Believe it: Quality counts

Jun 17, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 9.01.27 AMIf a firm wants to succeed at a high level, it must keep a keen eye on the documents, and have an ear for what the client needs. It’s my experience that too many firms give lip service to quality assurance and quality control. Quality assurance is the process or set of processes used to measure and assure the quality of a product, while quality control is the process of ensuring products and services meet consumer expectations. Do you have an active and thorough QA/QC program in your firm? If not, why not? If you were to ask your clients, “How important is it that we have a QA/QC program?” how do you think they would respond? Probably with something like, “WHAT? What kind of question is that? How could we trust you if you didn’t?” While most organizations I talk to claim they have QA/QC processes, when I look deeply into the firm’s practices, the reality of any rigorous QA/QC program is virtually non-existent. I’ve pressed the firms I’ve worked with to query their insurance carrier about what the impact of a well-documented QA/QC, metrics-driven program could have on their insurance rates. Their jaws have dropped. Yes, QA/QC can pay for itself many times over – not just with reduced rates, but with reduced claims for errors and omissions and fewer claims from contractors for time extensions, which usually find their way to your doorstep if an error in your drawing is the cause. In our business, quality assurance relates to the accuracy and completeness of the documents from which a project will be built. There are a few excellent methods to catch problems before your drawings get into the contractor’s hands. In 1976 when I opened an office for Gensler in Los Angeles, one of the young, aspiring architects I hired came to me one morning and said, “We need some grey hair around here,” meaning someone who had seen every flaw in a set of drawings that could be made and who would review and mark up the drawings for correction. Subsequently, we got a three-for-one package when we hired the senior architect the young architect recommended. John Perkins had an eagle eye for errors, inconsistencies, missing information and inappropriate or impossible-to-build details. He was also a great coach and a wonderful specification writer. He had the ability to teach a group of young practitioners how to put together a complete and consistent set of drawings, but also how to completely connect the drawings with the specifications. The latter is one of the greatest flaws that lead to claims in the field or, worse, in the courtroom. We made it a practice never to let a set of drawings out of the office without John’s scrutiny and feedback. No one ever resented it, and all of us became stronger practitioners. We kept metrics on how we were doing:
  • Number of plan-check corrections
  • Number of Requests for Information (RFIs) from the contractor
  • Number of Change Orders & Claims
When John finally retired for good, and we grew, it was too much for one person. We had several senior production people who took on John’s role. At various milestones in a project (schematic design, design development, then at 50 percent completion of construction documents, and finally at 100 percent), someone reviewed each project, looking for buildability, completeness and accuracy. The overseer shared the responsibility to guide and instruct the person or team that had done the job. Not just anyone is well suited for this quality assurance role. It’s essential to assign someone who has a keen eye, a clear understanding of how drawings and specifications support one another, and a personal coaching style that is supportive of learning. Beyond making sure drawings are completed and accurate, quality control ensures the work is a consistent and creative solution to what the client is trying to accomplish. Think about it: The building has been completed on time/on budget, with no errors or omissions, no disputes, and a very happy relationship between owner, architect and contractor – but it’s the wrong building! It doesn’t accomplish its purpose very well. It’s a church where the parishioners don’t feel spiritual and don’t put much in the offering plate. It’s a call center where turnover increases, raising recruiting and training costs. It’s a hospital where rates of infection go up and post-operative patient stays increase. We always started every project by asking key questions about the metrics our clients wanted to track to be sure the building was affecting business performance indicators in a positive manner. We asked the client why they had hired us, what they saw in us that they felt would make their business perform successfully. We needed to know what was important to them. We displayed these client notes, often in the form of a large storyboard, at each design meeting, so we could check in with the client to see if these were still the priorities, or if something needed to be added. We presented each design element, describing how it would affect behavior in such a way that it enhanced business performance. Post completion, we gathered statistical evidence from the client to be certain our design had accomplished what we and the client set out to do. This process kept us focused on the project goals, and gave us a body of data about our work. It also helped set a cultural attitude about what we were doing on each succeeding project. Give these ideas a try. Let me know if your work improves, your insurance rates go down, your staff has a better time, and your clients tell other potential clients how terrific you are. Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1149 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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