What does quality mean to us? Is producing a quality plan just a necessary evil, or can you use it to actually improve your business, asks FPDC technical consultant Steve Halcrow.

Perhaps you brought a handbag or wallet for a loved one at Christmas. Have you ever noticed with products like that they often have those little inspection labels inside, saying ‘QC passed, number 42’ or something similar?

When you produce items like that it is often quite appropriate and efficient to wait until the finished article is available, check it and either accept or reject it. The fact is though, we’re builders – it’s entirely different for us, isn’t it? Isn’t it?!

The vast majority of ‘QA / QC’ I witness happening on site consists of an equivalent of this type of process: we build something, then we check it, then we carry out any necessary reworking if it’s not up to scratch. Have you ever stopped to work out in detail how much it costs you on a given job, or in a given period, to put right faulty works? The answer can be quite shocking, but there is still a tendency to move on to the next job and use exactly the same methods. Using the old maxim that ‘if you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got’, we should hardly be surprised if errors in workmanship keep costing us the same amount of time and money, unless we’re prepared to change our methods.

I have a philosophy I’d like to share with you. It’s not a formal definition, and some may even argue it is not technically correct, but it works for me and hopefully it will make sense to you too.

To my mind, QC, which means quality control, is about checks on a finished product, and in some cases at the end of a particular process on the way to producing that item. This is what we habitually do, and it certainly has its place. We might for instance check work at first fix, second fix and finished stages and keep records for all of these. If so that is excellent and I would encourage you to carry on; if not, I urge you to start doing so immediately.

QA, meaning quality assurance, is a different thing under my definition. This is about ensuring, as far as you can, that something is done correctly before you even start the task. The terms are often used as interchangeable in our industry and taken to mean the same thing, but QA requires a very different approach.

It is my opinion that we do not do enough of this, but it is also my experience that it can be very powerful and effective when we do. It needs a willingness to think and do things differently, and perhaps on the first few attempts the process will be less than easy, but the rewards are worth it.

How can we start to ensure good quality before we pick up a trowel or a screw gun?

Now at this point you are saying ‘I know that, we do it all the time’! But actually, if we’re honest, how many of us really do? Under all the pressure that comes with taking on a plastering or drylining contract these days, don’t we usually just have to get going and worry about all this afterwards?

As I said before, it is not easy; you have to be really committed to the idea that as much as possible should be in place before you start work, but if you start to develop these good habits, perhaps one at a time, they can hold your business in good stead. The savings in time and money from reduced reworking can be demonstrated and I can assure you that you are likely to be pleasantly surprised at the results! When I worked in subcontracting we monitored this and from a starting point where we already considered our record on quality was good, we improved in pure cost savings by somewhere around 30 per cent in the first year of measuring cost and implementing such control measures!

Beyond these tangible measures there is also the element of enhanced reputation for your business and goodwill on the part of your clients, and the potential repeat business that might help to bring. This is less easy to measure but of course extremely valuable.

You already invest quite a lot of time and resource in assembling quality plans – rather than them being pure box-ticking exercises, make them work for you. Aim for continuous improvement and make your business leaner in these tough times.