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Construction Quality

A Discourse on Construction Quality

Peter Furst | January 19, 2018

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Construction quality is one of the factors by which the success or failure of a project may be measured. The other two main factors are time and money. These three are sometimes referred to as the key performance metrics by which most owner's satisfaction with the contractor's project delivery process is measured.

There may be a few more that some owners may add to this list—such as safety, relationship, turnover, etc. The time factor reflects if the project was delivered on time, in accordance with the contract, or within a reasonable time frame. The budget factor reflects if the project was completed within the owner's budgetary objectives or expectations. And finally, the quality factor reflects if the project achieved the owner's quality expectations. However, the perception of the quality of the completed structure (project) may very well be influenced by how it performs after the facility is occupied.

Three Performance Factors of Projects - Furst - Jan 2018

Figure 1—The Three Performance Factors of Projects

Quality can be a subjective term for which different people may assign different meaning, understanding, or expectations. Quality may be defined as the characteristics of a product or service that impact its ability to meet its intended use or utility. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) defines it as a product or service free of deficiencies. This relates to the state or functionality of the final product or service delivered. Related aspects may include what constitutes quality, how it is defined, whether it is clear and readily understood and measurable, etc. The project documents, generally the specification, define quality and establish the expected level for it.

Establishing the Level of Quality

A construction project's quality is usually established early in the design process over which the contractor has little or no input unless the contractor is involved during the preconstruction process and performs constructability reviews. The level of quality of the project evolves from the understanding of the designers of what the owner needs, wants, and is willing to spend. The design team integrates this information into the project specifications, which then become a part of the construction contract.

The specifications usually reference some standards by which the quality of the project is going to be determined. Some of the more common standards referenced are the American Society for Testing and Materials, American National Standards Institute, the Construction Specifications Institute, American Institute of Steel Construction, American Concrete Institute, or Western Wood Products Association, to name a few. They may also refer to standards established by various trade organizations such as the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractor's National Association, National Electrical Contractors Association, etc. Construction specifications may normally include a series of instructions or prohibitions for specific operations.

It is not unusual for the specifications to define quality in terms that may be vague and open to interpretations. In some cases, the specifications may use such terms as "normal and customary" or "function for its intended use" to define quality. You may find measurement spelled out in terms such as "within a tolerance of plus or minus 0.10 of a foot." So, before the start of field operations, the contractor must review and fix the specifications for any and all quality standards that may be vague and open to interpretation.

Such "loose" standards (not precisely defined) require judgment and, therefore, are open to interpretation and in all likelihood may lead to potential misunderstanding, disputes, and/or claims. Such specifications do not serve the best interest of the owner, the designers, or the contractor. If the owner or designers allow the incorporation of such "loose" standards, then it becomes the responsibility of the contractor to comb through the specifications and ensure that the levels of quality are clear, precise, and universally understood.

This is an important element of the management of quality because it sets an objective measure on any expectation by the owner and designer of the quality level of the final completed project. It also potentially avoids future misunderstandings and conflicts. The contractor must meet with the designer and owner to discuss any and all aspects of the specification that are vague or not easily measurable and reach an understanding of what is intended and document it. In some cases, samples or mock-ups may be needed to accomplish this.

The Perception of Quality

The characteristics of the final product or service are an important aspect of quality. That requirement of quality creates an important metric by which the success of the completed project may be measured. In construction, this may be viewed as the (characteristics) quality of the product. The key participants in the project delivery process (the owner team, the design team, and the constructor team) may view quality from different or multiple perspectives. Besides the product perspective, quality may also be viewed from the production point of view as well as other perspectives such as value, utility, process, inputs, relationships, etc.

For the owner to receive a quality facility (product), the contractor has to deliver it. To achieve this, the contractor must ensure that the work is put in place in accordance with the defined quality in the specification as well as meeting the expectation of the owner. These two factors may not always be the same. This involves two elements: one, the characteristics or quality of the product, and two, the value. The owner may look at the completed project from the budgetary perspective to determine if they have received value for the money spent. Some owners may also include relationship and responsiveness as other elements of value.

From the contactor's perspective, the quality of the product must be managed. This production process has two elements. To effectively accomplish this, the contractor must have a written, robust program to ensure that the project's quality requirement is achieved. This is dependent on a group of people who must ensure that the quality program, procedures, and practices are rigorously followed. This aspect of the work must be fully integrated with the production process as well as aligned with the project business goals.

The quality of production focuses on the means and methods employed by the construction team to perform the work in such a way that it enables the accomplishment of the project objectives, which are primarily driven by the schedule. The quality of the process refers to doing the work in such a way that it is done correctly the first time. This element of the process ensures efficiency as well as quality. This is only possible if the production and quality processes are fully integrated.

Another way to look at this is from the systems and people perspective. The systems factor revolves around how a contractor may have structured their whole operation in such a way that all of their process, practices, and procedures are integrated and aligned so as to operate as efficiently as possible to produce the required quality in the final product. This top to bottom and across all functions integration not only improves efficiency but eliminates waste, reduces discrepancies, and improves communication, which enhances business outcomes. This ensures that the work is conducted in such a way as to maximize profits. The people factor revolves around how the contractor's and subcontractors' staffs manage the project delivery processes and the workers "perform the task right the first time out" so as to minimize waste and improve efficiency as well as effectiveness.

The contractor may view quality as having two distinct elements. These are the quality of the product and the quality of the process. The product focuses on the actual quality achieved at completion, while the process perspective looks at the contractor's means and methods, which ensures that the work is prosecuted in such a way so as to achieve the final product quality. This means that the contractor has devised systems that foster and ensure that the final quality of the product not only meets but exceeds the owner's expectations.

The contactor must clearly understand this and effectively manage expectation associated with quality. So, to achieve it, the contractor must have a written and robust quality management process and activated a framework such as a quality management system (QMS). The aim of the QMS (process) is to create value as well as deliver it. Value is delivered by the people working in the organization utilizing the operating systems, diligently and with forethought. For the contractor to effectively manage the quality of the project, there needs to be an effective written program that lays out the framework with which to effectively achieve stellar outcomes. This may entail the incorporation of total quality management (TQM) into the project delivery process (see Figure 2).

The ASQ defines QMS as "the organizational structure, processes, procedures and resources needed to implement, maintain and continually improve the management of quality." TQM is a management approach to the organizational long-term success achieved through customer satisfaction. TQM focuses on the development of products and services that meet the needs and exceed the expectations of key customer groups. To accomplish this, the contractor must integrate all organizational as well as operational systems. They must align organizational and employee goals, leading to active participation and total involvement. This framework must have a customer focus at its very core.

Three Elements Construction Total Quality Mgmt - Furst - Jan 2018

Figure 2—The Three Elements of Construction Total Quality Management

Construction total quality management (CTQM) creates a work climate where all employees are actively engaged in the pursuit of quality, focused on customer satisfaction, and striving to continuously improve the organization's products or services. The CTQM system becomes the foundation for creating value for the customer and contains the following 10 elements.

1. Articulate Mission and Values

The employees know in general terms what the organizational mission is: to build structures that meet the contractual obligations and generate a profit for the company. It is management's responsibility to define the mission in such a way that employees understand the importance of customer focus. Management must also express the fundamental, immutable values of the organization and how this is to guide all employee's priorities and decision-making in their daily activities. The guiding principles are customer focus and creating value for the customer, which are balanced with doing the work efficiently and with minimal waste. The organization must also develop a process to educate new employees during new employee orientation as well as reinforcing and refocusing these fundamental concepts to all employees.

2. Articulate a Compelling Vision and Winning Strategy

Management needs to articulate the organizational vision so that all employees clearly understand where the organization is headed, what it is trying to accomplish, and why. The vision must be couched in terms that excite and engage employees. Employees need to know how what they do is tied to organizational strategy and objectives and how this plays a key role in the relationship between the organization and its customers. Employees must understand that their day-in and day-out activities are critical to organizational success.

The organizational strategy is a means of making the vision a reality. More often than not, senior management articulates the strategy, develops a plan, holds meetings, and tries to achieve internal alignment. Yet, during the execution phase, the strategy falls apart. So, the implementation of the strategy must be planned and executed in such a way that its success is assured. To effectively execute the strategy, there needs to be effective and comprehensive planning. Management must guide the process, identify and remove barriers, provide the necessary resources, enhance the flow of information, resolve issues, and provide support to ensure the success of the initiatives.

3. Identify Key Customer Groups

Every organization has customers both external as well as internal. It is of utmost importance that these groups be identified and their needs and expectations addressed. Organizations must understand who the key customer groups are and their importance in providing products and services based on customer requirements. The mistake many organizations make is not acknowledging employees as a key customer group. Examples of customer groups include the following.

  • Customers
  • Employees
  • Partners
  • Suppliers
  • Vendors
  • Agencies
  • The public

Although the customer is the primary focus of the organization, it is important to acknowledge that the rest of the list plays a role in ensuring that the focus remains on the customer and that value is created for them. This highlights the premise that not only do all of the organizational systems need to be integrated so as to focus on the customer, but the employees need to be able to function appropriately within the organizational as well as the operational systems and be able to manage the work so as to create value for the customer. This then has to be aligned with the achievement of the quality proposition.

4. Identify Key Success Factors

Key success factors help an organization focus on those things that help it meet its overall objectives and move closer to achieving its mission and vision. Some examples include the following.

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Goal attainment
  • Process improvement
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Quality of product or service
  • Financial performance

These performance-based measures provide a gauge for identifying how the organization and its operations are doing as well as determining what needs to change or improve so as to ensure the organization is not only meeting but exceeding its objectives.

5. Develop Measures and Targets

Once key success factors are identified, measurement tools need to be developed and put in place to monitor and track achievement of the organization's goals and objectives. This can be done through the collection of specific data on the processes, practices, and procedures of the organization in their pursuit of customer service. This entails the collection of specific data and the analysis and evaluation of it to create information that can be reported to management and executive leadership. This leads to understanding how the organization is doing in creating value for the customer.

Besides process measures that indicate how well the organization is doing or achieving their goals or objectives, there is another group of important measures—progress measures. These indicate the rate at which the organization is closing in on its intended outcomes. Progress measures may indicate if any change or improvement in practices or procedures is warranted. They also allow for fine-tuning what is being done to achieve excellence in the most expeditious way. 

6. Collect Data

A key group of collected data is on the effectiveness and efficiency of the function of the organizational systems and its people. Another group of data comes from customers and partners and their perception and quality of the product or service as well as the inner-group working relationships and cooperation. The collected data should be on standardized forms or surveys so that there is consistency in what is collected and in establishing baselines. The organization may explore the use of technology or software in this area.

The only way for an organization to know how well they are meeting the customer's requirements is by simply asking them. This is also true of their partners in the project delivery process. This feedback should ensure that a true picture of performance to drive and/or improve the organizational performance is available to senior leadership as well as management.

7. Analyze Data

The analysis of the collected data should be centralized to garner consistency in the developed information and distributed to the appropriate people.

8. Develop Improvement Interventions

The reported information should identify areas in the organizational systems or the action of the people that would benefit from improvement. This should generate healthy discussions and further analysis, and it ultimately should lead to an intervention plan with the objective to correct any and all discrepancies. The improvement plan should be in writing with goals and rolled out in the area that requires some form of change.

9. Implement Improvement Plan

The people in that area must be apprised of the shortcomings in the quality of the product, service, process, practice, or procedures. A compelling reason for the improvement plan should be given. The plan for the improvement should be reviewed, any challenges discussed, and commitment to its importance be solicited in such a manner as to get complete buy-in from everyone involved.

10. Continuous Improvement Cycle

It is important to monitor improvement on a regular basis to ensure that there is consistent progress toward goals. If improvement interventions are deployed, then progress must also be measured and improved if and when necessary. If satisfactory results are achieved, then it is good marketing to apprise customers and partners, as well as employees, of how the organization's internal processes are working, especially if those processes help to deliver an outstanding product or service of superior quality!


An effective quality management process focuses on the development of products and/or services that meets the needs and exceeds the expectations of key customer groups. This is achieved by the creation of an integrated operational and process-centered system that involves all levels of the organization and is focused on not only meeting but exceeding the customer's expectations. To achieve this, each party in the project delivery process has to have systems and people operating in such a way as to create a defect-free, high-quality product or service.

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