Expert Commentary

Quality Assurance Management: Ensuring Robust Outcomes

An important prerequisite to achieving a sustained competitive advantage in construction is a robust quality culture that fosters the continuous delivery of value (quality) to the customer through the project delivery process. This garners customer appreciation, satisfaction, and loyalty, which translates into revenue, opportunity, and growth.


Construction Quality
June 2018

Unfortunately, many construction organizations do not have a robust quality assurance and control process with which to ensure sustained stellar outcomes. Some companies have a quality process, but it is marginally effective. Many smaller companies depend on the project specifications to define quality and the oversight of their field personnel to achieve the necessary quality outcome. These efforts have marginal positive results that, to their detriment, lead to significant variation in the quality outcomes from their project delivery process.

The importance of quality may be perceived differently by the three main parties involved in the project delivery process: the owner team, the design team, and the constructor team. Each may have a different perspective on how to define quality and its relative importance. Quality can also be looked at from different usage or function, such as the quality of production, the quality of the product, and the quality of the process to name a few.

The quality of production focuses on the means and methods employed by the contractor to perform the work in a way that it enables the accomplishment of the project objectives. The quality of the product relies on achieving the contact promises, and the best way to do that is to do the work efficiently and correctly the first time. The aim of the quality management process is to define value, measure value, and deliver value.

For the owner to receive a quality product, the contractor has to deliver it. This highlights another aspect of quality that relates to its definition. What constitutes quality, how is it defined, is it clear and readily understood, or is it measurable? The project documents (generally the specifications) defines quality and establishes the expected level for it. The contractor must clearly understand that as well as manage expectations associated with quality. To achieve this, the contractor must have a written and robust quality management process. (See "A Discourse on Construction Quality.")

Quality Issues and Concerns

The quality aspect of the project is identified and elaborated in the specifications. To manage the various perspectives and functions of quality, another element needs to be addressed, and that is the quality management function. The challenge here is how exactly the quality of the project is defined and determined? There really are few objective measures that indicate if the specified level of quality is achieved. Some of these are verified through testing by a third-party agency employed by the owner to conduct tests during construction to verify that the work is, in fact, in compliance with the project specification. Such things as soil compaction, concrete slump test, concrete strength break tests, welding of the structural steel frame members, the curtain wall assembly being tested for leakage, possibly the levelness and flatness of the concrete slabs may be tested, etc. The rest of the quality evaluation is determined by visual assessments or anecdotal information.

This is why the contractor must review the specifications to determine if the specified quality requirements are clearly understandable or vague. For those that are not clear, the contractor must establish with the designer as well as the owner some acceptable means that will be used to evaluate the work. These become the quality control standard to which the resulting quality of any part of the project is evaluated.

The contractor achieves the defined quality by effectively managing the work process. To do this consistently and effectively, the contractor must have a comprehensive written quality assurance program. Many contractors don't, and the level of quality becomes the responsibility of the various project staff. This results in a wide range of outcomes resulting from the expertise, commitment, diligence, and effectiveness of the staff.

Ensuring the achievement of the quality requirements of the project should be a key concern of the person in charge of the project, and it is his or her responsibility to ensure that the project staff diligently follow up with their crew and/or subcontractor's field management to ensure that the project quality expectations are achieved. Any work that is below par will have to be corrected, it could end up on the punch list, or problems may surface during the warranty period. This is detrimental to the smooth project turnover and impedes rapid project closeout, as well as possibly impacting relationships.

More importantly, defective work may lead to callbacks during the warranty period or even beyond. This has negative results for the contractor in terms of work that generates no income and involves staff in nonrevenue-generating work. It may cause difficulties for the owner in terms of disruption to operations or losses in revenue leading to potential bad feeling or claims, impacting the contractor's reputation as well as future business opportunities. 

Much of the quality requirements are established during design over which the contractor generally has little or no input. Before starting work, an astute contractor will comb through the specifications and make sure that the quality standards are clearly defined and objective in nature. Project quality standards should be measurable in some fashion so that their achievement is easily verifiable. In many cases, changes are made during the construction process due to owner requests or required to amend the design. This should be evaluated by the contractor to divine if there may be an impact on the quality of the finished project. This should be brought to the attention of the designer as well as the owner.

The architect, consulting engineers, or a third party usually establishes the quality standards for the project based on their interpretation of the project owner's needs and wants. These are generally found in the project specifications, which usually reference standards such as the American Society for Testing and Materials, American National Standards Institute, American Institute of Steel Construction, American Concrete Institute, or other organizations that spell out quality and workmanship standards. The ISO 9000 series is a quality standard promulgated by the International Organization for Standardization. Construction specifications normally consist of a series of instructions or prohibitions for specific operations.

In construction, one of the primary reasons for failing to track the level of quality is due to the fact that in many instances it is subjective to some degree. What one person deems as acceptable, another may consider as deficient. Another difficulty in measuring quality is the approach that is based on perceived indicators of quality, such as the extent (size) of the punch list, number of instances faulty work is identified for a particular crew or subcontractor during a set period of time, or the number of callbacks for a particular subcontractor or project. Though this may be an indicator of deficiencies in the quality of the work, it is far from an accurate indicator of what constitutes an acceptable level of quality, nor does it establish a standard that can be used to compare project to project, crew to crew, or contractor to contractor.

The quality of the constructed facility may be measured in different ways. One way is to assess it in the construction delivery process. Some of those attributes could be conformance to specifications, aesthetics of installation, serviceability of the final product, etc. These could be useful if the contactor's workmanship was the focus. But in reality, it is the owner or users of the facility who ultimately determine and/or define the quality of the work product, usually based on life-cycle performance and/or cost. The attributes important to them may include such elements as the effects of superior design, materials used, installation workmanship, the durability of the material, etc. This measurement of quality is more holistic and emphasizes the resulting effects of quality on the operation and maintenance costs of the facility as opposed to being focused on the construction operations.

To achieve what the user deems as "good" quality, the designer must select the right products and set the right quality standards. The contractor must ensure that proper workmanship is employed to achieve what the user expects. Assuming that the designer(s) do their part, the contractor needs to actively manage the project owner's expectations. The contractor must also ensure that their quality assurance process is effective, robustly implemented, and managed. This includes preconstruction activities as well as construction activities. If these preventive measures are diligently implemented and controlled, then the resulting work should easily achieve the quality level specified and expected. 

Preconstruction Quality Assurance Activities

To achieve the required quality of the project, the contractor has to actively plan for it. This involves a number of steps before the project starts. As a first step, the contractor must review the specifications to determine if the referenced quality standards are clearly understandable, measurable, and achievable. If there are any ambiguities or questions, the contractor must discuss this with both the designer as well as the owner to arrive at an understanding of what is expected. To avoid any possibilities for confusion or disagreement later on, the parties must agree on physical samples or mock-ups to serve as references to which comparison can and should be made. This preconstruction effort will pay dividends later on as it will possibly eliminate many disagreements and, more importantly, manage expectations that could lead to better relationships and outcomes.

Before the start of the project, the person in charge of the field operation must review the quality requirements for the project. If it is determined that the project does, in fact, have unique quality issues or requirements, then a project-specific quality assurance program modeled after the company program should be written to ensure the project needs are going to be addressed. This should then be reviewed with the project director or other senior management and approved for implementation on the project. 

Other steps that the contractor must take is to ensure everyone assigned to the project as staff is familiar with the quality assurance program, or the site-specific program if there is one. The contractor also must ensure that everyone on the staff is clear as to their responsibility where quality is concerned. Anyone new to the company should be provided with training on the quality assurance program and what activities they are responsible for. All subcontractor field staff should also receive an introductory training session on the project quality assurance program and all relevant reporting required to ensure compliance with the program. 

Quality Assurance during Construction

The measurement of quality assurance activities indicates the level of compliance with the program. The persons engaged in this determination should compare the quality of the work (quality assurance) to the standards set by the specifications (quality control). This is going to be effective if the contractor has reviewed the specifications and worked with the designer and owner to clarify any ambiguous standards in the specifications. The steps required in the quality assurance program to ensure that the project quality will be assured include regular inspection of the work as it is put in place. This should be the responsibility of the project superintendent but may be delegated to assistants and/or foremen. But, ultimately, the superintendent is held accountable to management for the resulting outcome.

To ensure that this function is routinely carried out, there needs to be some form of written reporting. The timing and/or frequency of these reports should be reflective of the project size, complexity, and judgment of the company's senior management. These reports or a summary of them must be submitted to the project director on a regular basis. This is so that the main office has oversight of the quality assurance activities. Senior management must also have some form of oversight of this process, which may be handled by a report by the project director to senior management on a monthly basis or other accepted practice.

If the construction firm is large enough to have a company quality manager, then this department should be involved in all of the preconstruction quality assurance activities as well as overseeing the activities during construction. The quality manager should receive and review all field reporting activities as well as conduct field inspections to verify that the quality assurance process is proceeding as planned.

Conclusion

As competition in the construction industry increases and design and construction requirements grow increasingly complex, implementing a robust quality assurance program that ensures delivering quality is important in dealing with the challenges faced by contractors. By using a measured approach to assess the quality of both the design and construction, the building industry and contractors, in particular, will ultimately garner a business advantage by providing a more efficient project delivery process capable of providing superior quality in their completed project.


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