An effective quality assurance (QA) program can be a valuable asset to the electrical contracting firm. Not only can a formal QA program improve construction quality and reduce rework, but it can also improve customer satisfaction and serve as a valuable marketing tool. This article defines QA, explains the difference between QA and quality control (QC), and discusses the costs and benefits of developing and implementing an effective QA program.

QA is a broad term that refers to the development and application of procedures to ensure that a product or service meets the customer’s needs and expectations. In electrical construction, the customer’s needs and expectations are defined by the project contract documents, which include the plans and specifications. QA is concerned with ensuring compliance with the contract documents through the systematic planning, monitoring and control of the construction process. The objective of QA is to make sure that work is completed in compliance with the contract documents and costly rework to correct deficiencies.

QA versus QC

The terms “QA” and “QC” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. QC is concerned with checking to see that the completed work is in compliance with the project requirements. The final “punchlist” on a project is an example of a QC activity. QC focuses on identifying and correcting deviations from the project requirements once the work is in place. QC is a very expensive way to correct quality problems that could be avoided by implementing an effective QA program.

QA, on the other hand, is about ensuring that the customer’s needs and expectations are met through advance planning. Simply stated, QA is proactive with regard to project quality, whereas QC is reactive. Inspection neither improves nor guarantees quality. You can’t inspect quality into the completed electrical installation. Quality must be built in throughout the process.

What is the connection between TQM and QA?

Total quality management (TQM) is focused on continuous improvement of the firm’s business and construction processes. If your firm has a TQM program, then its QA program should be an extension of the TQM program. An effective QA program will provide a valuable feedback mechanism for monitoring and improving the company’s processes.

Why is a QA program needed?

A successful project is one that is completed in accordance with the contract documents, on schedule, and within budget. Your firm needs a QA program to ensure that the completed project meets the customer’s requirements as stated in the contract documents. A QA program will improve quality and help prevent problems caused by oversight and lack of attention to detail.

Every successful firm has a QA program, which may be informal and not in writing, but everyone associated with the firm knows that it exists. The management of the electrical contracting firm conveys its dedication to quality and customer satisfaction through both its words and actions. However, on many projects today, electrical contracting firms are being required to provide a written QA program by the owner as part of the pre-qualification process or prior to start of work. This is especially true for those owners that have an active commitment to their own QA programs.

Formalize your QA program

The company needs to formalize its QA program and commit it to writing. This provides advantages to the electrical contracting firm beyond the fulfillment of a project requirement. A formal QA program will benefit the entire organization and projects not requiring a formal QA program. The very act of preparing a formal QA program requires that your firm work through and document all of the processes that affect construction quality. Once these processes are documented, the information contained in the formal QA program can be used as a baseline for process improvement and as a tool for communicating the firm’s commitment to quality both inside and outside the firm.

A formal QA program can also be a valuable marketing tool for the company. The written QA program tells the customer exactly how the firm will make sure that its needs and expectations will be met on the project. The foundation for your firm’s formal QA program should be documented procedures based on key business and construction processes. These procedures will be adhered to throughout the customer’s project to ensure that the customer’s needs and expectations are met. A comprehensive QA program is especially valuable on design/build projects where the customer may feel that it has lost some of the control that it has on traditional design-bid-build projects.

Key processes to be documented

Key processes that directly impact construction quality and should be documented in your firm’s formal QA program include the following:

• Design Management for Design/Build Projects

• Document Control

• Procurement and Materials Management

• Tool and Equipment Management

• Construction Process Planning and Management

• Safety and Accident Prevention

• Inspection, Testing, and Start-up Procedures

In addition to these construction processes, business processes that impact the quality of your customer service should also be documented. For example, your customer billing process can have a direct impact on customer satisfaction if invoices are incorrect.

Management commitment is a must

The QA program’s success depends on upper management’s support. Upper management must strongly support the development and implementation of the QA program in both words and actions. An effective QA program requires the dedication of time and money as well as personal support and encouragement. Without a genuine commitment by upper management, the QA program will fail.

What are the costs of a QA program?

The costs associated with the development and implementation of an effective QA program can be categorized as follows:

• Original Program Development

• Ongoing QA Program Evaluation and Upgrading

• Initial and Ongoing Employee Training

Original QA program development. The cost of the original QA program development can be substantial for the firm. This is because key employees must be involved in the development of the QA program. These key employees will need to be trained in QA and then will need to develop the QA program. All of this takes these key employees away from their daily work, which means someone else will have to perform their work or it will not get done.

Outside consultants can help develop the company’s QA program. However, their involvement is no substitute for that of the firm’s key employees. To be effective and successful, the QA program must fit within the firm’s existing culture and employees must feel a sense ownership in the QA program.

Ongoing QA program evaluation and upgrading. To remain effective, the QA program must be dynamic. The QA program should be evaluated on a regular basis and improved constantly. It is not enough to simply develop a QA program. The processes on which the QA program is built should be in a state of continuous improvement. This means that the QA program will need to be constantly updated so that it accurately reflects the electrical contracting firm’s current processes. This again requires the involvement of key employees throughout the company and a substantial investment of their time. If the QA program is not continuously evaluated and upgraded, it will soon become outdated and useless.

Initial and ongoing employee QA training

The QA program will not be successful without the involvement of all of the firm’s employees. These employees, regardless of their level, must be made solely responsible for the quality of their own work. Along with this responsibility must come empowerment, which gives employees the authority to do what is necessary to ensure the quality of their work. Without employee participation, QA will regress to QC, with management unsuccessfully attempting to inspect quality into the finished work.

QA program is an investment

An effective QA program’s benefits should far outweigh its costs. In fact, the cost of developing and implementing the QA program should be seen as an investment in the firm’s future. Benefits from the successful implementation of a QA program should include improved employee morale, greater productivity, less rework, avoidance of claims, and satisfied customers. Individually, these benefits may be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify on individual projects. However, as a whole, these benefits should manifest themselves in increased market share and greater profits. EC

Acknowledgement

This article results from the research project entitled “ISO 9000 Evaluation & Update” that is being sponsored by the Electrical Contracting Foundation, Inc. The author would like to thank the foundation for its continuing support.

GLAVINICH is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at (785) 864-3435 or tglavinich@ku.edu.