I recently had an interesting conversation with the project manager of a company that we had approached for conducting a quality audit. It seems one of his peers from another organization had recommended him to get in touch with us for this purpose. However, he was not very convinced about it and ended up quizzing me in detail about the necessity of a Quality Audit. It makes for interesting reading since some of the points from that conversation actually showed me why what I do is so critical for construction projects.
I am leaving out the pleasantries from this write-up for the purpose of being succinct (for reference, PM is the Project Manager and SG is Swapnil Gandhi).
PM: I heard about your quality audit at one of my friends’ site. He seemed impressed with it and recommended that I explore the need for one at my project as well.
SG: Most certainly sir. That is very encouraging to know. I would say that quality audits should be part of every project’s quarterly, if not monthly routine.
PM: Yes, but there is a difference between his project site and mine. You may have found quality issues at his project, but I run a very tight ship and it is unlikely that there are any gaps in quality control at my project site.
SG: With due respect sir, how are you so sure that there are no deviations from your quality plan at your project site? Do you periodically conduct quality audits?
PM: Yes, I recently got my project audited a few months ago and apart from some minor observations, there were no gaps that the auditors could find.
SG: So sir, on this basis you figure your plan is being followed, your customer is happy, and your project is running smoothly, right? Not necessarily. There may be several aspects of your project that appear to be working well but are actually not. That’s why it’s important to conduct periodic project quality audits. Audits show you what’s working, what’s not and whether all details are being documented as expected — so that you can keep your project quality on track.
PM: Okay let me ask you a bit more about what you do. So, what exactly is this quality audit that you perform?
SG: Audit is a critical element of an effective Quality Control plan. An audit is a review of how well key areas of your quality plan are being followed and whether it is effective in getting you the outcome you expect with respect to quality.
It’s basically a fact-finding mission that covers not only your own work but rather the performance of all stakeholders such as subcontractors, suppliers, and other external service providers.
PM: Well I recently got a structural audit done at my other project. How is a quality audit different and how will it help me?
SG: A structural audit is meant to assess the structural stability/health of a building, often conducted during a maintenance period or while ownership change. A Quality Audit, on the other hand, aims to identify process non-conformities and product defects during the course of construction.
PM: Okay, I understand. But at this stage our focus is more on progress than on quality. I am apprehensive that by running a quality audit, it will hamper progress on my site.
SG: That is a common misconception, sir. Periodic Quality Audits will actually help you anticipate and prevent potential quality issues that might severely impact the productivity of your workmen. Imagine if there are issues with the concrete being poured but it has not been captured in your records. There might be a situation where you may need to rework extensively on RCC for a particular level after having completed finishing activities. This alone could set you back from the plan by around a month.
PM: True, we did face a similar situation on my previous project and that affected us badly. So what is the process that you follow for conducting quality audits?
SG: We would usually speak with your contractors as the first step. It is highly likely that your contractors are performing their own inspections. We would talk to them about their inspection results, ask them to walk the jobsite with us and perform a site quality review. We explore whether they have come across any quality issues, whether they have documented it and what actions have been taken in response.
During the jobsite walkaround, keep an eye out for areas that you may have missed out, such as quality of workmanship, adherence to procedures, skills of workers, compliance in terms of material inspection and so on.
Further, we check quality records and review the reports that are being maintained by the various stakeholders so that if something goes wrong, you are able to effectively trace the root cause. There are two reasons for this. First, we would like to see if your own superintendents and project management person are filing and completing all the needed records and reports. Second, we want to check to ensure that they have completed them correctly.
Next, we reinspect the completed works. With a sample of inspection and nonconformance reports in hand, we go out and reinspect the work that has already been inspected. We compare what has been recorded on the report with our own observations. The point to note is whether there is anything that has been missed and whether repairs, rework and critical items have been reported correctly.
We also look at the standards, specifications, drawings, and other references that the team is following (or not following) and assess whether they are relevant and appropriate.
Another important bit to check is the past audit items (if you have conducted any). Usually, we inspect the previous audit points and see what corrective and preventive actions have been taken. We have often observed that either the actions taken are not appropriate to the non-conformities identified or these are not documented.
PM: Okay, that sounds like extensive work. What do you do once this audit is completed?
SG: We create a detailed audit report recording all the findings that we have observed. Doing this will protect your company should quality-related issues arise in the future. We usually submit this to the project manager or project head in HO. However, there have been instances when we have been appointed by the top management and instructed to submit the report directly to them. Needless to say, there would be sufficient firepower in those reports, given that the management has felt the need for an external intervention!
PM: Let’s say you submit your quality audit report to me. What do I do with it?
SG: I would suggest you create an action plan for rectifying the issues identified during the audit. Maybe you already had an action plan, but it was not followed. Why not explore the reason for that? There have been a few instances where we have also helped uncover these reasons for our clients.
In conclusion, once you have zoned in on the issues plaguing your site, you will be in a much better position to take action, not necessarily against certain individuals, but against the reasons why those individuals have not followed the plan. As one of the greats once said, it is easy but foolish to blame a person for a problem; it is far more difficult and yet more effective to find out why they are not following the process.
PM: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I guess I had never appreciated the importance of this activity. Allow me some time to confer with the project head and other HO representatives. We will be in touch with you at an appropriate time about this.