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Construction Quality

Improve Construction Projects with a Quality Management System

Peter Furst | February 15, 2019

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The infusion of the total quality management (TQM) practices into the construction company's quality management system (QMS) can result in significant improvement in the quality process and thereby achieve superior outcomes.

Construction industry professionals are aware of the importance of having a robust quality management program with an effective and efficient process, overseen by knowledgeable and trained partners, and supported by involved staff, as well as senior management, as a key requirement to delivering superior quality and adding value to the project delivery process.

It is a known fact that many organizations in the construction industry struggle to some degree in achieving acceptable levels of quality in their project delivery endeavors. Many construction firms either have no formal quality management processes or their processes are deficient in one way or another. Many also do not train their project staff in quality management processes or procedures. It is common to expect the superintendent to be responsible for the overall project delivery process, oversee production, coordinate subcontractor efforts, resolve issues, solve problems, maintain the schedule, control cost, and manage performance, as well as ensure the achievement of the expected level of project quality.

A robust quality management system entails having an organizational structure in place; including senior management's oversight and involvement; engaging and involving subcontractors, suppliers, and vendors; defining and supervising production responsibilities; and delineating procedures, processes, and practices. It is important to have planned and available resources for implementing and managing the quality system. This requires a defined and clear framework to ensure that every time a process is performed or a procedure is followed, the same information, means, methods, skills, and controls are used and are practiced in a consistent and repetitive manner. See "Construction Quality Management" (October 2015).

Quality Defined

Achieving the quality expectation of the project may be seen as meeting the aesthetic and functional requirements of the design, as well as the owner's operational and maintenance requirements and the contractor's compelling value proposition. For the contractor to achieve this, the quality requirements must be adequate, clear, measurable, and universally understood. This also requires that the work is executed in such a manner that the quality as specified is achieved and that the completed project conforms with the design requirements and meets the owner's expectations. Quality may be described as follows.

  • Meeting the requirement of the project owner
    • Facility design—Meeting operational and functional needs. Meet life-cycle cost expectations in operations and maintenance.
    • Project delivery—Be completed on time, within budget, and at the expected level of quality.
  • Meeting the requirement of the project designers
    • Design programming—Owner-provided comprehensive description of needs and wants. Works with the designer during design development to ensure operational and maintenance needs are addressed.
    • Construction—The construction manager and/or general contractor ensures work is installed per design documents and works with the designer to ensure constructability of the design intent.
  • Meeting the requirement of construction
    • Owner—Ensures contractor has the necessary information for pricing and/or bidding. Participates in ensuring questions or issues regarding design or construction are resolved and provides authorization and processes change orders in a timely manner.
    • Designer—Processes information expeditiously. Reviews billing fairly and quickly. Engages in addressing questions and concerns expeditiously.
    • Contractor—Assigns capable and experienced staff to oversee the project and hires competent subcontractors with a capable workforce to prosecute the work.
    • Protects—Ensures the public and the environment are safe from harm.
  • Meeting the requirement of the regulatory agencies
    • Design—Meets applicable laws, rules, codes, and regulations.
    • Is a "good neighbor."

Every organization and its management participating in the project delivery process has their own perception about quality. This perception is primarily based on their role in the supply chain, namely the owner, designer, and constructor teams. They may have a differing definition as well as anticipation of the level of expected quality. This makes it difficult to quantify and measure quality, which highlights the need for clarity and measurability, with a common understanding of project expectations.

Typical Project Delivery Challenges

The primary commercial project delivery process is still the design-bid-build method, where owners try to get the lowest price for their projects, which makes competitive bidding the primary procurement method. If the business environment is very competitive, general contractors or construction managers (these two terms will be used interchangeably throughout) are going to have to try to aggressively control their costs to be the successful bidder. Since all of the competing general contracting bidders have to procure materials and labor in the project's geographic area, they will be dealing with the same sources. (However, contractors utilizing unionized labor may be at a disadvantage when bidding against nonunion competitors.) Therefore, in all likelihood, every contractor will be faced with the same or similar expenses for the direct costs associated with the project. The competitive advantage will be in securing competitive subcontractor bids and in indirect costs.

The general contractor has significant control in the project's indirect costs. One of the key elements of the indirect costs is the field-staffing salaries. The contractor has a couple of obvious options in this regard. It can try to "under staff" the project and "hope" that the staff will work harder and/or longer to get the job done, or it can hire (or assign) less-experienced staff whose salaries are lower to oversee project operations. In both cases, the contractor will reduce some cost but will be taking on a higher level of risk with the probability that the project will end up potentially having a greater number or more complicated problems as work is put in place.

Typically, general contractors hire subcontractors to perform most or even all of the production work of the project. The general contractor will break the job up into specific bid packages for which it solicits a lump sum bid from a number of different subcontractors to ensure they get the "best" price for that scope of work. Like the owner, a responsible general contractor may have a list of prequalified subcontractors from whom it solicits bids and selects the lowest bidder to perform the work. The signing of a contract with that subcontractor is subject to the general contractor ensuring that all of the subcontractor pricing falls within their envisioned value for their bid to the owner. If the lowest subcontractor's bid is not at or below this value, the subcontractor is brought in and is subjected to negotiation to lower their quotes. If the subcontractor "needs" the work, they will cut their quoted price and then try to reduce their cost by some means, and thereby increase their inherent risk.

In a way, the owner set up the competitive environment that creates the situation where every organization wanting to secure the work may be forced into the situation where they decide to take on a little more risk in the anticipation that they will be able to manage it effectively. In my years of involvement in construction management, I have seen many cases where both the general contractor and subcontractor senior management resorted to this type of cost-reduction activity to ensure they were successful in procuring the job. They hoped the added risk would not result in discrepancies, problems, or losses. In some cases, this sort of risk-taking is successful—costs are cut with no, or minimal, resulting negative outcomes. This then serves to reinforce such at-risk behavior, which is then used in similar competitive situations later on.

Since the primary tool to manage the project is the schedule, this becomes the principal focus of the project superintendent. If the project is understaffed or the staff is less experienced, the superintendent is going to be faced with additional issues, a greater number of problems, and more challenges, all of which will take up more of his or her time. As a result, the quality of the project is going to get less attention, and the risk of discrepancies in this area will invariably increase. Defects in quality will become evident at much later times and, as a result, will become significantly costlier and time-consuming to correct. This can disrupt the progress of the work and adversely impact the project schedule.

To avoid this situation, the general contractor must have a robust quality-management process in place. See "A Discourse on Construction Quality" (January 2018). They also need to have a knowledgeable, experienced, and trained field management staff to oversee the process and ensure that the required level of quality of the project is achieved. The general contractor's senior management must also be involved and exercise oversight to ensure that everything proceeds as planned and problems are immediately addressed and resolved. Since much or most of the work is going to be performed by subcontractors, the general contractor must ensure that every subcontractor has an acceptable quality-assurance program and that the staff assigned to the project is capable of achieving the acceptable level of quality required by the project.

The subcontractor must attend preconstruction meetings where the project quality requirements and the general contractor's quality processes are discussed. At the conclusion of such meetings, the subcontractor's personnel must have a clear understanding of the quality requirements and the process they are expected to follow. See "Construction Quality and Partner Relationships" (November 2018). This, along with a diligent oversight by the contractor's staff, will ensure that quality is seamlessly addressed and rework minimized.

All of these process and practice functions are set up to ensure project quality, but they can be weakened due to a plethora of reasons. These create situations that require project staff to take time to address and resolve these additional time-consuming situations. So, when they reach their total time capacity, they have to reduce their attention to other lesser urgent matters, which may very well be quality-related functions. This highlights the need to conduct the work correctly the first time out. This not only reduces rework, but more importantly reduces the need for continuous checking, inspecting, and recording of the quality process. Such a goal can be achieved by the integration of the TQM concepts onto the organization's QMS.

TQM Principles

TQM strategies focus on long-term success by enlisting every member of an organization at all levels to produce a product or service that creates value for the customer, leading to loyalty as well as satisfaction. Organizational and operational strategies are driven by long-term goals supported by short-term ones with a focus on integrating systems as well as aligning processes, procedures, and practices necessary to produce high-quality outputs with an eye on continual improvement.

Elements of TQM

  • Customer focus and value creation
  • Leadership involvement
  • Employee engagement
  • Integrated system and aligned operations
  • Process-centered management
  • Systematic waste and defect prevention
  • Data-based decision-making
  • Partner/supplier relationship
  • Effective communication
  • Education and training
  • Continuous improvement
  • Recognition

By integrating TQM elements into the organization's quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) processes, the organization ensures that the final completed work will not only meet the owner's expectations but, in all likelihood, will exceed it. It also ensures that the work process is efficient, the workforce is effective, and as a result, the organization is successful.

Total Quality Management (TQM)—A management approach to long-term success through customer satisfaction.

Source: American Society for Quality

To successfully implement TQM in an organization, senior leadership has to articulate a compelling vision, be fully committed to its implementation, and provide the resources, support, and guidance to ensure its successful integration into QA/QC processes, practices, and procedures. Senior leadership also has to take an active role in regularly overseeing the progress of the execution of the work as well as the results achieved to date, to ensure that the program was achieving the expected outcomes. 

TQM focuses on process effectiveness, continuous improvement, partner (subcontractor and supplier) involvement and teamwork, project owner satisfaction, performance and cost-effectiveness, error and defect-free work product, and a reasonable profit margin. Therefore, the integration of TQM methodologies into the project's quality management process should create a robust process that will ensure work is put in place correctly every time.  

An important thing that TQM will achieve is to control; it will also diminish uncertainty and variability in the quality of the work. If the variability in performance causes the quality of the work to move outside of the acceptable envelope, then corrective action will be triggered to move performance back into the acceptability range. There are two potential sources of variability that may impact the level of quality of the work put in place.

  • System-driven variability that may cause discrepancies
  • People-driven variability that may cause discrepancies

Typically, organizations focus on people as the primary source of any discrepancy in the performance of work. This is evident in common human resource management practices: training, performance appraisals, compensation, inspections, audits, sanctions, or rewards. The underlying assumption is that individuals are the determining factor in the variation of the quality and quantity of the work. While people do have some impact in this regard, TQM sees this somewhat differently.

Proponents of TQM appreciate that people do contribute to variability in performance but point out the overriding influence that work systems have on people. These systems impact the quality of the work performed. TQM also proposes that there is an interplay between elements of systems and subsystems and their effect on individuals working within those systems. TQM is often characterized as an integrating, aligning, systematic, and organization-wide strategy focused on improving a product and/or service while efficiently using resources. This leads to lower costs and value for the customer.

Adoption of TQM principles in the QA/QC processes and practices of an organization will require the support and leadership of senior management and lead to better products or services at a lower cost. The TQM focus is on utilizing data and information to devise plans, make decisions, improve processes, streamline execution, reduce waste, and save time. This leads to reduced expenses that can be passed along to customers in the form of lower costs.

Companies that successfully implement TQM are able to reduce variability, manage uncertainty, and ensure greater reliability. This provides the consistency and certainty that customers value. It also creates customer loyalty. A TQM system may be represented by the following graphic.

Total Quality Management Web - Furst - February 2019


Organizations can maintain and deliver the quality of product and/or services only if all levels of management, personnel, partner companies, and the rest of the supply chain are involved and focused on providing superior quality. Customers will deem the quality of the product or service superior only if it meets their expectation (go above and beyond normal procedures, delivery dates, lead times, and other standards to maintain quality) every time. More importantly, this performance needs to exceed that of competitors, leading to customer satisfaction, the perception of receiving value for the money expended, customer loyalty, and future work. Companies committed to quality and customer satisfaction have the dual responsibility of seeking partners and suppliers who are like-minded. These companies, quite simply, deliver on their promises.

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