Improving Construction Quality in Seven Steps

For perfect building production, all team members must have the big picture in mind

by Don Neff

Delivering high quality production homes on schedule and within budget, following approved plans and specs, can be achieved, but requires coordinated focus by all stakeholders. This article explores seven organizational interventions helpful to builders in minimizing defect litigation risks.

1. Organizational Reporting

We recommend that the builder’s Quality Assurance/Customer Service team members report through a different chain of command such as the Warranty Department, or Sales and Marketing Department of the company, not through the construction chain of command. This eliminates the risk of having the “fox guarding the hen house” effect, and empowers an independent senior manager outside the construction circle.

2. Responsive Customer Service

Managing customer expectations is necessary throughout the entire construction process, from sales (pre-construction) through development, then during the warranty period, and finally over the next decade or more (post-construction). Customer service spans
a multi-year life cycle, whereas construction schedules for single-family homes can be compressed from six to nine months. We’ve found, from direct personal experience, that many customer service “touch points” throughout the construction and delivery processes can build strong relationships between builders and their buyers.

3. Selection and Evaluation of Trade Contractors

Rigorous evaluations of trade contractors are essential to ensure that quality workmanship and product durability can be achieved. Fundamentally, this is what homebuyers expect. The trade contractors’ experience with specific building types is vital, and so is the knowledge of their skilled field staff. Fellow contractor references, insurance, and safety documentation from other active projects are also important. Knowing the financial solvency of vendors, as well as the size and scale of their operations, are similarly key to avoiding entities that could become overextended, which can impact their performance on your project.

4. Delivery Tools

Thoroughly detailing the plans, specs, and trade scopes-of-work, tailored to the design and price range for the specific product being constructed, are important aspects for a successful construction project. For example, if the plans lack details for acoustical or window-flashing assemblies, the trade contractors may creatively invent their own solutions, resulting in a lower level of performance than required. Similarly, specification manuals provide a conceptual “recipe book” for how projects are to be built. Taking this a step further, mock-ups near the project site also provide a laboratory “test-kitchen” experience for installers for new or unfamiliar products and installation sequences. In addition, formal communication tools such as Requests for Information (RFIs) issued by the contractor, Architect’s Supplemental Instructions (ASIs), critical path (master) scheduling, and three-week look-ahead (interim) schedules, are a QA must to assist in the delivery process. Sophisticated contractors also rely on technology software such as Plan-Grid®, Pro-Core®, and CaptureQA® to manage similarly important details as digital archives and tracking QA trends in real time.

5. Bonus Incentives

Superintendents and construction managers should be incentivized to look beyond the current house or project under construction. They need to be invested in a longer-term delivery horizon. Successful projects have useful lives spanning decades. How do we motivate builders’ field teams to think long term? Cash bonuses earned and accrued over the life of a specific phase or project, but not yet paid, are deposited in the superintendents’ bonus pool. These funds held by the company can ultimately be paid out once litigation-free quality objectives are achieved.

6. Focus on the Vital Factors

Schedules, costs, and quality are three equally vital factors in building homes, but also in any production process. For example, the Toyota Production System (“TPS”) is a case in point. With TPS, workers on the line can stop production in real time if a flaw or problem is discovered, and then develop the solution right where the problem originated. This is a core value at Toyota. The TPS program constantly creates thousands of small adjustments in the production process for Toyota, which benefits the company, its employees and its customers. With that production methodology in mind, housing construction is similar in that it is sequential from one trade to the next. Quality can be improved by establishing “job ready-job complete” standards that require a following trade contractor’s sign-off on a prior trade’s workmanship before beginning their own work.

7. Third-Party Peer Reviews

Third-party quality assurance encompasses the full project delivery life cycle. Peer reviews of architectural and engineering plans, spec manuals and trade scopes represent the bulk of pre-construction QA services. During construction, QA monitoring picks up the observation and documentation of critical litigation generating assemblies. The key is to discover and proactively correct those hidden flaws as early as possible during the construction process before installation of any cover-up components such as roofing or walls, which could create future litigation risks. Finally, post-construction QA includes preparation of comprehensive maintenance manuals as tools to help the homeowners and associations understand their fiduciary responsibilities from day one through the many years of ownership.

In summary, remember that old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Based on our experience, when you sharpen your QA focus, you improve your construction performance and the quality of the projects for which you are responsible.

Digitally generated business intelligence also measures variation within and between builder data sets for a clearer picture of performance. This can be a builder’s best tool for managing team performance reviews, and just as suitably, an underwriter’s tool for predicting builder performance and insurance premium pricing. This type of rifle shot accuracy compared to a shotgun scatter removes the guesswork and increases efficiency of the entire quality assurance and control process.

Finally, another advantage of digital programs such as CaptureQATM is that they can clearly identify construction and vendor problems that could exist across several different projects and thus allows the builder and contractor to act quickly to rectify problems before they become a trend that could turn into costly, ongoing construction defects. Catching these types of vendor problems by a methodical quality assurance process before they become widespread defects can save developers and contractors, and their insurance carriers, millions of dollars in repairs or in lengthy, time-consuming lawsuits.

Don Neff is the President/CEO of LJP Construction Services, which has been at the forefront of the quality assurance movement on behalf of builder and insurance clients for 25 years. CaptureQA® is a QA App designed by LJP to benefit builders, contractors and insurance companies. For more information, visit www.ljpltd.com

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