Whitepaper: Quality Assurance

Quality Assurance is an essential yardstick, a measure against which to keep standards high and make judgments about whether certain targets are being met. It is a standard that most industries will self-set in order to ensure that the sector as a whole is achieving its benchmarks. Quality assurance also serves to help entire sectors progress, bringing all members up to a certain level and exploring ideas for innovation and change.

In this whitepaper we will look at quality assurance in some detail – what it is, how to ensure it is there at the design stage, quality assurance in the construction sector, specifically, and the barriers that the industry presents to this kind of monitoring. It is essential reading for professionals from construction, and beyond.

Quality Assurance – the basics

A definition: Quality assurance is a way of creating confidence that a product or service will fulfill certain requirements for quality. It ensures that, at every stage of a project, certain quality markers can be met by focusing on specified, predetermined steps and checks. This not only keeps standards high but also helps to reduce the risk of issues arising later on as a result of poor quality earlier in the design and build.

Applying quality assurance to construction means factoring in specific planning and steps that will bring a project up to the required quality markers at every stage. The aim is not to add to the planning or administrative burden of the project but to help make the process more efficient and deliver the required results.

Quality assurance affects every aspect of construction, as there is no stage at which mistakes or inefficiencies are not likely to prove costly later on. So, plans, designs and specifications must meet quality assurance standards, as well as contracts, developments and maintenance.

It is an ongoing process of evaluation and every project must be structured to incorporate the need for quality assurance. Without it, the potential for mistakes is high, as unmonitored details tend to produce inaccuracies. There is also the danger that a lack of quality assurance may mean the project doesn’t meet client specifications, which can be costly, frustrating, time consuming and detrimental to business reputation.

Clarity is one of the main benefits of quality assurance i.e. setting clear, unambiguous benchmarks at each stage of the project. As the process is ongoing this benchmark can be reevaluated at any time. However, although it is flexible to allow for project change, quality assurance will still highlight failures to meet certain standards. As quality assurance is a documented process this provides a record of the objectives and standards set, as well as any issues that arose while trying to meet them.

What does quality assurance involve?

There is no single set standard to follow when it comes to quality assurance. Depending on the project, the requirements may be complex or fairly straight forward. The observation techniques and activities involved are planned into each stage, and engineering and architectural plans will evolve and update to take into account the results of quality assurance tests. Quality assurance programs that are completed to a minute level of detail are often reproducible from one project to the next.

Why is it necessary?

Construction is an industry where consumer confidence is key to success. Building up that confidence and trust provides a foundation for growth, and quality assurance is one of the cornerstones of establishing a reputation for excellence.

Starting early – quality assurance and design

It’s easy to assume that quality assurance is a part of the project that only begins once site work is under way. However, that’s not the case. It is essential to incorporate quality assurance at the design stage, as this is a key element in delivering work to specification. Quality assurance at this stage will:

  • Deliver a project that meets or exceeds expectations
  • Reduce future costs that might be incurred as a result of poor planning or inaccurate design
  • Provide peace of mind to the customer that the project is well managed from the start
  • Ensure a satisfied customer and help to build a positive reputation

Is it worth the time?

The resounding answer has to be yes. There’s no doubt that a little extra effort is required to carry out quality assurance checks at this early stage. However, this will provide clarity on everything, from whether the architects, engineers and contractors are suitably qualified for the job, to whether set timelines are realistic.

Starting from a unified base

Perhaps one of the most useful elements of quality assurance at this stage is the unifying effect. Most construction projects involve multiple parties, each with a slightly different perspective and set of goals. Quality assurance forces parties to communicate and makes the process far more collaborative. The result of this is that – at this very early stage – all parties are on the same page. This can have a positive effect on efficiency and accuracy, as well as enabling mistakes to be kept to a minimum. Open communication channels establish positive interaction that can quickly overcome delays and prevent the kind of costs that arise when people work in parallel, rather than as a coherent team.

Setting the standards

There is a broad spectrum of quality assurance available to most construction companies, from quality checking through to testing and monitoring. At the design stage the focus should be on design management and processes, as well as production and development of plans and specifications. This is also the stage at which the quality of the team involved should be assured – for example, it is the role of the project manager to make sure that the contractors being used have the right experience, qualifications and resources to complete the project as required.

Ongoing assurance

Setting standards at the design stage is key – as is establishing the framework through which they should be monitored and maintained on an ongoing basis. It’s important that specific quality assurance tasks are assigned to particular individuals at this stage. Monitoring guidelines need to be put in place, as well as the quality measures to aim for. Non-conformance at the design stage needs to be identified. It’s also important to clearly set out the process for reporting issues and making corrections based on quality assurance monitoring as the project progresses.

Poor quality assurance issues

Sometimes the easiest way to evaluate the impact of something is to look at what happens without it. Quality assurance ensures that high quality work is practiced at every stage of a construction project, making things easier both for the clients and for the businesses involved. Without it, significant problems can arise, including:

Lack of coordination

Without the singular focus that quality assurance provides, different parties may not work together. This can lead to confusion, mistakes and conflict.

Increased cost

The collaborative impact of quality assurance irons out the details early on and helps to anticipate and avoid costly errors. Budgets tend to be more accurate and pricing solutions can be found more easily when quality assurance is in place.

Poor communication

Quality assurance opens channels of communication between all parties from the start, whether architects, engineers or suppliers. Better solutions can be found when parties talk and changes or amendments are passed on, avoiding costly mistakes resulting from a lack of information sharing.

Overrunning

A lack of quality assurance can throw up a whole wide range of issues that could slow down a project or even bring it to a complete halt. Mistakes and errors are the most obvious reasons for a project overrunning but if parties are unaware of where others are in the project timeline this can also lead to a disjointed approach that causes delays. Quality assurance ensures everyone is focused on the same timetable and if there are updates or changes to timelines, quality assurance ensures no one party can claim to be unaware of them.

Lack of accountability

If problems or delays arise then unfortunately the costs associated with them need to be attributed to one party or another, depending on where fault lies. This can lead to some bitter conflicts where there is no accountability. Quality assurance monitors and tracks progress, allowing all parties to see what is happening when and where the responsibility for delays or problems lies. With the information there in black and white it’s a lot more difficult for arguments to continue.

Avoiding these issues

Quality assurance should be a requirement for anyone involved in a project, from the engineers and construction workers, to designers, architects and other contractors. Each one of these parties represents a different moving part and so a potential agent for progress or disruption. A quality assurance structure will keep all these moving parts in motion together, ensuring that quality is maintained at each stage in the project and everyone is on the same page. This requires:

  • A quality assurance framework – laid out in advance, clear and unambiguous
  • The commitment of all parties – everyone should be working with quality assurance in mind
  • Communication – any issues with quality assurance should be shared straight away. Defined communication channels should be in place so that information can be disseminated.
  • Assimilation into day-to-day operations – quality assurance should be a daily habit, rather than a one off tick box exercise.

Noting the obstacles

Even the most well thought through quality assurance schedule can still run into issues. However, without quality assurance construction projects may suffer from unplanned costs, expensive mistakes and overrunning so it’s important to continue to strive towards the quality assurance goal. As well as problems that are individual to each project there are a number of general barriers that the construction industry throws up to quality assurance – being aware of these can help to avoid them becoming an obstacle.

Low morale – a poor work ethic and bad attitudes among staff will make quality assurance difficult. Just one individual with this kind of approach can bring the entire team down to the same level. Keeping motivation levels high and ensuring staff are supported and satisfied will contribute to quality assurance achievement.

A lack  of training – a team without the right training, or full of unskilled workers, will be immediately exposed by quality assurance tests and monitoring, as this can prevent standards from being met. Although ongoing training is part of the experience for younger or less experienced workers, all staff still need to meet minimum requirements – and to be properly supervised – to ensure that quality benchmarks don’t slip.

Unrealistic planning – construction projects have a reputation for overrunning when it comes to time. This presents plenty of issues, one of which is the impact on quality assurance. It’s difficult to achieve high levels of quality if corners are being cut to meet unrealistic timing estimates and budgets are just too low to do a good job. It’s always worth remembering that cost should not always be the only element in choosing the contractors who will form the team. A low cost contractor may initially seem like the most economical choice but low quality work may need to be redone – at a cost – and will impede the meeting of quality assurance targets.

Building restrictions – too many restrictive building codes, combined with a lack of supervision can create a significant obstacle for quality assurance control.

Working with contractors – there’s no doubt that some contractor relationships are very positive, producing great results and strong ongoing performance, while others can be very difficult. Using a team of entirely brand new contactors may make it more difficult to achieve quality assurance levels than parties that already know each other and have worked together before. Low quality equipment or work product in one team can also have a big impact on the results of another and can drag overall standards down.

The RG Group specialises in construction management for projects across a range of sectors, from retail to commercial and living space projects. We have years of accumulated experience ensuring projects have the kind of quality assurance checks that provide peace of mind and customer satisfaction, from initial designs to completion day.

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