means that there's additional fees applied because it means that the it's the last laboratory in that area and we have to. Make a special trip out to them.
00:12:29 KIM: And because it's a special trip, that means there are higher travel costs associated with fitting those into the schedule. So, that's why there's an additional fees.
00:12:39 SONYA: That's correct. So, the way that we schedule our trips now, it's in an effort to be as efficient as possible and as cost effective as possible. Which is why we got out in two or three-week blocks instead of just going out per lap. So, it's much more cost effective if we can do between 2:00 and 7:00 facilities in one trip, because then it's just one round trip flight for all of those facilities to keep our travel costs low. But if you're the only one in the area and you need an assessment, then we're having to book special accommodations just for your lab. And in that case, we're forced to pass that. Cost on directly to that customer.
00:13:19 KIM: So, if we back up to the very beginning of the process where, let's say, a laboratory knows September 8th through the 18. Is the worst week to come. Is there a spot to let them know even before they get their announcement letter? How can they communicate that to your staff effectively?
00:13:41 SONYA: When a lab submits the request for assessment, one of the last steps, I believe it's step four. You're able to put a comment to us and we encourage you to put dates that just don't work for you. So, if you know that you have technician training on this week and you're going to have nobody in the office, you can put that down and you can say please do not come out this. I think we recommend putting up to five dates that don't work. the one thing that we do not like to see and are generally not able to accommodate, is when people say, oh, please don't come from June to November, that is, we're busy.
00:14:24 KIM: That was going to be my next question to circle back to what started this whole conversation is what happens if somebody puts the whole summer of Nope, you can't come during this time. What do you do then?
00:14:35 SONYA: Typically we will contact that lab. We have a lot of people involved in the planning and making sure that the request that labs submit look reasonable and match their accreditation listing and all of that, So, somebody will contact the lab and say, hey, I noticed that you put a note saying that we are not able to visit your facility for the entire summer. That is something that we are likely to not. Can you give me more specific dates that you were thinking? That we can't.
00:15:04 KIM: Visit that also got me thinking because I do know we have some laboratories in in the program that are only opened during warm months. So, let's say if they're laboratories in Alaska or in. Canada, somewhere cold. They're only open and available during certain times of the year, but let's say on the flip side of this, like the summer is the busiest time, but maybe they're not even open during the winter and we're scheduled to come there during the winter. What do we do in those situations?
00:15:34 SONYA: Luckily, the one that you specifically mentioned, Alaska. And we do understand that their paving season is really only in their very short summer. And a lot of the labs are open in the winter, but I don't know about you. I don't want to be sent to Alaska in the winter to try and drive to different facilities. So, what we do is we. Typically, only visit Alaska at the same time. Every time we go there, it's in October, it's after their main paving season, but before. The weather gets to. Would add other locations that I know shut down for the winter. There are some. Plants in Michigan that I know shut down in the winter, and again, it's up to them to put a comment in their request sheet letting us know, hey, we are closed for the winter, there will be no employees on-site if you try and come here. In December. But then? Sometimes you know we do forget we might schedule somebody and hopefully the primary contact is still getting the announcement letters and can reach out to us right away and we can adjust our plans.
00:16:34 KIM: There's definitely parts. Of Michigan, I would not want to go to. In the winter as. a native Michigander, I feel like I can say that so. So, we do make the. Exception of going to certain areas only in a certain time for Alaska. How many labs does that impact? How many laboratories do we have in Alaska that benefits quote-un-quote from that kind of scheduling?
00:16:57 SONYA: Probably a dozen labs.
00:17:00 KIM: So, that's one persons one trip, right? So, we're not or are we sending? We're not sending a ton of.
00:17:05 SONYA: Probably two people, yeah.
00:17:07 KIM: Two people. So, I just wanted to put it in perspective that like although Alaska is a large state, there's not that many laboratories versus in the New York area. There's going to be a lot more where we can't necessarily limit it, there's other repercussions.
00:17:23 SONYA: So, there's only about a dozen labs in Alaska. So, it's easy for us to plan to go. The same time. Every time we visit, whereas in other states there's just So, many more facilities that we have to go, So, many more people that we have to send, for example, in California, we have over 200 accredited laboratory. Please and I understand that they have preferred paving seasons as well, but we really can't accommodate that with the volume of work that we have to try and. Get through.
00:17:48 KIM: Also, thinking this is something that you said about. You know, do you want to go to Alaska in the winter to do that? it's a safety concern too, right? Like of having our assessment staff trapped in an area that maybe is not safe for them if they're not used to, you know that climate and that weather, it could be a safety thing if we are trying to send people to an area. To do an assessment that is just is unsafe. If you're not familiar where, like if you live there, you're used to it, but to be sending somebody. From the Mid-Atlantic region that maybe is not able and doesn't know how to drive in the snow and deal with feet upon feet of snow. Perhaps that's not the best and safest choice for our staff as well.
00:18:32 SONYA: That is a definite concern, and not only once you arrive is it a safety concern, but it's also a concern of whether or not people will be arriving if there's bad weather in Alaska, are there flights likely to get there? Are they going to be? Are they going to make it to those assessments? Is it going to be another scheduling headache when they're delayed by? A few days.
00:18:50 KIM: That does bring up some really good points of how and why Alaska is kind of the exception to the rule of we can't really say we're always going to be in the same area at the same time. Now, going back to the original questions, I think we got we covered up until the assessment is scheduled, right? Like that whole process I. Feel like we've. We covered that. So, going back to the original of why can't you just do that for everybody? Is there a method to the madness of not trying to get the same? Team month, at least so, people can plan. So, what are the thoughts of like? Well, can you just at least So, I know it's going to be in July, can I just plan on July every single year? What are some? Struggles around that because I know there are some.
00:19:36 SONYA: So, there is a method to the madness, but there's also some complications with trying to achieve. The ideal intervals that we'd like, So, when we talk about in simple terms, we often say yes, we want to visit a laboratory approximately every two years and that might sound to somebody like, oh, that means I can plan on you coming every single September every two. Years and that? Would be nice in the offseason, but let's. Say you're a July lab. And you don't want us to come every. Other July on the dot. So, our ideal interval is actually not 20-4 months, but closer to about 20-6 months. If we could visit. Labs every 26 months. That means even if we started out. Visiting you in. July will slowly work our way away from your busy paving season and into calmer seasons, and then everybody gets a turn to have us out there at the worst time of the year.
00:20:29 KIM: Spread the love that way. You just. The love going to spread. The love of sometimes. But if you look at it the other way, like sometimes. You know the love. Of being there in the offseason, you get to spread that out too, and not necessarily think of it in the negative terms that way.
00:20:45 SONYA: That's very true. So, that is what we are working towards. However, there are some complications with trying to achieve that and a lot of those have to do with the volume of work we have and the number of assessors that we have to. Complete that work and. Big hurdle is the fact that during the pandemic we completely shut down assessments for close to six months. So, trying to achieve that and we're working on strategies to get there. But you might have noticed that your interval is longer than 26 months right now.
00:21:19 KIM: Is there a roundabout estimation of when you hope to get that interval closer to where you like it?
00:21:27 SONYA: So, we're thinking around 2025 or 2026, we will be able to hit a more consistent 26-month interval. I think you can understand that even if today we hired 30 assessors and we're suddenly staff up to our dream number, it still wouldn't change the interval. Now it takes a little while because it's a 26-month interval, So, it's going to take at least 26 months to see any benefit. So, it's going to. Be a little while before. We get there, but we're working on it.
00:22:00 KIM: Is 30 assessors our ideal number there you or did you just throw out a? Big number, OK, yeah.
00:22:05 SONYA: I threw out a big number. There is a magic number, but it's not 30. 30 was an exaggeration.
00:22:10 KIM: OK. I just wanted to make sure that was information. New information to me anyway, if it. Was the right number. I think we've. Covered this fairly well. Is there anything else you want? Laboratories to know about scheduling the assessment.
00:22:24 SONYA: One thing that we're often asking labs when they when they call us and they want to cancel, especially when they want to cancel at the last minute. So, obviously we will honor the within the five days of receiving. The announcement letter, if we reschedule, we can absolutely make that happen. We have enough time to make that happen. But as it gets closer and it gets more difficult to cancel or. Reschedule. We'll often ask lads. OK. Well, why would you like to? Postpone and sometimes it's because one person might not be there, and So, we asked them, is that person really critical? To the assessment. So, sometimes it could be. A quality manager and yes, a quality manager is a critical role in a laboratory. But will the laboratory cease to function without that quality manager's presence? If the answer is no, the laboratory is going to be fine without. Then it likely the assessment can Move forward.
00:23:12 KIM: That's actually a good point and it makes me think that if they're that critical of a role, what do you do? Like cause it's. The assessment is just a snapshot of what's happening and an evaluation of what's happening at any given time, So, it could actually be a value to the laboratory to see how their assessment goes without a, quote, UN quote, critical role there to see if there's any gap. So, it might be a useful tool for them if somebody is not there for sure.
00:23:39 SONYA: That could be very interesting information. For the lab to have. One thing to remember is that Astro accreditation is facility wide accreditation. We're not accrediting a specific person, we're not accredited. And in specific individuals, it says, can this facility run? Do they have a quality management system? Do they have trained technicians, not just one trained technician, but trained technicians to run all the tests they want to? Be accredited for. So, theoretically your laboratory should function without one person for a week.
00:24:09 KIM: If you can't. Function that might be a good information to know.
00:24:14 SONYA: For sure I mean. That could really point to a larger systemic issue. About whether or not. Technicians are being trained and how to. Read the quality management policies and procedures and run the lab when one person isn't there. That could be very helpful information for a lab to know about.
00:24:31 KIM: Now is anything else about scheduling or busy times?
00:24:36 SONYA: I think those are the big ones I think sometimes. We don't often talk to laboratories about how big a scope we deal with, how much volume of work that we have. All of the. Moving parts that go into scheduling and planning and trying to predict the future about where we're going to be. So, hopefully if somebody was just kind of curious about this process they. Can listen in and. Get behind the scenes, look at how. We make it to your lab eventually.
00:25:08 KIM: One last point, I think that I want to make on your behalf is that if the laboratory after they've received their announcement letter, if they do have. A need to change what you're being assessed for to communicate that as soon as possible. If you're going to be adding like, oh, we don't normally do soil testing. But for this project we need to be accredited for it. Let us know right away because that may impact how many people we need to send, how long your assessment is going to be and from what I understand. One or two adding additional test methods might not be a problem, but with when you're adding whole scopes of work, that can definitely impact. The your scheduling of an assessment.
00:25:48 SONYA: Yes, that is very true. I would say you know, if we get on site and you say, oh, I forgot to sign up for just one test, can we add it? Absolutely we can. Add a test or two here and there. I'd say we can add up to 10 tests without really impacting the length of time. That we're there. We can make it work. Maybe we stay a little bit. Longer every day to accommodate that, but it's totally doable. But if you're going. To if you're looking at it and. You're wanting to add more than. 10 tests or like you know you mentioned. This lab has never done soil testing before, and they thought they'd like to. Add the soil. Scope and a handful of tests that. Go along with that. Definitely reach out to us as soon as you get that announcement letter and we can make any adjustments, right?
00:26:24 KIM: Thank you very much for your time today. Sonya and I look forward to future episodes with you on because I think it went well, but I think this has been helpful. So, thank you very much for your time.
00:26:35 SONYA: Thank you so, much, Kim. Thanks for having me on and we will see about future episodes.
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