CONSTRUCTION QUALITY

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A Project Management Perspective

A.N. PRAKASH   

The main characteristic of a project is that it has a definitive beginning and a pre-determined end. The key goal of the Project Manager is to complete the project on time, within budget, and as per specifications.

Quality implies execution of a project sticking to all the specifications or excelling them. Quality isn’t automatic—or optional—in a project. It does not happen on its own. The most important ingredient in ensuring quality of a product is personal commitment without which, whatever be the preparation, procedures, checklists, pour cards, documentation or tests, it will not be achieved.

This commitment and belief cannot be taught. It has to get into the work system so that everybody looks at everything from the quality perspective. We can use available tools and techniques to get a quality product. Thus, quality would begin with the specifications and quality management would consist of planning, controlling and ensuring quality of the project.

Every project is meant for an end user, who wishes to satisfy a certain need. To satisfy this need, the user specifies his or her requirements. In addition to the need, the requirements would include wants. Different users may have the same need, but different wants. Hence, their requirements will be different.

Based on these requirements, the specifications are written. Specification is the detailed description of the product (or service) required. The product, at the end of the project, will be as defined in the specification. The specification will also decide how much the product will cost and how much time will be required to complete the product.

For that matter, the cost and time also can be seen as requirements of the user. Hence from a holistic point of view, quality is all about satisfying the requirements of the user—about delivering the product on time and within budget.

Of these three requirements, time and cost are derived from the specifications. Flexibility available in time and cost requirements is much more. As there are exclusive tools and techniques for time and cost management, focus on quality management is on managing the specifications. A clear

understanding of quality would definitely change the way we look at a project.

Quality Management:

Quality management is the activity of developing the best possible products and services required to meet the customers’ expectations using the best possible processes and procedures.

    To meet customer requirements, the processes by which the end result is achieved are also equally important. On a project, quality management exists from the start to the end of the project. It is an ongoing process.

    While managing quality, we must 

–  establish quality metrics and plans

–  monitor and track those metrics and plans, and

–  fix problems as they are found.

    This will entail three main processes.

  1. Quality planning
  2. Quality assurance and
  3. Quality control

    These are not distinct processes that start and end at different stages of the project. All three processes are present at every stage, every point of the project. At any point, a plan is needed for the next action to ensure that an activity is as per specification. Continuous assurance about the project being executed as per requirement is necessary and, in the event of an error, control measures are needed to ensure that the error is rectified and not repeated. 

Quality planning plays a major role in the initial stages of a project. During execution, Quality Assurance and Quality Control dominate. Managing quality in a project means ensuring that these processes are in place and working.

Quality Planning:

Quality Planning involves identifying which quality standards are relevant to the project and determining how to satisfy them.

    Quality planning is done at the very beginning of the project, that is, when the customers’ requirements get translated into specifications. The standards are set for the product and the procedures.

Designing the product is the most important activity. These product specifications will determine the end product. This is the time when quality is defined.

Writing the specifications for the product should necessarily be completed in the design phase. Subsequent changes will involve variation in cost and time.

The processes or procedures by which the product will be produced are to be defined. For a few specific items, detailed technical procedures are made available. For the other items, good engineering practices have to be specified. 

Inputs:

In the process of Quality Planning, knowledge of the following is required:

Quality Policy which gives the overall intentions and direction of an organisation about quality.  

Scope Statement which defines what is part of the project and what is not, and 

Standards and Regulations which need to be built into the specifications so that the final product confirms to them.

Tools and Techniques:

1. Cost–benefit analysis: For various alternatives that satisfy a need, the cost and benefits are compared 

2. Value Engineering: Once the benefits are accepted as part of the product, alternatives to achieve those benefits, which will cost less are developed. 

3. Bench marking: involves comparing project practices to those of other projects. 

4. Flow Charting: shows how various elements of a system relate to each other. It determines how the product will be built.

Outputs:

  1. Product and process Quality Metrics

    Quality Metrics describe in very specific terms what something is and how it is measured. The key word is here measure. The Quality Metrics MUST be measurable in quantifiable and non-subjective terms. 

  • From Quality Planning we get ‘plans of action’ for the next two processes of Quality Assurance and Quality Control.

Quality Assurance:

Quality Assurance provides confidence that the project is satisfies the quality standards.

Quality Assurance in the design phase assures the customer that the product is designed as per his/her requirements. The architect and/or coordination consultant is responsible for taking necessary actions. Review meetings, status lists and minutes of discussions, decisions, and outcomes on all issues are required.

A Quality Assurance Department is recommended. In the case of larger projects, staffing requirements are significant. In smaller projects, it could be a single person. It is very tempting to give the quantity surveying and quality assurance responsibilities to one person but, during peak of billing preparation and checking, quality assurance will suffer.

Once the quality assurance process slips, it is very difficult to bring it back on track. Qualified and dedicated personnel are a must for quality assurance. This should be a key criterion in selecting contractors. 

Tools and Techniques:

Quality Audit: A powerful tool for quality assurance is Quality Audit. It is a verification of the product to ensure that the work is executed as per specifications. It can be conducted at different levels, the lowest being daily check of the day’s work by the engineer concerned. At higher levels, it will be more structured and formal. 

Customer-supervised audits: are serious but less frequent. If this frequency increases, the contractor starts to depend on them for quality assurance. If the contractor lacks in quality assurance effort, the customer-supervised audits start becoming unpleasant. It is important for the contractor to have serious audits because when you detect your own mistakes, motivation for improvement is stronger.

OUTPUTS:

Quality assurance Documentation: These are audit reports prepared by site personnel which can provide assurance to customers anywhere in the world that the project is on course.

Quality Audit Reports: These reports will help in deciding whether the work done is acceptable or needs reworking, and that takes us to the Quality Control processes.

Quality Control:

In Quality Management, in addition to initiating corrective action for errors, the effort is to find errors faster, more efficiently and more effectively and ultimately prevent errors from occurring.

Personnel responsible for quality control could be the same as those handling the quality assurance function. Skills required for quality control are more than those for needed for quality assurance activities.

Tools and Techniques:

  1. Control charts: They graphically display results of a process over time, show the trend with information of when and how frequently errors happen. So, it is easier to find why they happen.
  • Diagrams: Based on Pareto’s law which says that “a relatively small number of causes will typically produce a large majority of defects”, graphs are generated by type or category of identified cause for error. The project team should take action to fix the problems that are causing the greatest number of defects first.
  • Flow charts: Flow charting discussed earlier will give more details of processes to identify why errors occur.
  • Trend analysis: Trend analysis will involve mathematical techniques to forecast future outcomes based on historical events.

Outputs:

Quality control ledds to quality assurance, which instils confidence in the client that the product is being built as per specification. Even if errors occur, they are corrected. Process adjustments to eliminate causes of error would bring in quality improvement.

Quality Improvement:

Quality improvement increases the effectiveness and efficiencies of the project and provides benefits to the customer. As a result, the customer gets to improve on his requirements at the same cost or may satisfy the same requirements at a lesser cost. Changes may be in product specifications or process specifications.

In an item-rate contract, as work done is measured and paid, a changed specification is incorporated as a non-tendered item. The item with original specification is not operated. Complexities remain a minimum. For a lump-sum contract, it is not easy to substitute part work. The part has to be quantified and evaluated, the revised specification evaluated, and the variation calculated.

Evaluation of work when pre-agreed rates are not available leaves considerable scope for disagreements. Hence, for operating ‘quality improvement’ on the project much more ease is available in an item-rate contract when compared to the lump-sum contract.

At times, quality improvement may not be possible or feasible for the project, but lessons learnt offer help on future projects. Documentation is critical. Only with proper documentation, records will be available for other projects.

The Project Office phenomenon is now a norm. Project office is a separate division in the firm, which assists project teams. One important function of the project office is maintaining the database.

Conclusion:

Support from top management: It is impossible to imagine that top management would not support quality. The unwritten support is there. What is required is action, like having dedicated staff and strong policies. Or else, quality management, which definitely pays off in the long run, will take a back seat in the race to achieve short term goals.

Systematic approach: Every project is unique. Each project has its own facets and characteristics. Quality management, as outlined above, is a basic structure and should be applied to each project.

Start taking small steps: Within the domain over which every person has considerable influence, irrespective of what happens elsewhere, changes can be initiated. The same approach of planning, assuring and controlling can be applied in a limited way. In addition to improving the work, higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness can be achieved. Others will want to learn and adopt this style. Quality is contagious.

In matters of quality, we need abundant stock of patience. Things will not happen overnight. More than changing products and processes, the task at hand is to change people and their attitudes. That is what calls for real skill. One thing is certain, efforts do show results. 

Let us start taking small steps towards the ultimate goal of ‘TOTAL QUALITY’.