Managing quality through the rear view mirror

In our series of blogs relating to the recent White Paper, ARK’s Director Jerry Gilbert discusses the need for transparency and effective process management:

Managing quality through the rear-view mirror.

Prior to ARK Consultancy I ran a quality management consultancy and had the good fortune of meeting Dr W Edwards Deming, who, for those of you who are not aware, was the quality management “guru” credited with turning around the Japanese car industry in the 1950s , transforming it from the producer of shoddy goods to a world leader in quality and reliability – and in the process helping the British car industry to self-destruct.

Some seventy years ago, when the average house price was £1,940 and a gallon (4.5 litres) of petrol cost 22p, Deming promoted and applied several key principles of management, which I paraphrase:

  • Create consistency of purpose (i.e. set clear objectives)
  • Adopt the new philosophy (leaders must awaken to their new responsibilities and adopt the challenge of change)
  • Cease reliance on inspection (build quality in)
  • End the practice of awarding business by the price tag
  • Improve constantly
  • Institute leadership (the role of supervision is help, people do a better job)
  • Drive out fear
  • Break down barriers between departments
  • Eliminate slogans and targets
  • Remove barriers that prevent pride in the job of trades (supervision should focus on quality and not sheer numbers)
  • Remove barriers that prevent pride in the job of managers
  • Institute a vigorous programme of training and improvement
  • Transformation and quality are everybody’s job.

If these sound familiar it’s because they bear a remarkable resonance in the philosophies of Latham, Egan and others – be clear in your objectives, work collaboratively, seek continual improvement, drive out fear/blame, focus on quality not price, invest in training, empower managers and be effective leaders.

Despite consultants, contractors, clients and even lawyers singing from these or similar song sheets for some considerable time, we still do not seem to be able to get it right!

Reliance on a procurement process advocating partnering, shared pain/gain and a shift away from price to quality has failed to produce consistent quality. KPIs which monitor outputs rather than outcomes entirely miss the point. No matter how well-intentioned, consultants, contractors, clients, and customers, inevitably have differing agendas, ethos and working practices – only the client and the customer have a long-term vested interest in the product.

As owner of the process and end user it is incumbent upon the client to ensure all those involved evidence they have the time, processes, capacity and tools to do the job. That cannot be achieved through a few quality questions nor reliance on third-party accreditation – ISO 9000/20000 simply confirm a system exists; not necessarily how good it is.

Nobody deliberately sets out to do a poor job, it happens through lack of time, information, communication, training, tools, or materials. Failures are far more likely to be deficiencies in the system and processes than with the individual.

Mantras, inspection, badgering employees to do better or the introduction of ill-conceived incentive schemes when the process itself frustrates good performance cannot produce a quality outcome. Quality has to be built into the systems and processes, inspections which seek to identify failures after the event are simply too late.

The White Paper and issues arising from Grenfell have brought the issue of process into sharp focus and put the client squarely in the frame. Quality is the natural outcome of effective process management.

With off-site manufacture gaining traction, there are those who believe taking construction out of the rain and into the factory will improve quality.  Whilst The philosophies of Demming and Egan learned from the car industry apply equally to offsite manufacture, there are added dimensions. Firstly, it is extremely rare for social landlords to be in control of the whole production process, they inevitably operate through, and delegate to, third parties. Secondly, unlike cars, it is not the finished article that leaves the factory – requiring the process to link factory, field and finishing.

Good quality costs nothing – failures and rectification costs are expensive, reputationally damaging and sometimes dangerous.

Deming’s philosophy is seventy years old and Egan’s “rethinking construction” was published twenty years ago – maybe not time to think again, but certainly time to refocus.