Do construction leaders create the right environment for quality on projects? Dave Stitt isn’t so sure
A frightening question hit me as construction disasters mounted at the end of the last decade: Edinburgh schools, the catastrophe of Grenfell and the collapse of Carillion: they each stemmed, all or in part, from issues of poor quality.
The question was: has the industry in the round become so warped by the hard task of making money from building things that it is losing the ability to build things correctly? It’s a bleak question. Thankfully, I decided the answer was no. We can still build complex things well, and we do. But the disasters have shaken us and raised complex questions.
Now I’m concerned at how responses to these disasters are taking shape. There’s a tendency to focus on systemic issues, whether they be forms of contract, approaches to procurement and finance, project management protocols, regulations and quality assurance regimes.
“Show me someone who cares and I will show you quality work. Show me quality work and behind it I will show you someone who cares.”
These are important and need sorting out, but they miss a crucial ingredient: leadership and culture at the company level.
Systems are supposed to keep everybody on track, but we know they don’t always. Systems can be gamed and rules can be followed to the letter but not the spirit. Unexpected things happen, opinions diverge, commercial priorities clash.
Attaining quality relies partly on systems, but also on the chemistry that is always at play among people. When the chemistry is wrong, it breeds mistakes, misunderstandings, defects and waste.
That chemistry is where leadership and culture come in, and while high-level debates play out over systemic issues, construction business leaders can start laying the foundations for better quality right now, within their companies, whatever the eventual outcome of these debates.
Six crucial questions
I spent 25 years at the coal face of delivering projects, and know that mistakes happen routinely: big and small, often unreported. They erode margins, damage reputations and spark disputes. People make mistakes; I know I did, especially as a young site engineer thrown in at the deep end.
With that in mind, here are six questions that construction business leaders should ask themselves:
- Do you have the right people with the right skills and experience in the right jobs to bring about a quality result?
- Are your newer, younger staff being guided effectively into maturity as professionals?
- Do your people know that quality is the top priority, along with everything else that must be top priority? Have you told them?
- Are your people empowered to spot quality issues, and the conditions that breed them, and speak up immediately?
- Are the relationships among your people strong and productive enough so that, working together, they can take action to head off quality issues when spotted?
- Are your people rewarded for taking this kind of collective initiative to ensure quality again and again?
Each of these questions is a leadership and culture issue that can be addressed within a company.
Manager or leader?
Over the years I’ve come across few construction business leaders who talk about quality. Safety, yes, but quality rarely gets a mention.
There’s a saying: “Show me someone who cares and I will show you quality work. Show me quality work and behind it I will show you someone who cares.”
Leadership is about creating an environment where people care about and can do their best quality work. If you’re not actively creating that environment – then you may be a manager in a leadership role.
Consider the tiers of construction business leadership. Engineering is about designing and sorting out technical stuff; management is tending to the organisational mechanics set up to get stuff done; leadership provides direction and creates the culture needed for success.
What best describes you? Is quality at the top of your agenda, or is that left to the QA manager?
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