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Quality Management for Virtual Project Execution

BY HOUMAN PAYAMI. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OFFICE QUALITY MANAGER, FLUOR CORPORATION, A CAROLINAS AGC MEMBER

The construction industry is experiencing extraordinary times in the world of capital project execution. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many firms to switch to a Work from Home (WFH) environment. While the construction phase by nature requires on-site presence, the construction management, engineering and procurement teams working on pre-construction phases have switched to a mostly decentralized workforce. This novel setting resulted in the exploration of new avenues for the quality management aspect of project execution. Since the poor quality of pre-construction phases will eventually find its ways to the construction phase, it is imperative for project participants to make necessary adjustments to keep quality in the forefront of execution.

UPDATING QUALITY PLAN

The realities of the virtual project execution must be reflected in the project execution plans, most notably the quality plan. The collaborative process of updating the quality plan is an alignment activity in and of itself ensuring all project participants are on board with the updated quality requirements. Although the strategic-level plans should not change significantly, the operating-level plans may be affected by the WFH environment.

QUALITY AUDITS

Internal quality audits are an essential process in any organization committed to quality. This process determines the effectiveness of the quality management system. Desktop audits are a well-accepted norm for the auditing process. However, with the social distancing guidelines in place, in-person auditing may not be possible. Fortunately, within the last decade adequate best practices have been developed for virtual auditing. Although this know-how has not been put into practice widely in the engineering and construction enterprises, the current circumstances leave industry professionals no choice but to utilize them. By leveraging available teleconferencing technologies allowing for interactive interviews and document sharing, an acceptable alternative to the desktop audit can be achieved.

QUALITY CHECKS

The quality control aspect of engineering on a construction project which mainly manifests itself in checking the deliverables shall now be well coordinated among the virtual teams. Switching from hard-copy checking and approving to electrical reviews and signatures may not be smooth for some design teams especially when there are a large number of drawings to be produced. The productivity impact due to this method of drawing approvals should be monitored during the WFH execution. The possible lack of productivity can be addressed by investment in appropriate electronic signature tools to bring efficiency in the remote approval process.

Also, for ergonomic reasons many checkers strongly prefer to review hard-copy drawings, especially those containing copious details. Establishing procedures to pick up drawings from the office or a local print shop can facilitate the checking process.

RISK-BASED QUALITY ASSURANCE

Selecting an optimal level of QA based on the identified risks on the construction projects is essential for a successful quality program. The WFH environment has introduced new risks that may redefine the QA activities. Formal risk analyses can result in calculated modifications to the internal audits and the QA checks. A data-driven strategy to associate risk management to the QA program has proved beneficial in the times of change.

SUPPLIER SHOP INSPECTIONS

While the QA activities in the office can effectively transition to a virtual environment, the inspection activities of procured equipment that are intertwined with design and constructability review activities cannot be treated similarly. With travel restrictions to the fabrication shops in place, certain inspection activities can still be performed remotely via the effective use of applications for video livestreaming. It would be unrealistic to totally remove the need for in-person inspections but the advanced camera-enabled communication devices could reduce traditional surveillance activities significantly.

CUSTOMER FOCUS

For contractors, meeting customers’ requirements should be kept of utmost importance especially during the virtual execution. Procedures to solicit clients’ feedback may need to be modified in accordance with the circumstances. Clients’ feedback should be used to evaluate how the pandemic-related project execution changes were perceived by the client and what areas for improvement they offer. Alignment with owner representatives is needed on the new methods of collaboration to progress and approve the design for construction. For nimble organizations the COVID-19 crisis has actually created an opportunity to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by providing greater customer responsiveness than their competitors.

MANAGEMENT COMMITMENT

And most importantly, employees must see their top management’s continued support for quality. The organization leadership shall communicate to the project teams that quality is not up for compromise regardless of the change in execution strategies. Through this commitment other pieces for excellence in execution in the virtual world will come together.

The timeline of when the engineering and construction services workforce will be fully back to the in-person setting is not certain. However, WFH advantages such as overhead reduction, increased employee satisfaction and broadened talent pool have already convinced many firms to even consider adapting a suitable version of virtual execution for the post-COVID-19 era. With proper quality management strategies this can lead to extraordinary successes.

Houman Payami is the Southern California office quality manager at Flour Corporation, a member of the Carolinas AGC.