Loose bolts have been in the news quite a bit following the Jan. 5 Alaska Airlines door plug incident—and from subsequent quality investigations at manufacturer Boeing Co. and its suppliers. Even the most experienced workers make mistakes, and intense schedule and cost pressures make errors more likely.
The construction industry faces a persistent 30% rework rate on projects, which adds an average of 12% to to total project costs, says a 2023 study published in the journal Quality & Quantity. Rework is also the cause of 39% of all worker injuries, according to BBI Services, a construction industry consultant.
High rework rates contribute to the larger problem of projects being consistently over budget and behind schedule. These are not caused by a lack of knowledge of how to build things.
The industry has proven methods for constructing and maintaining the built environment. Rather, it is the systems for training and managing field workers—providing them the right information when they need it and verifying that work was performed correctly—that have not kept pace with other technology-driven industry improvements.
Many planning, scheduling and turnover processes in construction have been digitized, but fieldwork is still mostly tracked on paper, if at all.
Improving work quality requires changes to both culture and process.
For culture, we can use many of the same strategies employed to improve jobsite safety. Leaders should normalize talking about and learning from quality failures, without fear of retribution. Workers and supervisors who identify quality risks should be rewarded, not shunned. For process, leaders should look to ISO 9000, the “gold standard” for effective quality management systems,
It boils down to three basic tenets: Write down what you do; do what you write down; and make sure you are doing it.
In construction, that means contractors should have written procedures for all critical work processes; train crews on these procedures; ensure a system is set up to confirm the correct procedure was followed for each work activity; and conduct regular audits to confirm all of the above.
Unfortunately, many believe that balancing quality and productivity is a zero-sum game, so quality suffers when time is short. But this does not have to be the case. Quality and productivity can be improved at the same time.
Technology now makes it possible to track fieldwork with the same level of precision available to track Amazon package deliveries. Over the past five years, data platforms have been used to track more than 7 million work completions at the individual worker level. In addition to improved work quality, data has yielded surprising insights for users in boosting workforce productivity.