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Construction Quality

Top-Down Quality Management

Rose Hall | August 18, 2017

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Leadership forming an arrow

It's been mentioned that many parallels can and should be drawn between quality and safety in the construction industry. A top-down safety approach helped to change a culture that has since yielded vast and profound results. Continuing with this theme, let us consider that top-down quality management approach may be the ticket to a similar paradigm shift. 1

The Leadership Team

Appointed and supported by the CEO/president, the corporate quality director is the highest level of dedicated quality leadership and the lynchpin for a top-down quality management program. Consider how safety staff report up through a corporate safety director, who is outside the production chain of command—it establishes a separate and distinct dedicated line of responsibility and authority. Consider the reasons why you have a corporate safety director—they may also point you to reasons to have a corporate quality director.

Next in command would be the regional quality directors, who report to the corporate quality director. Understanding that construction companies vary widely in size and shape, you might wonder if a regional quality director is appropriate for your business. Consider both the overall size of your company and breadth of your operations. Remember that the goal is consistency and support for your field operations—even smaller companies can have mini-silos in their operations, which create the potential for inconsistencies. If you have a regional safety director, you probably should consider a regional quality director.

The Validation Loop

As depicted below, the validation loop would include the following components.

  • Communicate expectations
  • Establish policies and procedures
  • Implement in the field
  • Capture lessons learned
  • Measure results
  • Adjust for efficacy

This cycle both establishes process and encourages continuous improvement and relevancy in our ever-changing industry. Note that "Leadership Team" refers to the CEO/president, corporate quality director, and regional quality director (where applicable).

Leadership Team Diagram - Hoyle - August 2017

Communicate Expectations

Consider developing a quality mission statement that is different and distinct from your company mission statement to set the tone for expectations and promises specific to quality. Similar to your company's mission statement, your quality mission statement should be a living, breathing mantra, not simply a "set it and forget it" task. Strong leadership coupled with a strong quality mission statement are the cornerstones of a strategic top-down quality management program.

Levels of authority should be established and communicated in a visible manner, such that all parties (internal staff, subcontractors, owners, and design team) are clear on the hierarchy both for support and accountability. This can be an organizational flow-chart, a written statement, or other means, and should specifically define roles, their associated responsibilities, and authorities (e.g., "Regional quality manager John Smith has the duty to perform the following … and has the authority to stop work under the following circumstances….").

Establish Policies and Procedures

Policies and procedures can be seen as production killers; however, we know that a little upfront diligence can pay off in the end, and the learning curve will eventually be overcome by the efficiencies created in putting conforming work in place correctly the first time. Establishing policies and procedures provides a necessary roadmap that fosters consistency across the company. It also offers the opportunity to establish standards that exceed the contractual and regulatory requirements, providing your project team with the tools to deliver a truly best-in-class product.

A quality management manual is a great place to compile all things quality, starting with your mission statement, staffing structure, policies and procedures, and other guidelines that shape your program. The quality management manual can also outline overarching company policies, such as a water intrusion plan, project-specific quality control, inspection programs, document and records retention, standard performance guidelines, etc. Create a framework for the types of practices that need to be implemented while allowing some freedom to tailor the team's focus to project-specific risks.

A quality management system (QMS) is a repository for data collection, tracking, and other accountable measures. Depending on the project, this can range from a three-ring binder to a sophisticated software platform, but it should be a defined system and process. Whatever the system, it should allow you to identify and manage nonconformances/deficiencies and rolling punchlists, with a record of the date the item was inspected, the specific location, photographs of nonconformance, the responsible party, the due date for remedy, the date of remedy, and photographs of remedy.

Software platforms are especially useful for keeping all parties apprised of the conditions in real time, including your project team, the architect/engineer, and the subcontractors. Software also affords the team the logistical ease of reviewing issues in the field with the use of iPads. Lastly, software allows trending that may be useful in identifying subcontractors that tend to have continuous issues with quality, both on a single project and across your business.

With everything we've discussed thus far, you might be wondering how to get your team up and running on these items, which is where training comes into play. Training for all employees (and subcontractors) is essential to developing a cohesive team that is committed to quality. Training should include the concepts, technical requirements, and instructions for whatever QMS is being used. Setting aside time and a budget for training will ensure that everyone has the tools to manage the aspects of quality for which they are responsible.

Implement in the Field

Having a mission statement, quality directors, manuals, and systems will likely be ineffective if implementation is not driven and supported by your quality team. This means getting into the field to help your teams develop an effective quality plan; being a resource during operation planning/scope coordination meetings; and ensuring follow-through on the plan by performing quality audits, attending periodic quality meetings, walking the site, and making sure the field knows you are there to support them, not beat on them! Quality may start at the top, but it is executed at the field level. The effectiveness of a quality program is directly influenced by whether or not the field personnel feel that quality is a priority at the corporate level.

Consider having a project specialist or "champion" whose sole duty and responsibility is quality management, similar to safety management. For smaller companies and/or projects, this person may span over many projects to level out the cost, but the key is that he or she is dedicated to quality as a primary duty, not secondary duty (e.g., the superintendent who also manages quality). We've all heard the phrase "Everyone is responsible for safety," which is true; however, not everyone is dedicated to safety unless that is specifically his or her job. The same concept holds true for quality.

Now that we've covered dedication to quality on the project team, let's explore the subcontractor team. Are your subcontractors focused on quality? Do they have a project-specific quality plan for their scope of work? Do they have a quality champion? Are you asking these questions in their prequalification and/or at bid time to be sure that they are a "quality" subcontractor from the beginning (pun intended)? It's true that not all subcontractors are sophisticated enough to have a quality management plan that is up to your standards; however, it can't hurt to ask the question upfront and set the stage for upcoming expectations. This is how culture shifts are born. Additionally, if you start exploring this aspect of your subcontractor's business at the early stages of engagement, you can get early "buy-in," so you can approach quality cooperatively in the field as a team instead of the subcontractor feeling as though you tossed him or her a quality curveball after he or she has already put a number on the job. As with any scope item, have those clarifying conversations early and often.

Consider integrating quality conversations into your safety orientations, toolbox talks, weekly meetings, and task hazard analyses. Giving equal billing to quality as other construction processes will reinforce that quality is a priority on your project. Empower the craft workers. They take pride in their work and want to do their job well.

Diligent performance of the quality control activities and inspections are what hold the whole program together. The following are some standard controls that will enhance your ability to manage quality in the field.

  • Three-phase inspections (first work, in process, preclosure)
  • Third-party testing (even when not required by contract)
  • Leak testing
  • Checklists and forms by CSI code
  • Material verification
  • Material storage and preservation controls
  • Nonconformance tracking and correction
  • Progress photos (documenting what was done correctly!)
  • Daily reports, including quality component
  • Stormwater pollution prevention program
  • Functional mockups (not just aesthetic)

Lastly, motivation is key to achieving desired performance, and quality management is no exception. Consider developing an incentive/reward system that recognizes quality excellence both at the team level (by project internally or by subcontractor) and the individual (both internally and on your subcontractor's teams). Or perhaps it's a little friendly competition that fuels your team. One contractor had a "wall of shame" in their corporate office where pictures were posted of quality-related issues, which both raised awareness and competition. There is great value in sharing the experiences that taught us what not to do (lessons learned), especially if we can do it with good nature and perhaps a little humor.

Capture Lessons Learned

To err is human; to forgive, divine.

Source: Alexander Pope

The first step to capturing lessons learned and turning them into best practices is to remove the deeply rooted stigma of reluctance to admit our own error. It is up to each company to use your corporate culture to create an environment where everyone can openly share both their successes and their failures for the betterment of the whole. If your company is timid in this area, maybe you start with a behind-the-scenes collection system before you plaster a "wall of shame" in the breakroom. Capturing and culling the lessons learned across all projects allows the corporate quality director and his or her team to analyze where the trends are occurring and discover where to make adjustments to maximize effectiveness of your particular quality program.

Taking it one step further, you could create a library of issues that is searchable by various parameters so that the next time you're proposing on a renovation project with an asbestos issue, your project team can learn from your collective prior experiences with asbestos quickly and easily. Including lessons learned in your period staff meetings or other updates will keep the information flowing across various teams, regions, and projects, which serves to generate consistency consistently! Even if you do not have a formal library, make sure that you have a means for reviewing and sharing lessons learned as part of regular company meetings, estimating processes, project kickoff meetings, and other opportunities. Apply what you have learned about subcontractor performance to improve subcontract scopes, as well as to inform your subcontract award decision.

Measure Results

Setting goals and collecting metrics for quality (again, similar to safety) can help your company stay consistent, stay driven, and identify subjects for reward programs. Many companies have success by periodically auditing their projects and their process, as well as capturing and aggregating quality-related performance metrics. This can be focused around compliance with the QMS requirements as well as lagging indicators such as near-misses, rework, nonconformances, number of punchlist items, and warranty tracking.

Adjust for Efficacy

Change is the only constant.

Source: Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

To stay relevant, we must continue to learn from our experience and adapt. As you move through the verification loop, your quality management program will change and evolve with your business, enabling you to stay best-in-class every day, all the time. Be sure to reissue your policies and procedures with a new revision date, then distribute and promote the update across the company to ensure everyone's singing from the same sheet of music.

Top-down quality management involves many facets that may or may not be easily integrated into your current business practices, which may seem like a lot of cost, effort, and energy at the onset. If these are your thoughts now, consider your thoughts toward safety prior to the change in the safety culture. Understand that your competitors are leading the drive to make quality a priority in the construction industry. Ask yourself the tough questions. Where do you fit in this scheme? Is your company leading the charge? Or do you need to spend some "quality" time on your top-down quality management program?

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.



The author would like to acknowledge and thank coauthor Russell Klapperich, construction risk engineer, XL Catlin, for his contributions to this commentary.

Top-down quality management begins, of course, with leadership from the CEO/president and is supported by a mission statement and a structured leadership team dedicated to realizing that mission. Additionally, a solid quality management program should be developed, implemented, and tested, possibly through a validation loop that provides opportunity for continuous improvement and the ability to stay relevant over time.