Getting Quality Output

Sep 22, 2016

“John,” the president, CEO, and co-founder of a 250-person midwestern E/A firm, was frustrated. After so many years of success, it seemed to him that all he was doing now was de-fusing irate clients, talking with lawyers, and dealing with insurance companies. The grim reality of the situation was starting to sink in— his firm had a quality problem. Sure, John’s firm claimed to have all of the “usual” QA/QC procedures. The firm used CADD whenever it could. They claimed to make periodic checks along the way during the course of every project by the most senior person in each discipline area. All drawings were reviewed and signed off on by senior professionals. They even read specifications before they went out. John talked about quality at every company-wide meeting. He appointed a director of QA/QC and started a company-wide quality committee made up of representatives from each discipline area to figure out what was wrong and fix it. Yet, in spite of all these efforts, something in the system was breaking down. Short schedules and tight budgets didn’t lend themselves to periodic reviews by senior professionals. No one wanted to let the director of QA/QC look at a project because his time was so expensive it killed the budget. The company-wide quality committee always seemed to be meeting, but couldn’t get any of their initiatives adopted, even for seemingly simple things like drawing standards or standard details. And on top of it all, every week there seemed to be a new form to fill out! John was beside himself. So he finally went off for a long weekend retreat with a couple of his smartest staffers to a nearby resort to map out a new strategy for dealing with the problem. Here’s what they came up with: The firm was trying to build-in quality after the fact. Close examination revealed that just about all of the efforts aimed at quality improvement in John’s firm were geared to reviews and corrections after the job had been done. With the margins in the A/E business, by then, it’s too late. The firm had the wrong organization structure. John’s firm had the typical matrix structure with discipline departments and project managers who operated outside of those departments, drawing on the necessary resources from each department to accomplish their projects. The problem was that “Sally,” an electrical engineer, would find herself simultaneously working on a hospital project, an airport terminal, an auto parts warehouse, and an elementary school, and each one had completely different requirements. She, along with all of the others just like her, could not switch gears fast enough. The firm was not paying attention to its hiring process. John’s firm always prided itself in good fiscal management. Since labor is always the biggest line item in any A/E or environmental consulting firm, they never hired in advance of a need, and added staff only as a last resort. As a result, when they did finally go out to try to hire someone, it was almost always a crisis situation. They ran ads and hired the most-nearly qualified person who responded at the moment. Thus they got the best of the unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed, people who may have had the technical qualifications to fill their roles— but not the well-rounded “consultants” the firm really needed to be successful in this business. The principals were disconnected from the business. Other than John, only a couple of partners were actively involved with clients— selling work, managing work, or doing work. The rest had become full-time administrators over the years, delegating virtually everything that they didn’t want to do and slowly withdrawing from the real work of the business. Most were now department heads, dealing with things such as scheduling problems, or administrators worrying about the returns on the 401(k) plan, or worse, simply going out to lunch at the club and getting bombed every day. They didn’t know what was going on and weren’t applying their expertise to the work. They were not equipped to do quality reviews, and the staff did not respect their opinions. The staff had a negative attitude toward the firm’s clients. Blue-collar attitudes had been tolerated for so long that the whole culture of John’s firm was one of hostility toward clients (who in reality were the lifeline of the organization). As far as the employees were concerned, the clients never paid the firm well enough, never gave the firm enough time to do the job, and wouldn’t spend the money required for the firm to do the job right. Then on top of it, they were slow to pay their bills when the work was completed. The firm never measured quality and reported on it to the staff. Beyond a few of the principals, no one in the firm really knew how many claims the company had made against them. No one had any idea of how many jobs required re-work after construction started, or how much these efforts really cost the firm in terms of lost profits. And, the firm never undertook any formal effort to find out what their clients really thought about them. After their two-day meeting, John went back to the company with a renewed sense of purpose. He eliminated pointless forms that did not contribute to the firm’s core process. He disbanded committees that couldn’t get out of first gear. He made sure that the standards which were set were followed. He overhauled the hiring process to make sure the firm built up a database of candidates in advance of the need. He fired the most obsolete principals, and redirected the others to get back to work again. He set up a team-based organization structure that gave the project managers permanently assigned staff. He implemented a new reward system and gave the first-line supervisors control over wage and salary increase budgets. And, he measured a wide variety of quality indicators and reported on them to all staff each month. The result— Johns’ firm is back on track, and his work days are more fun again. How about yours?

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