Post #2- Why Quality is Bigger Than What We Think it is?

instruments1Construction quality is a mystery and typically referred to as the level of workmanship. But if you look into it deeply,  you will see that it also includes the project’s scope, schedule and cost- the risk triplet and I will tell you in this post how it works.



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Looking back:

According to an article in Journal of Construction Engineering and Management published in 2009, “Construction projects often experience cost and schedule overruns and rework is a significant factor that directly contributes to these overruns. Research by the Construction Industry Institute reveals that direct costs caused by rework average 5% of total construction costs (CII 2005). Considering that the U.S. construction industry expended $1,502 billion in 2004 for total installed costs (Bureau of Economic Analysis 2006), almost $75b was wasted on direct costs caused by rework in that year alone. Therefore, rework must be considered a significant factor affecting cost performance in the construction industry.” (Bon-Gang Hwang; Stephen R. Thomas; Carl T. Haas; and Carlos H. Caldas)

In another study, Philip Barlow (Professor of Construction Management at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, CA) identified that besides the Contractor, the Owner responsible for programming and Designer responsible for documentation both contribute to construction rework.

Everyone wants quality, but because it is glued with the risk-triplet, hardly anyone wants to deal with it. Perhaps the story of anybody, somebody and nobody is a good analogy to the topic. In this story everyone assumed the work in hand would be done by others but at the end it didn’t get done.  Similarly, most of the time the Owner assumes that the Consultant is hired to ensure quality and the Consultants assign the Contractor to deliver it. When on board, the Contractor looks clueless and says, “what do you mean?”

What is quality?

One pioneer of quality Juran promoted that quality was fitness for use. The other pioneer Crosby touted quality was conformance to requirements. Both are very appropriate definitions. The Owner wants fitness for use and the Contractor delivers conformance to requirements. The Consultant is in the middle to translate the Owner’s use thing into requirements for the Contractor via drawings and specifications.

When the requirements are inadequately presented, you need to initiate the Change Order to make it adequate so that fitness for use is achieved. If we draw an equation of quality it may look like this:

Fitness for use (Owner needs) – Conformance to requirements (Contract) = Lack of quality = Rework and change orders

Let me tell you a fictitious story to explain it further. A customer ordered a special holiday party dress for $1000 to be delivered 3 days before the holiday. The customer provided all the ideas and sizes to the designer but didn’t mention the length. The designer sent the design to the tailor without specifying the length. To be safe, the tailor made the dress extra long and delivered to the customer. When the customer realized that it does not fit properly, the dress was sent back to the tailor for length adjustments. The tailor normally does this kind of adjustments for free, but this was a wrong time because the staff was leaving for the holiday. One of the staff agreed to fix it for $125 overtime charge and the dress was delivered to the customer on the holiday evening.

You can see the scope creep, schedule slip and cost overrun in action in the story above. $125 is the value of the Change Order or the cost for lack of quality as well as the difference between fitness for use and conformance to requirements. Change Order does not make anyone happy and it is rampant in construction projects.

What we learn is that, in theory, quality can be free if the requirements are matched to the intended use. That way the Contractor can conform to requirements at no extra cost and fitness for use will be automatic. The reality though is different!

Today’s reality in construction quality:

The first step in quality lies with the Owner.  The Owner is in a position to rally the Consultant and the Contractor around a vision to deliver quality. The seed of risk-triplet is planted when the vision is missing in the project’s program which contains the Owner’s wish list among other things. Most of the programs, if you are lucky to have one, never outlines expectations on quality of design and construction and a great opportunity is missed. I am curious to know what stops the program writers to say that the Owner needs a building that will last 10 years or 100 years using minimum possible operating budget and built with easily maintainable building systems and equipment; whole building commissioning will start before design; the design, drawings, and specifications will be peer reviewed to eliminate discrepancies to ensure fitness for use; the construction process will have rigorous quality control program, all at the Owner’s expense? All of these may cost 2-3% extra but that is much less than 10-15% cost of change orders for not doing so. But the Owners feel that there is no reason to spend that money, the Consultants and the Contractors are hired to do it anyways. But the Consultants and the Contractors feel differently. At this stage the cost is minimal to change and rewrite the program around a vision for quality.


The second step in quality lies with the Consultants when they come on board. Consultants work hard to come up with new ideas for high performance buildings. A lot of time this noble intention turns into self defeating practices. First, the building would be given a slick look using exorbitant amount of glazing making it extremely low performance in energy. Then, very expensive and very complex technologies which are often incompatible to each other will be introduced to compensate for the lost energy. This kind of the building is inherently very difficult to build with high quality. With all good intentions and purposes the Consultants get bogged down in time management. The lion share of the time budget gets taken away by the design team and drawings and specifications are produced in a hurry. You know what happens when you do thing in a hurry- lack of quality that leads to design changes, drawings errors, and inconsistent specifications. If there is no budget allowed for peer reviews, no one will ever catch the discrepancies until the bid is closed. Cost for making changes and producing high quality documents is still low before rubber hits the road when the contractor is on board.

The third and final step in quality lies with the Contractor. Burdened with a lack of vision for quality and poor quality of documents, the Contractor doesn’t know where to start on this mysterious matter. On top of that the project seems to be behind schedule and over budget before it even started. So there is a tendency to move fast and catch up without adequate discussions and good planning- the so called time wasters. Then the question of quality control program comes up which is either not mentioned or partially mentioned in the documents. So the Contractor may or may not have allowed adequate budget for quality control program.  Without a quality control program in place, you cannot expect high quality of construction. What the Contractor needed to do is to pause and be upfront with the Owner and the Consultant if the documents are not clear on who pays for the quality control program and come up with a common understanding before construction starts. Most of the time, in a hurry, the initial opportunity is lost for making things straight on quality and it becomes too late when they become big issues. At this stage any change means very high cost associated with it.

So, the three things- a lack of vision for quality from the Owner, poor quality documents from the Consultants and a lack of quality control program from the Contractor, come together to cause and grow scope creep, schedule sleep and cost overrun until they become unmanageable. This is how the cost for making changes in order to bring back the project to fitness for use goes through the roof.

Take away:

The relationship between quality and the risk-triplet is obvious and they are mutually exclusive. So when quality goes high, the risk goes low. But why in construction we always have low quality and high risk making the issue so mysterious? It’s because the industry has chosen not to make the connection between these two. That’s why everyone is afraid to talk about the mystery too early and you won’t see quality on the meeting agenda until it’s already too late.

The question is- how to make quality the top priority for the Owner, the Consultant and the Contractor? Short answer is- using your leadership tools. Next post will explain how that works. Until then- thank you for reading and by the way- please send your feedback- long or short.

2 thoughts on “Post #2- Why Quality is Bigger Than What We Think it is?”

  1. Very nice piece. With respect to Juran’s and Crosby’s (and others’) definition, I have found the following definition to be somewhat easier to communicate when discussing the goals of quality and a quality program:
    The goal of a quality program is to produce predictable, desirable outcomes and provide a means of documenting all pertinent success and failures.

    1. Charles,
      I like your definition of quality program! May I use it in the future?


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