Whitepaper: 07.09.2009

5 Things You Should Ask Your Contractor About Quality

— Chad Dorgan, Vice President, Quality & Sustainability

by Chad Dorgan, P.E., Ph.D., LEED AP
McCarthy Vice President, Quality

There are few words in construction that are more used—or more misused—than the word “quality.” To understand what it means to YOUR construction project, you and your contractor need to talk. Here are five questions you should ask your contractor:

What does your company mean by “quality”?

Ask three people this question, and you’ll get three different answers.

Management guru Peter Drucker describes quality as “not what the supplier puts in,” but “what the customer gets out." Six Sigma’s developers define it as the “number of defects per million opportunities.” It’s the thing that makes “costs go down and productivity go up,” said the late W. Edwards Deming.

Yes, quality is hard to put your finger on. But, through discussion, you can discern whether it’s something embedded in your contractor’s process and culture, or something tacked on as an afterthought. It pays to find out.

What’s the source of your company’s most significant quality issues, and what are you doing about it?

Every construction project has “quality” issues. In highway construction, for example, it’s typically the consistency and flatness of the finished roadway that counts. On an enclosed building, “quality” issues are often related to water leaks and system failures.

A contractor should be able to succinctly tell you the issues that have created the most quality headaches for them in the past. Contractors should also be able to spell out the proactive steps they are taking to eliminate, or at least minimize, those issues on your project.

For example, on a project where water leaks are potential issue, your contractor’s quality program might call for the creation of a functional mockup of the building enclosure that is tested for water- and air-tightness. For a hospital, the contractor might construct a single full-scale, functioning room where users can assess everything from electrical outlet placement, to trim and finishes. That way, all parties are involved in defining “quality” and will know what they can and should expect from the finished product.

How are your safety and quality programs linked?

Experience shows that project safety and quality go hand in hand. The safer the work site, in other words, the better the quality of the finished product.

There are several reasons for this. A contractor that focuses on safety tends also to focus on cleanliness, which translates into greater pride of workmanship and higher quality. Similarly, a contractor with a strong quality program significantly reduces the amount of rework needed on a project—the less rework, the fewer opportunities there are for accidents and injuries.

Effective safety programs also employ many of the same planning, training and verification tools that form the foundation of a quality process. Both safety and quality programs require the project team to define the expected result and make the plans necessary to accomplish it. Both also track results, so the contractor can identify when—and why—the process fails so they can improve it.

How will your company’s quality program work with ours?

There is no shortage of quality programs to choose from. There’s Six Sigma, Total Quality Management and lean techniques, to name just a few.

It is not necessary that you and your contractor employ the same approaches. After all, you are both in different businesses and serve different markets. As several Fortune 100 companies have learned: there are few quicker paths to failure than to simply adopt someone else’s quality mantra.

 What’s more important is that you and your contractor both understand the principles behind each other’s quality programs, and find the commonalities that link them. A contractor, for example, may not call its approach “lean,” but it may still integrate techniques that minimize waste in the construction process. You might be surprised how many ways you and your contractor’s quality programs intersect.

What value does your quality program offer me?

You know the old saying: quality doesn’t cost, it saves. But who reaps those savings—you or your contractor?

Ideally, the answer should be BOTH of you. A contractor that creates building mockups, for example, may benefit from a reduction in rework. You also benefit from the mock-up by receiving a building that requires fewer change orders, that functions better and that experiences fewer problems over its life.

How do you put a price on project successes like these? The truth is, contractors with long-standing quality programs often have a systematic approach for documenting the value of their quality programs. By tracking their work processes, for example, they identify and eliminate systemic issues, they document how much money this saves you, over time, as a result.

A good contractor, in fact, can teach you a lot about how you can improve the quality of your project at no additional cost. All you have to do is ask. 

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