We all know it does, but it’s also hard to define, hard to achieve, and if we fail in our pursuit of it, the consequences can be severe.
The word “quality” seems to be constantly discussed in our industry, especially as a basis of differentiating from our competitors. We have the best quality, the highest quality, exceptional quality, and the list goes on and on. But what does that really mean? And is it really a differentiator of your firm?
Ours is not an industry that mass produces a single product and thus we cannot easily evaluate quality by monitoring reject rates or by streamlining our work flow through automation. Quality is easy to define when you are producing the same thing over and over again. Consider the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and the ISO Excellence Award. Both recognize performance excellence, based on process improvements and technical standardizations that impact organizational success and achievement. That is a hard task to track when it comes to the built environment.
Each project has a unique set of requirements and every project is produced with a unique set of hands. There is no assembly line where everyone is doing the same task every day. Our supply chain varies because we use different people and companies for different services. From pressures to shortcut a process, fast-track a project, along with incompatible levels of experience, implemented by people we rarely get to know or see, the opportunity for overlooking quality as a deliverable far exceeds any other.
Although project teams expect quality in their deliverables, each member of that team aims to achieve that independently. Architects are creative and seek a unique legacy structure. Contractors are taught that you build it on schedule and budget at all costs. Engineers are detail driven but they are called upon to respond quickly to unforeseen technical issues. And the owner may have unrealistic expectations for results.
If that is not enough, we set our professional fees for a project that might last years based on a brief description of someone’s vision and as a percentage of construction cost, a cost per square foot, a cost per anticipated drawing count or some other completely irrational basis. For these, we have only ourselves to blame.
How do we not think we have quality issues given these variables? And how do you not despair, update your resume, and seek employment in a more rational industry?
At a root level, quality becomes doing what you say you will do. By not doing quality work, you are deceiving yourself, your staff and your clients, and you are putting your firm at great jeopardy. We probably know firms within our own network that do not offer quality, and it takes tremendous effort to get out of the downward momentum. Overall quality issues can drive a firm to success or failure.
We can learn from other industries and begin to implement more holistic approaches to quality assurance and quality control. For example, ISO 9000 standards are based on seven quality management principles for organizational improvements. These principles are:
- Customer focus. The more you know about your client, the easier it is to meet their requirements for a successful project.
- Leadership. Quality begins at the top and must always be ingrained in the actions of firm leadership. If we as leaders do not clearly exhibit and embrace quality, why should anyone else in the firm?
- Engagement of people. All staff must be involved in the creation and maintenance of a quality focused culture.
- Process approach. You need a consistent process and consistent monitoring of that process. This includes all aspects of your company from design to accounting to human resources.
- Improvement. Set metrics by which to evaluate the system and adjust your processes as needed. Nothing is 100 percent perfect so there will be areas of needed improvement.
- Evidence based decision making. Make decisions based on the hard facts of what has worked best for your firm. Knowledge management is essential for this task to succeed.
- Relationship management. Be proactive in management of internal and external relationships and hold people accountable for their actions.
Creating and leading a firm that focuses on the quality of its deliverables from start to finish not only builds one’s culture but ensures growth and success. Finding a way to standardize that effort is paramount, and we need to know how to communicate and manage our staff through these standardized processes. If you can provide the context as to why your firm does certain things routinely in the same manner, then your team will understand, and, hopefully, embrace your quality processes.
When quality is viewed from a business perspective, the lack of it can impact morale, finances, deadlines, and results. If you do not have quality, you do not have repeat clients. If you do not have quality, you get complacent employees. If you do not have quality, there is constant rework and you will not have profit. With so much at stake, the ultimate answer to our question is that quality absolutely matters!
Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Lubbock and San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.