Expert Commentary

Construction Quality and Partner Relationships

Subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers play an increasingly important role in the project delivery process. It is not uncommon for a very large percentage of a project to be undertaken by subcontractors. In some cases, it may amount to virtually 100 percent of the project.


Construction Quality
November 2018

So, rather than managing their workforce, construction managers or general contractors have to oversee and influence the management processes employed by their subcontractors to ensure that the project is delivered on time, within budget, and at the prescribed level of quality established in the specifications for the completed project, as well as at the level of quality expected by the owner.

This requires the selection of "quality-minded" subcontractors. These subcontractors must have a comprehensive quality management process and a dedicated and knowledgeable field staff, as well as a robust organizational oversight practice, so as to deliver results at the expected level. The contractor must actively engage in a partnering relationship with their subcontractors to ensure performance at the prescribed and expected level.

The partners must have a clear understanding of the expected project quality standards, which will be used to control the work put in place by field operations, and have an effective and cooperative management process to ensure that the level of quality is achieved with minimal interruptions, conflict, and/or rework.

The Quality Process

The quality process was first implemented in manufacturing. It later was adopted by some organizations in the service industry, and then it started to make inroads into the construction field. It is a proven fact that, to ensure quality in their products, manufacturers have established a symbiotic relationship with their vendors and suppliers. Contractors lag behind manufacturing in effectively partnering with their subcontractors to ensure that their work meets the necessary quality standards of the project. This partnering relationship ensures that everyone in the supply chain produces products that meet or exceed the established quality expectations.

It is of note that many contractors are engaging in some form of partnering with owners but fail to utilize the same practices with their subcontractors. The partnering practice not only ensures that quality standards are met but improves the overall working relationship of all the organizations across the supply chain.

Manufacturing usually is a repetitive process, where the manufacturer produces a limited number of products in large quantities. Also, the work is generally performed by the same people working in the same location under somewhat controlled circumstances. Construction is much more challenging as every project is unique in design, size, location, and eventual use, and more importantly, the workforce tends to be generally far less stable. Construction is also subject to the vagaries of weather, site conditions, and the ability of organizations along the value stream to deliver on their promises, as well as the competence of a large number of people involved, which results in greater complexity, variability, and uncertainty.

The general contractor or construction manager must ensure that every subcontractor has a quality control program as well as a robust process to ensure that quality is effectively being delivered as work is being put in place. Since projects tend to be more or less unique, the subcontractor's quality program must be compatible with the project requirements as well as needs. This may require an evaluation of each company's programs and processes, and possibly the need to devise a project-specific quality management program with a compatible management process.

Subcontracting

Typically, in construction, a large part of the project is built by subcontractors under contract to the general contractor (GC) or construction manager (CM). By virtue of the contract, the subcontractor has sole control of its means and methods. Therefore, to ensure that the quality of the work installed is in line with the project quality expectations, the subcontractor must have an effective quality management program and robust process to ensure this.

The subcontractor must also have competent people who are experienced and knowledgeable in the quality management process to ensure that the work performed is in full compliance. The subcontractor must also have some form of documentation process with which it can show that its field operations are putting work in place that is in full compliance with the project's quality expectations.

Since, in many cases, subcontractors account for as much as 90 percent or more of the total value of a construction project, they must perform the work according to the GC's or CM's expectations, which must be aligned with the project specifications as well as owner expectations. All this attention to processes, practices, and procedures will not only improve the quality of the work going in place but will more than likely ensure work is proceeding on schedule as well. This will ensure smooth handoffs from one subcontractor to another, reduce wasteful none-value-creating activities, and reduce the GC's need for close oversight of the work-through inspections. This will free up the GC's staff to pursue other avenues that are necessary to ensure the reduction of wasteful activities and enhance project value creation.

Because of the nature of facilities, virtually every project is more or less unique due to the fact that their design, function, use, size, location, and the jurisdiction they are built in vary. This fundamentally creates variation. The construction industry, with its extensive supply chain, creates complexity. The vagrancies of weather, the mobile labor force, the pressures for fast-tracking projects, and the potential for over-promising all have a tendency to increase the risk of uncertainty. This highlights the need to have a project-specific operational plan, especially when it comes to the management of quality. So, for companies that have a defined quality management program and process, there needs to be a requirement to ensure that the program is modified to address each and every project's unique needs and requirements.

Because of the interdependence of contractors and subcontractors in the project delivery process, they need to have compatible means and corroborating methodologies to ensure that the conformance to standards is achieved smoothly, is sensitive to the needs of all concerned, enhances the flow of information, expeditiously resolves issues, and results in win-win outcomes. This requires some form of partnership between the contractor and the various subcontractors. One also needs to recognize that all subcontractors have vendors and/or suppliers. Some subcontractors even have sub-subcontractors. So, to address this holistically, to garner the highest level of benefit, this partnership process must be implemented across the whole supply chain or value stream.

Partnering

The partnering method is a means of improving relationships within the project delivery process as well as improving the value-adding outcome of the final product. This process has been used in construction for around 40 years with varying levels of success. Construction is a very competitive business, and many organizations (both owners as well as contractors) still try to get the lowest price through "head to head" competitive bidding. This leads to some level of adversarial relationships, leading to a potential lack of trust, which results in non-value-adding activities, such as increased inspections, more in-depth reviews of requests for changes or time and/or money, and a greater potential for more discussions, conflicts, or litigation. All of this leads to greater impediments to cooperation and tends to erode relationships, which may result in an increased potential for client (owner) dissatisfaction with the constituents of the project delivery process.

Those who engage in the partnering process may have different interpretations or understanding of the basic premise of partnering. The project participants must create a framework that fosters a more trusting relationship, articulate a mutually shared vision, and foster a commitment to shared respect, with clearly understood project goals and a robust grasp of each other's needs as well as expectations. There needs to be a clear understanding of what constitutes value. Partnering also implements processes that foster this commitment by developing a comprehensive mission statement and defining a clear process of dealing with conflict as well as an appreciation for "win-win" negotiations should such a need arise.

In 1991, the Construction Industry Institute defined partnering as a long-term commitment among two or more organizations for the purpose of achieving specific business objectives by maximizing the effectiveness of each participant's resources. This definition requires changing traditional relationships in the project delivery process to one that develops a shared culture without regard to organizational boundaries. What this means is that the project delivery process needs to stop creating confrontational relationships and encourage cooperation, shared assumptions, compatible points of view, improved communication, and rapid and effective dispute resolution, as well as win-win thinking. This set out a basic framework for partnering, as follows.

  • Educate the organizations involved.
  • Clarify partnering intentions.
  • Ensure top management's commitment.
  • Develop a partnering workshop to accomplish the following.
    • Create a charter.
    • Develop an issues resolution process.
    • Develop a joint evaluation process.
    • Clarify individual roles and concerns.
  • Conduct periodic performance and progress evaluations.
  • Address escalation of vexing issues.
  • Conduct final evaluation and celebration.

This will invariably improve the efficiency of the process, increase the effectiveness of the people, and reduce wasteful processes, practices, and procedures—leading to value creation for all parties involved.

Influencing Operational Quality Results

Partnering to achieve the project's quality can be defined in two basic ways. First, partnering can be defined by its attributes, which may include trust, respect, a shared vision, strong working relationships, long-term commitments, striving for excellence, a clear understanding of each other's needs and expectations, etc. A second way is by the operational process where partnering sets forth a charter that devises a mission statement, articulates a winning strategy, sets out overarching goals, and increases opportunities for innovation and problem resolution as well as a continual striving for improvement of the quality of process and product.

To ensure that project quality is properly addressed, and the appropriate level of quality is achieved at project completion, it has to be addressed rigorously throughout the six key areas of the project life cycle. These are the following.

  • GC's (or CM's) prebid efforts
  • Bid activities
  • Contract award
  • Preconstruction
  • During construction
  • Postconstruction

Each of these elements of the process has three significant subparts. These are the following.

  • Participants
  • Key elements
  • Desired outcomes

The key points of each of these subparts establish who should be involved and the reason for their involvement, what this group needs to address, and what the desired outcomes of their effort will or should accomplish.

Six Key Areas of the Project Life Cycle
  1. GC's (or CM's) Prebid Efforts
    • Participants
      • Procurement, operations, quality, legal, etc.
    • Key elements
      • Identify subcontractors who are compatible with project quality requirements.
      • Align internal processes for superior quality performance (SQP).
      • Perform flawless execution.
      • Identify performance criteria and key success factors (KSF).
    • Desired outcomes
      • Establish a qualified bidders list
      • Define and align/integrate processes and systems.
      • Set cooperative posture factors.
  2. Bid Activities (Contract Elements Required for Effective Management of the Process)
    • Participants
      • Contracting specialists, operations, procurement, quality, legal, etc.
    • Key elements
      • Develop and specify the need for SQP.
      • Craft terms to foster SQP.
      • Create metrics to promote SQP.
    • Desired outcomes
      • Clearly communicate requests for proposals and bid documents.
        • Specify project quality requirements.
        • Enumerate owner quality expectations.
        • Develop project-specific SQP requirements.
  3. Contract Award
    • Participants
      • Project management, procurement, contract specialists, quality, legal, etc.
    • Key elements
      • Review SQP criteria, metrics, assessments, and evaluations.
      • Assess operational expectations, planning, processes, and procedures.
      • Ensure appropriate participation at preaward meetings.
    • Desired outcomes
      • Achieve a precise understanding of SQP criteria.
      • Develop a clear understanding of operational expectations, processes, and procedures.
      • Manage oversight of SQP.
      • Assign people to be responsible for SQP.
  4. Preconstruction (Deploy SQP Expectations by Reviewing Them at the Preconstruction Meeting)
    • Participants
      • Project management, quality, contract administrator, subcontractor management representative, project's responsible person(s), etc.
    • Key elements
      • Discuss SQP program, process, responsibilities, and key people.
      • Provide to the field staff and workforce the information on SQP and site-specific requirements, metrics, processes, and procedures, as well as preoperational planning, and risk management strategies.
    • Desired outcomes
      • Hire a workforce and field staff that understand, are knowledgeable, are motivated, and are fully engaged to execute the SQP policy, procedures, and expectations.  
      • Ensure project planning and risk management address SQP.
  5. During Construction (Manage Operations by Following Partnering Practices as Well as SQP Processes, Practices, and Procedures)
    • Participants
      • Project manager, superintendent, quality manager, subcontractor project manager, site foreman, etc.
    • Key elements
      • Develop effective preoperational SQP planning and risk assessment.
      • Fully integrate site-specific SQP into operations.
      • Assessment of field execution versus owner expectations and project criteria 
    • Desired outcomes
      • Partner in goal achievement.
      • Ensure positive behavior and commitment of supervisors and workforce to SQP.
      • Achieve low resulting incidents, minimal defective work product, and a virtually zero punch list.
  6. Postconstruction
    • Participants
      • Procurement, operations, contract administration, quality, etc.
    • Key components
      • Process feedback on-field results with contractor and staff input.
      • Assess KSF and SQP outcomes.
      • Ensure results are disseminated throughout the organization.
    • Desired outcomes
      • Develop continuous improvement of the contractor pool with strong SQP.
      • Contract procurement improvement.
      • Ensure the stellar future of SQP performance.

Conclusion

The American Institute of Architects, the Associated General Contractors of America, and the American Consulting Engineers Council all endorse partnering. Some federal, state, and city agencies include partnering as part of the standard requirements in a bid package on large projects. Several state legislatures are considering requiring partnering as a part of any new projects. Clearly, then, many people think partnering is worthwhile.

The challenge is for owners and architects to incorporate the requirement of partnering for quality in their project documents. And, for construction managers as well as general contractors, it's important to make partnering a key element in their project delivery process and, more importantly, include quality as a key element in their contracts and project management practices, processes, and procedures.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

Like This Article?

IRMI Update

Dive into thought-provoking industry commentary every other week, including links to free articles from industry experts. Discover practical risk management tips, insight on important case law and be the first to receive important news regarding IRMI products and events.

Learn More



User ID: Subscriber Status:Free