This column is part of the "The Business Toolbox" series, which takes an in-depth look at business decisions that shape the construction industry.
Whether building an apartment complex, retail center, office park or parking garage, owners want the construction process to be completed as soon as possible so that they can start making returns on their investments. However, they also expect the contractors they hire not to skimp on quality in order to meet delivery or other deadlines. When construction companies don’t pay attention to quality, a project may end very badly.
For example, a mistake in the mix for concrete panels intended for the $5.8 billion Washington, D.C. Metro Silver Line project resulted in federal and state lawsuits against manufacturer Universal Concrete Products Corp. Court documents allege that the air content in the panels was less than 4% when it should have been between 4.5% and 7.5% to avoid freeze-thaw ruptures. According to a report from NBC 4 Washington, inspectors discovered that Universal had not properly calibrated new equipment, the likely source of the error. Federal and state officials allege that the company falsified records to cover up that mistake, and one of the co-defendants in the case is Universal’s former quality control manager.
Of course, not every quality issue ends up in court, but cases like Universal's underscore the responsibility that contractors have to make sure they deliver contracted products and services according to specifications.
“We want to make sure we’re delivering the intent of the documents and the project the owner has envisioned,” said Richard Holbrook, director of construction operations at Utah-based Layton Construction Co. This is why Layton uses a thorough written quality control program and requires its subcontractors to fully participate.
It’s the “written” part that makes the difference, Holbrook said. “Most companies out there have a belief that they have some kind of quality control program in place. A written program helps us deliver predictable outcomes … and sets expectations for stakeholders. Quality isn’t just the general contractor’s responsibility.”
The benefits of a written quality control program are hard to deny. Eric Olson, safety director of St. Louis-based Western Specialty Contractors, said subcontractors that are subject to such oversight tend to avoid costly mistakes and reduce their employees’ chances of injury by not having to spend extra time on the job.
“Performing the same work a second time for free,” he said, “increases employee exposure for little to no gain.”
In addition, Olson said a well-documented quality control program can assist with any potential future litigation as it can verify the work in question was performed correctly.
Appealing to owners
A robust system of quality control can also appeal to owners, Holbrook said. “If there’s no quality control program,” he said, "how do you sell to the owner that you’re going to give them a quality job?”
Holbrook said it’s sometimes difficult to get some employees and subcontractors on board with a rigorous quality control program because they feel like they’re being micromanaged. However, when they know they’re accountable without finger-pointing, and therefore have a part in the successful outcome of the project, they feel involved and engaged, he said. This alone can lead to a higher-quality product, driven by a desire to collaborate and achieve progress.
To that point, said Joseph Aiello, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Broadway Construction Group in New York City, said if subcontractors feel like someone is looking over their shoulders, that’s not such a bad thing. “If they think that no one is watching, they may cut corners,” he said. “If they feel you breathing on their neck, they may feel forced to up their game a little.”
Aiello added that if contractors let their subcontractors know from day one that they will be subject to such oversight, it will help them maintain quality throughout the project and, if necessary, improve it. A comprehensive quality control program is especially important for Broadway because, according to Aiello, the contractor hasn’t worked with a subcontractor that has a comprehensive quality control program of its own.
And if a sub protests? “I don’t need them to be happy with it,” Aiello said. “I just need them to adhere to it.” But so far, he noted, none of the company’s subcontractors have refused to comply, he added.
Aiello said Broadway's subcontractor relationships are just as important as the ones it has with owners and the contractor genuinely wants its subs to succeed. However, he added if a subcontractor's work does not meet the standard set for the project, it gets a notice reminding it of its performance obligation under the contract, which includes a provision that Broadway can hire another company to fix deficient work at the subcontractor's expense.
Getting buy-in from subs
Setting up a program is not that difficult, Holbrook said, but it requires buy-in from subcontractors before they sign contracts, “so it’s not a shock that we’re going to be tracking some of these things.”
Layton’s construction superintendents are the point people for the program because they have the experience to “recognize when things aren’t right,” he said. But those supervisors are supported by the rest of the project team, including the project manager and project engineer, and they are encouraged to continually walk the job, looking for examples of good work as well as problems.
The company requires subcontractors to use checklists of common work items related to their trades — developed from Layton's extensive library of historical data — and their input is invited as to what should be included on those lists. Subcontractors are also required to fill out a pre-task plan every day that helps coordinate the work so that there are no conflicts with the other trades. In addition, Layton also holds a weekly subcontractor coordination meeting and reviews the status of all projects on a weekly basis.
One of the most important features of Layton’s quality control program is its “first work in place” policy. Subcontractors perform a sampling of work when they first start on a Layton project, and that work is reviewed by the contractor, architect and owner before the subcontractor is allowed to continue. “We make sure they're meeting or exceeding standards,” Holbrook said.
The same results can be achieved through mock-ups, but those are costly alternatives. “If you can do it with work in place,” Holbrook said, "then you’ve set a standard and avoided the expense of a mock-up.”
With this quality-control method, there might be a little time lost to the process, but it eliminates costly and more time-consuming corrective work down the road, the Layton official said.
Broadway also uses checklists as part of its quality control program and suggests contractors circulate them for input from as many stakeholders as possible. With each pair of eyes, Aiello said, the list will become more comprehensive, helping subcontractors perform better along the way. But, he added, the lists should not be set in stone.
The drywall checklist is the most important, Aiello said, because once the walls are framed and covered with wallboard, it’s virtually impossible to detect a multitude of potential mistakes. Broadway has each subcontractor sign a statement verifying that their work is complete and correct before the drywall subcontractor closes up the walls.
For contractors that want to implement quality control programs but aren’t sure how go forward, Holbrook suggests having a trade association, organization or private company set one up.
Olson said that when implementing a quality control program, the most important piece of advice he shares is to make sure employees are fully trained on how to perform and document inspections and are made aware of the program's benefits.
“If employees aren’t aware of or don’t understand the value,” he said, “they may just see the program as more paperwork and will not truly verify the quality of the performed work.”