Six Trends (+) in Quality Management

September 25, 2002 · by Charles Nelson

There is a small but growing trend to identify quality assurance or quality management as a key practice issue.

1

There is a small but growing trend to identify quality assurance or quality management as a key practice issue. In a just-completed survey of “hot button” practice issues with members of the architecture profession, just over 4 percent of respondents identified quality assurance (QA), quality management (QM) or quality control (QC) as one of their top three management concerns. This was seventh in order of importance, after Human Resource issues, marketing, financial management, project management, electronic systems management and knowledge/information management. It fell ahead of such issues as ownership transition, risk management, time management and strategic planning.

This is up from a similar response of 3 percent from a survey conducted of the same group in mid-2001. Several respondents noted maintenance of contract document quality as a key issue.

2

Interest in TQM (total quality management) as a tool to improve practice has all but disappeared. A number of high-profile practices attempted to implement TQM systems over the past 15 years and found it just too hard.
So far as we know, there is only one design practice in the United States that has persevered to successfully implement a TQM-based approach; Anderson-Brulé Architects with offices in San Jose and Santa Cruz, CA. This approach has worked exceedingly well for ABA and has opened up marketing opportunities in strategic planning, now a significant part of their client services mix.

3

A small but growing number of U.S. design practices are building QM systems based on the international standard for quality management, ISO 9001:2000—Quality management systems - Requirements. Most of these are now in the Detroit area, as leading auto manufacturers (all certified to ISO 9001) put pressure on their consultants to follow suit.

4

There is a growing trend for the larger design practices to address issues of quality through the formation of internal “universities,” an idea that has its roots in TQM. Motorola made a concerted drive to win the first Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the middle 1980s. Its vehicle for doing so was called Six Sigma—a set of statistical and management tools and methodologies developed by Motorola. Its goal was to increase customer satisfaction, productivity and shareholder value; the strategy won Motorola the Baldrige prize for manufacturing QM in 1988.

The team that developed Six Sigma became the core of the “Motorola University,” teaching these skills to other organizations around the world—and establishing internal “universities” in diverse organizations. That experience is now a model for high-profile internal training programs worldwide.

The skills developed and taught within these private universities are regarded as important parts of the practices’ intellectual property and, therefore, key to their commercial advantage.

5

Can denial be a trend? Small and mid-sized practices cannot afford to establish these sophisticated in-house training schools, which puts many of them at a disadvantage. What is the trend here? I don’t know, but it appears on the surface to be one of head-in-the-sand denial of reality.

Most U.S. observers report that there is deep and widespread resistance to the idea of embracing any kind of systematic method of quality improvement. The reasons seem to be not entirely logical, and include some wildly paranoid ideas; for example, that QM is only another way to turn the profession of architecture into a commodity, to be bought and sold strictly on the basis of price. That pressure is certainly there, but there is no evidence that QM is being used as cudgel in this battle, or has anything to do with it at all.

The Japanese architects I worked with in Tokyo say that they couldn’t get work without being certified to ISO 9001—the client culture expects that as an “entry-level” statement of competence. The reality is having a recognizable quality system in operation is one of the best ways for a mid-sized design practice to distinguish itself from competitors, and to “add value” to its services offerings. But that is another paper.

6

There is a deeply disturbing trend in the quality of contract documentation. Paul Tilley, a researcher with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), recently conducted research to review the quality of design and documentation in construction. The overall objective of this ongoing research is to identify strategic initiatives and provide implementation guidelines for both public and private sectors of the Australian building and construction industry, aimed at improving overall design and documentation quality and leading to improvements in the whole construction process. *

Research completed in 1999 found that contractors believed that documentation quality had declined significantly over the previous 12-15 years, by nearly 37 percent. Further research in 2001 indicated this rate of decline was continuing. The original research also found the decline in documentation quality largely mirrored, and was related to, a reduction in overall design fee values (24 percent) over the same period of time. The research concluded, “It would appear … that the levels of fees being obtained may well be significantly below those required to provide quality design and documentation services.”

Researchers also found that “a decline in design and documentation quality … corresponded to a decline in construction process efficiency, which can be gauged by the extent of occurrence of the non-desirable elements of construction, such as rework, variations, cost overruns, extensions of time, programme delays, contractual disputes and requests for information.”

It’s interesting that both designers and contractors agree that fees are too low to provide adequate levels of service, while more recent research indicates this view is not shared by the clients—who believe that whatever level of fees they are able to obtain should be appropriate to deliver the job. In other words, the clients see the level of service as a constant to be delivered, and that they are only trying to obtain the best price for that fixed service: e.g., adequate documentation.

Clearly, by buying into fee competition as a way to get work, designers are creating the perception that the services cost less than they really do—a dangerous spiral. In reality, as the level of fees decline, so does the level of service and the quality of documentation.

I know of no similar research in the states, but U.S. market conditions are similar to those in Australia. Abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that the same thing is happening in the U.S.


This final point is not a trend description, but an observation of some powerful factors affecting the future of the profession of architecture. Perhaps the best description of the condition is “a confused milling around.” A trend has not yet emerged, although one may over the next 24 months.
There is a worldwide movement toward greater accountability in business generally, which has swept along with it some major accounting practices, as we well know. The whole idea of a “profession” is itself imperiled, and under attack by no less than governments in some civilized countries.

This worldwide movement seeks to set fixed standards of value and then buy them for the lowest possible price, ignoring the old adage that “You get what you pay for.” Architects have not responded well to this shift. Response so far has been competition at unsustainable levels of value performance, that in the end have heavily damaged the profession’s reputation and significantly undernourished its viability.
The old method for providing operating comfort of setting standard fees throughout the profession has been outlawed, and nothing useful has replaced it.

There are huge changes going on in the world around the design professions, as in other professions such as law and medicine. Industry worldwide has dramatically increased its efficiency, but not without human costs. Even with the advent of computers and IT, architects still practice more or less the way they always have, and most do not see the need to evolve. To me, this suggests some dramatic, perhaps wrenching changes for the profession. What will that future look like? Who will own it? Hard to tell when one’s head is planted firmly in the sand.

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