Quality Assurance

A good idea gone wrong?

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Despite government requirements for ‘quality assurance’ throughout the construction industry, it’s being increasingly loudly claimed that building standards are declining. An engineer, academic and former project manager explores a situation which has architects frustrated and furious.

Quality is a flexible concept, as indicated
by this 18th century elevation sketch and
new photograph of the recently restored ‘Colonne Detruité’ (Broken Column) in Le Désert de Retz; a pre-Revolution folly garden near central Paris. It
was assembled by Monsieur François Nicolas Henri Racine
de Mondville during the reigns of Louis XV and XVI.

Quality continues to be a very much undervalued and misunderstood concept in the construction industry. While an increasing number of lead organisations are becoming committed to the concept and are genuinely striving to improve their performance, the majority has the opposite view. Many service providers are cynical about the value of rooms full of ‘quality’ records; although some pay lip service, employing consultants to provide them with a quality system so they can enter into a contract where a system is required, while wondering if it’s worth all the trouble. Many still see quality as merely a marketing tool.

Many clients are also questioning the value of specifying a quality system as a prerequisite for their service providers, having found that an accredited quality system doesn’t provide assurance of higher than normal industry quality.

The question we need to address at this time is: how can we as an industry have made such little progress in five years? Put another way, how can construction be so far behind manufacturing in the implementation of quality systems?

Clients generally have avoided some of the difficult decisions, buying design and construction services on a least-price basis. Expectations of quality have often been poorly defined and in design briefing, there has also been poor definition of service scope. Until recently, public sector clients have had difficulty in finding ways to reward quality because of probity issues.

Construction has been extremely price-competitive, with low profit margins, undercapitalised organisations and an extremely low investment in innovation by international standards.

Since consultant fees were deregulated more than 15 years ago, design consultants have been operating in a superficial, price-based market. They have been relatively ineffectual in articulating the benefits of specific services to clients and consequently the primary basis of competition is price. This has eroded consultant incomes to a level where they cannot properly invest in innovation, knowledge aquisition and technology within their fields.

It is well understood that the construction procurement process is harder to manage than manufacturing; projects are different, project management teams are reconfigured from project to project and the delivery system is extremely fragmented. This fragmentation has itself been a major challenge to the management of quality.

Against this backdrop, what have been the main obstacles to the successful implementation of quality?

  • From the outset, the quality management debate in the construction sector was hijacked by ‘quality professionals’ from other industries who believed that quality management practices could be directly transplanted from manufacturing, defence or the power industry.
  • Specialist consultants, with little or no understanding of construction sold quality system development services to naive contractors and design consultants. They understood the quality jargon but had little appreciation of the design or construction process. Both these specialist consultants and the quality system accrediting organisations have tried to foist a quality-driven process onto the industry rather than adapting quality to fit the industry’s needs and traditional practices.
  • Once governments started to specify quality system accreditation, many saw the need to have a quality system as a marketing essential though relatively few saw the potential benefits of quality implementation on their own organisation’s performance.

Progress to Date
During the five years before the last federal election, governments around Australia sought to promote improvements in the performance of the building and construction sector. The last federal government initiated the Construction Industry Development Association (CIDA), an industry reform program which was the focus, from mid-1992 to mid-1995, of a nationwide, consensus-driven effort to introduce broad-based cultural reform throughout the industry. Among other things, CIDA addressed improvement in quality, productivity, skill development and OH&S management. It also acted as the link with other government-initiated industry reform packages such as ‘best practice’.

In New South Wales during the same period, the state government introduced its Capital Procurement Manual and tried to persuade service providers to seek third-party quality accreditation. Governments in other states followed strategies with similar objectives though implementation and detail have varied.

Fundamentally, neither governments nor private clients have come to fully understand the potential of purchasing policy to drive reform through incentive. The approach throughout the country has had one consistent feature: it has been preoccupied with process and cultural reform while there have been few, if any, successful cases where output has been objectively assessed (benchmarking). By and large, the private sector continues to seek best price from short-term agreements in what is essentially a confrontational contractual environment.

Many remain sceptical about the improvements gained as a result of these endeavours and the issue facing policy-makers at all levels is how to reap the potential rewards of process improvement both at the corporate and community level.

I believe that industry and enterprise performances need to be outcomes-driven by client expectations, whether through government initiatives or the requirements of individual clients.

We should also focus briefly on the experience of lead companies. There is a growing number of organisations in the sector who are building experience in quality management and cultural reform. Several are up to their third-generation systems. Their focus is customer satisfaction and they no longer question the benefits of quality management. They believe that it is imperative to survival and growth.

The Roles of Government
For significant and lasting change to be achieved, the industry needs—more than anything else—intelligent, well-informed and demanding clients and government. Clients capable of defining their wants, with the skill to assess the goods and services they purchase and the will and wisdom to encourage and reward service excellence and product improvement.

At the policy level, government has the role of driving change in the sector as a whole. This industry’s efficiency is essential to the efficiency of commerce in the state and the country. As the major client for the industry’s services, government is obliged to the community to maximise the efficiency of its purchases in the long term. These two propositions provide a clear sight for government objectives:

  • Policy arm and government client organisations must work together. While this is the clear objective in NSW, it does not appear to be so nationally and the effective realisation of this goal is not simple.
  • The government must raise its focus from minimising initial construction costs to the minimisation of the whole of life costs of infrastructure and buildings purchased.
  • Given that supplier certification has not provided the anticipated outcome of improved quality, another strategy must be embraced. I believe that the focus must shift to defining desired outcomes, defining the ways in which these will be assessed and to the reward of suppliers of excellent services.

The integration of government policy and purchasing power has been attempted with apparent success by the Department of Housing and the Construction Industry Development Bureau in Singapore.

Who Is Responsible for Quality?
While the obvious answer is everyone, this issue must start with the client. Clients continue to specify quality systems without realising that they have the key role. They must learn to value not only the idea of quality but also to articulate their quality expectations in a way that will guide their service providers to perform to their expectations. This is not a responsibility that can be handed to their consultants.

Designers have two customers: their task is to interpret and translate client goals into a design that meets the client’s needs. Their other customers are the contractor and subcontractors who build from their documentation. Based on recent research into the perceptions of construction project managers, undertaken at the University of New South Wales’ Building Research Centre, for design professionals the major challenges lie in design coordination, timely delivery of design documentation to the contractor and ensuring the buildability of the project. These issues are particularly important on large and complex projects and where design is delivered by the traditional fragmented design team approach. If clients are to focus on customer satisfaction they need to assess both client and contractor perceptions of their work.

The contractor’s quality responsibility is to build to the design documentation provided. This involves assuring themselves of the quality of subcontractor works and controlling the quality of the work of their own labour.

The fundamental change of the last decade has been the recognition that service providers at the corporate and individual levels must unambiguously be responsible for delivering quality services. This is a change from the previous regime of supervision by the client and within the supplier organisation. The conceptual issue remains as to how far down the workface this philosophy can be applied. While the right to audit supplier quality system records and work is enshrined and the self-certification of tradesmen is now widely accepted, I suspect that supervision is essential at the labourer level. This is not to say that skill development at all levels isn’t one of the main challenges facing the industry.

The fundamental issue that this then raises is the need to develop objective performance measures at all levels of operation. This will provide the basis for both objective compliance and ongoing improvement through benchmarking. At this stage, objective measurement is still largely illusory at all but the simplest of levels. The development of objective performance criteria requires a very significant investment by the industry. Who is prepared to make this essential investment?

The Importance of Relationships
Two of the main factors which have obstructed the achievement of quality targets in the sector are the adversarial relationships that exist between the players and the fragmentation of the project delivery process. These two issues are related by a common thread. Quality and other production problems are most easily solved through collaborative teamwork. When adversarial pressures get out of hand during project delivery, teamwork is lost. Effort shifts to case-building and a defensive mind set. In a fragmented delivery system, teamwork is much harder to achieve and project and design managers have to work much harder to achieve the cohesion that maximises the chance of a successful project outcome.

Management Commitment and Organisation
Two issues have dogged the successful implementation of quality management in this industry. The first has been the separation of the quality management function from the line management function at the project level because of the ‘special knowledge’ of quality managers. The other has been the perception of quality as a marketing activity rather than a core production function to be championed by the managing director (MD) and delivered by the production line managers.

The separation of responsibility for quality management from line management creates internal conflict between staff and between objectives. The quality manager is seen as someone who impedes production and thus becomes an internal project ‘enemy’. The balance of judgement between time, cost and quality can only be effectively made by the line production manager.

With regard to leadership, it is critical that the quality champion be the MD of the organisation. Without this level of commitment, quality management is unlikely to achieve its full potential as the key to ongoing organisational improvement focused on client needs.

In this paper I have set out to argue for an output-driven approach by clients and governments to encourage process improvement among service providers.

While responsibility for quality rests with each participant in the process, the client has a responsibility for setting the quality objectives of a project in clear and unambiguous terms that will guide their service providers to deliver to their needs.

I have clearly set the responsibility for quality implementation with the MD of each organisation, with customer focus as an essential ingredient.

Finally I argue that without objective performance criteria and measurement, quality goals will remain vague and elusive.



Published online: 1 Sep 1996
Words: Marton Marosszeky


Architecture Australia, September 1996

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