Expert Commentary

Managing Expectations: An Important Aspect of Construction Quality

The best step in creating a culture that supports customer satisfaction is to have an expectation management strategy. This requires having a good understanding of who your customers are and what they expect and creating systems and processes to meet and/or exceed their needs.


Construction Quality
August 2019

This is best dealt with by understanding and managing their expectations. It is important to ensure that the expectations are realistic, measurable, and achievable.

Quality Specified

The construction project delivery process has three major teams of players: the owner, design, and construction teams. The owner team expects the project to meet the level of quality specified. The design team provides the project specifications that establish the standards for the quality of the project. The construction team is responsible for meeting the specified quality of the project.

In construction, the specifications generally spell out the quality standards for the project. The specifications usually reference some standard. In some cases, the specifications may define standards as "normal and customary" or "function for its intended use." Such terms are not specific or clearly measurable and, therefore, are open to interpretation.

Quality standards should be reviewed for definition, clarity, and specificity, as well as measurability. In other words, the project team must be able to definitely prove that it has met the quality requirements of the specifications. This means that terms like "normal and customary" should be clearly defined and agreed upon by the designer, builder, and owner teams. The outcome of this effort may require something in writing as well as possible samples, models, mockups, etc.

Construction Quality Requirements

All constructors (contractors or construction managers and subcontractors) in some shape or form try to control the quality of the work. But many of them may not have a robust and effective quality management process in place, and some may not even have a written quality management program. Traditionally, it is the project superintendent who is responsible for overseeing the different subcontractor's work to ensure that they meet the project requirements. Each subcontractor's foreman, in turn, is responsible for overseeing craft workers to ensure that they follow normal and customary industry practice to ensure that the work goes in place in line with the project specifications. There are a few elements of the work, such as soil compaction, concrete strength, welding, etc., that are tested by third parties to verify compliance with the required project standards. The quality of the rest of the work is checked by the architect or consultant personnel during their occasional site visits.

The quality of the whole project is reviewed by the architect when the work is virtually completed. Some of the consultants may assist the architect in this endeavor. This inspection of the work usually generates a punch list of items that needs to be corrected in order for the work to be certified that it, in fact, meets the quality established by the project documents. Also, there may be a review of the paperwork to make sure that everything has been submitted and defects corrected.  

Some project owners or their representatives may walk around the project during construction and voice their opinion based on their (visual) observation and perception of the quality of the work. Ultimately, the owner may make that determination after taking possession of the completed facility.

Construction Quality - Furst - August 2019

The Disconnect

Problems may arise due to the different perceptions of what constitutes acceptability in the level of quality of the completed project. This may lead to frustration, disagreement, and possibly conflict. The problem may stem from the contractor's understanding of what the level of quality ought to be, based on the defined level by the specifications. It may also result from an internal participant understanding or misunderstanding goals or objectives, such as the following.

  • Lack of clear goals and objectives
  • Confusion about appropriate means and methods
  • Misguided priorities
  • The unclear measure of goal attainment
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Poor communication
  • Trust issues

Put another way: it may hinge on how the contractor perceives their performance as opposed to how the owner perceives it. It is most likely that there is a discrepancy between these two perceptions, and the greater the difference, the more effort it will take to impact or change this.

Understanding the Customer

The project owner is influenced not only by the quality of the final product but also by its experience with the process by which it was achieved. The owner is expecting the contractor to deliver a certain level of quality at the completion of the final product. The owner expects the final product to function properly, meet its needs, perform problem-free for a long time, be easy to maintain, etc. The owner will more than likely be dissatisfied if these factors are not met. This highlights the need for the contactor to actively manage the owner's perception of the construction efforts and the quality of the completed project.

The owners' impressions matter: are they listened to, taken seriously, treated with respect, or offered explanations/options, as well as kept informed, shown follow-through, attention to detail, etc. It is important to understand that, even if the contractor is doing everything possible to achieve the level of specified quality, if the owner perceives it to be insufficient, then, in reality, the resulting quality is "going to be deemed deficient."

Effectively Managing Stakeholder Expectations

The owners' opinion is influenced by their experience associated with the construction process. This involves their interaction with the project personnel, the contractor's management, and their interaction with other stakeholders directly involved, such as the subcontractors, and to maybe a lesser degree with the designer or consultants. Even if the constructors are doing everything correctly and at their very best, if the owner is dissatisfied for any reason, then the work effectively will be deemed deficient.     

So, managing the owners' expectations is an important aspect of quality. Most people are reasonable and realistic if they are kept informed and unexpected situations are explained. This hinges on having a "good" understanding of the personalities of the owner team as well as effectively communicating with them.

Project Inception

It is not uncommon for stakeholders in the project to start out with unrealistic expectations in terms of key performance steps as well as resulting outcomes. Therefore, it is important to address this to have some common understanding so as to avoid disappointment or conflict during the life of the project and beyond. This will create a realistic alignment between the promises made by one party to the understanding of the other party as it relates to the execution of the work and the delivery of the final product.

Project Execution

It is also important to have preconstruction meetings with key stakeholders to discuss plans, processes, practices, procedures, and expectations to establish accepted means and methods. This will also establish a common basis for dealing with execution issues as well as address risks associated with project delivery. This process should also clarify the roles and responsibilities of the parties involved, schedule and task dependencies, plot resource tracking and management, and control the flow of information and its timeliness. By effectively dealing with such risk, the timely resolution of issues can occur.

Communicate Regularly

Manage expectations by communicating regularly with the owner. Have regular status meetings. Discuss potential issues, why they are happening, what is being done to remedy them, and what the possible outlook may be.

Some things need to be communicated in writing in order to have a record. This could be in a letter, memo, or text depending on which best serves the purpose. If something important is discussed, then it should be confirmed in writing. If a number of things are discussed, then a confirming memo would be appropriate. All meetings need to have an agenda, an indication of who is going to do what, by when. Regular communication is the key to the whole process of managing expectations.

Commitment Management

When trying to maintain good relations, it is sometimes easy to over-promise and expect that this will somehow eventually be achieved by the field. This leads to unrealistic expectations. If a promise is made, the degree of its certainty should be clearly conveyed and confirmed in writing. If needed, ask for some time to research the issues so as to provide a realistic promise.

Anticipate Problems

In every construction project, there are some likely areas where potential problems may arise. It is a good idea to have some possible solutions ready to go in case something goes awry. This approach enables field staff to respond to issues quickly, resolve it more effectively, and turn a potentially negative into a positive customer reaction. Make it a company practice to ask customers how the product, service, process, etc., could have been done differently to improve the outcome and exceed expectations. Also, make it a point to get back to customers who have had good suggestions on how this created a change at the company and share the results garnered after implementation. Everyone appreciates recognition.

Watch for Owner Changes

Monitor the owner's level of satisfaction with the project. If there is a perceived change in the owner's level of satisfaction, it is important to identify it and respond accordingly. If it is going up, that is great, but finding out the cause can provide useful information in order to sustain it. Exceeding the owners' expectations at one particular point can lead to dissatisfaction if it cannot be sustained for whatever reason.

When the change in owner satisfaction declines, it is even more important to identify the cause. In many cases, it may not be just one cause resulting in dissatisfaction. So, it is important to keep looking for other or underlying causes that may adversely affect owner satisfaction with the project's overall performance. Depending on the situation, this assessment may be done informally or formally.

Conclusion

Even the best-laid plans sometimes fail. Keep all players—the owner, design team, and the construction teams—aware of the issues involved. Most people are reasonable if they understand what the issues are and know what to expect. The goal of any expectation management effort is to have a seamless, quick, and friendly process. All project operational systems should be managed through the quality management system, which should be constantly reevaluated to find ways to improve the process.


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.

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