Yesterday, in Part 1 I talked about my definition of quality. Repeat after me: “Quality is meeting agreed-upon requirements and standards for every part of every job.” Today, I discuss those standards a bit more.
In order to ensure that work gets completed with the highest level of quality, written standards need to be applied to each task. Although contractors can write their own standards, there’s a plug-and-play solution. I was part of the Advanced Energy team who, along with the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Lab, has helped develop a set of standardized work specifications (SWS) for residential energy retrofits.
The SWS for single-family, multifamily and manufactured homes provide very detailed guidelines for home energy upgrades. The SWS define the minimum requirements for every task that a residential contractor is likely to perform, and using these specs will help ensure that the tasks get done right every time.
The SWS are specific enough that crew leaders and inspectors can ensure that work gets done correctly, but broad enough that contractors have choices in the materials to use and how to complete the work.
For instance, one standard requires that chases be capped with a material that doesn’t bend, sag or move when installed, but doesn’t specify the material. The contractor can use plywood, drywall, OSB or any other material that meets the requirement.
Whether you use the SWS standards or write your own, an effective standard must address a specific need, define the necessary tasks, and outline a measurable performance outcome. Examples include: the requirement that insulation be in contact with the air barrier, that a vapor retarder cover 100% of a crawl space floor, or that a bath fan exhaust a minimum of 50 CFM to the outside.
I actually have a standard for quality standards, what I refer to as “S.A.F.E.” This acronym stands for: Specific, Assessable, Feasible and Effective.
Specific: The outcome in a standard must be specific and measurable. For example, requiring “substantially airtight” ducts is too vague. Requiring they “not leak more than 99 CFM25” is specific and measurable.
Assessable: The outcome has to be verifiable using industry standard equipment. For example, verification equipment can include IR cameras, blower doors and duct blasters.
Feasible: The outcome must be something that properly trained workers can achieve with standard materials. If a particular material, tool or trade is essential, the standard must include it. For example, using caulk that meets the requirements of ASTM C834-10.
Effective: All solutions must be capable of producing an intended result. For example, the way to ensure an attic is properly air sealed, is to require the air sealing be done before blowing the insulation.
Making It Work
I have found that the SWS or any quality program will only get implemented when the contractor provides employees with written instructions. These instructions need to include: (1) notes to use when training employees on the SWS, and (2) pictorial guides covering critical details that are stored in a binder or on an electronic device for use in the field.
I also suggest using mistake- proofing verification forms that guide the crew chief or project manager in performing quality checks in the field. This step ensures that the work was installed correctly and it minimizes the chance of a customer callback.
Having workers follow specifications requires more than just paperwork. It also requires a change in attitude—not in the workers, but in management. It’s common for managers to look for someone to blame when something goes wrong. But my experience working with contractors along with several years researching quality efforts in other industries has taught me that quality problems are usually the result of failed processes. If a duct wasn’t properly sealed, it’s probably not intentional on the part of the workers, because most people actually want to do good work. It’s likely that the company lacks good QC and QA processes to identify and fix the problem, and ensure that the job gets done right.
If we believe that process fails more than people, then when a problem arises, we will take a look at the process, and not look to blame the people. For example, if a worker caps a chase but leaves a 1-inch gap around the edge. Rather than blaming the worker, examine your processes to determine what made that error possible. You may find that your training process is inadequate. This type of blame-free workplace is a powerful motivator.
Edwards Deming, a founding father of the quality movement, outlined 14 practices he considered essential for companies wanting to increase the quality of their output. One of the most important was “drive out fear.” His point was that workers who fear their bosses will duck under the radar whenever there’s a problem, and will even lie to shield themselves from consequences. That kind of culture makes quality improvement impossible. If, on the other hand, workers know they won’t be blamed, they will be more willing to work with management to improve processes and to increase quality.
I know this dynamic works because we’ve used it with our team. We made a commitment that whenever problems arise, we’ll get together to examine the process and work to correct it. Our productivity and the quality of our results have improved substantially, and the work environment has become more enjoyable. Contractors can realize big dividends by setting clear standards, working with employees to make sure the company meets those standards, and having processes in place to check the quality of their work. The savings earned by implementing quality management plans and standard work processes more than pay for the effort required. After all, no one loses money doing work right the first time!