Integrity is often used to describe people and their traits. Merriam-Webster defines integrity as the adherence to a code, the quality of being honest and fair, and as the state of being complete or whole. The origin of the word integrity comes from the Latin word “integer,” which means whole or complete. Some synonyms include decency, goodness, honesty, morality, rightness, and virtue. Some descriptions of integrity are exhibiting conduct that conforms to accepted standards of right and wrong, remaining truthful even when it means taking responsibility for failures, and being faithful to high moral standards.

A prerequisite to integrity is to have established norms, standards, behaviors, etc., that everyone agrees are generally appropriate and applicable to all situations. You have to have basic principles that are universally agreed to, that form the foundation for what determines right vs wrong. Some typical examples of traits generally recognized as describing people with integrity are truthful, fair, consistent, disciplined, etc.

Integrity is also a term that can be used when describing physical assets, processes, structures, and even organizations. When assessing a building, a dam, a bridge, or structure we evaluate the physical aspect of integrity. In this context we focus on the structure being complete or whole (no missing parts, no damage, no defects). No one would want to live downstream from a dam lacking integrity. The dam is not honest, truthful, or fair. But we hope it won’t fail; that it has integrity. A lack of integrity implies a propensity to fail, whether referring to people’s behavior or a structure’s stability.

Some examples of generally accepted norms for structures would be building codes, ANSI standards, and quality assurance inspection and testing protocols. When referring to a dam’s integrity the governing principle is it doesn’t leak, can withstand a storm, and will not collapse. In other words, that it will not fail. Integrity has to do with how well the actions or behavior exhibited are in concert with the accepted norms and standards in response to any given situation or scenario.

When attributing integrity to processes and organizations, a different set of examples and characteristics come to mind. Processes that have integrity must be thorough and complete, include checks and balances, and be repeatable, verifiable, and supported by clearly defined procedures. They need to include an enforcement aspect and be founded on acknowledged best practices. But more importantly, they need to articulate their purpose and goals, what defines acceptable compliance, and a means for being audited or otherwise validated. Otherwise well-intentioned procedures can result in unfortunate outcomes. The integrity of the process is based not just on following procedures, but on compliance with the core principles.

A good example is the commissioning process. The definition of commissioning from ASHRAE Standard 202-2013 Commissioning Process for Buildings and Systems is “a quality-focused process for enhancing the delivery of a project. The process focuses upon verifying and documenting that all of the commissioned systems and assemblies are planned, designed, installed, tested, operated, and maintained to meet the Owner’s Project Requirements.” As you see, the commissioning process must be based on prerequisite principles that everyone agrees to, specifically a project requirements document that defines the mission, goals, purpose, and success criteria. These are typically established in the owner’s project requirements (OPR) document for new construction, or the current facility requirements (CFR) document for existing buildings. You can’t verify compliance when there is no standard or requirement to comply with.

With a well-defined OPR or CFR, the commissioning team has a universally agreed to set of criteria, goals, etc. for developing the inspection and verification activities and tasks to validate what gets delivered meets the project requirements. The governing principle is that commissioning should demonstrate if these requirements have or have not been satisfied. If the finished facility is declared completed and ready to “go live,” and subsequently fails to perform to the OPR or CFR requirements, the commissioning process lacked integrity. Either it wasn’t comprehensive enough, or it wasn’t executed correctly. Without the governing principles, there is no uniform means to judge compliance.

Integrity can also be used when describing companies. A company with integrity is one that has both employees who act with integrity, and processes with integrity. It takes both. A company that employs only honest and truthful staff with high moral values but lacks clarity on overarching principles, and deploys ambiguous processes, may produce inconsistent and non-compliant products and results. And likewise, a company that relies on untrained or even worse, unscrupulous staff, will also lack integrity regardless of how structured and complete their processes are.

Long-term successful relations are built on trust and integrity. Trust must be earned and starts with establishing credibility through credentials and experience and delivering what’s promised. In the real world, unexpected challenges, problems, and failures occur. Even the very best people, products, and companies make mistakes. All projects and initiatives encounter unexpected challenges. Integrity is demonstrated by how we respond to, and how we behave, when we make mistakes or encounter the unexpected. The key to integrity is to be objective and truthful about failures that occur, i.e., accept the failure for what it is, and respond appropriately based on the overarching universal principles of right and wrong.