TQM tools for the construction industry

Posted: October 28, 2011 in TQM


by Lahndt, Leslie


Total Quality Management (TQM) techniques have been used extensively and beneficially in the areas of manufacturing and industrial engineering to control processes and prevent defects before they happen, ultimately saving millions of dollars. The construction industry needs the same types of tools and for the same reasons, but due to the dissimilarity between industries, cannot apply them as they are. This article presents NSF funded research on TQM use in the construction industry, which tools are most essential for adaptation, and critical criteria for applying TQM to the construction industry.


Because of the construction industry’s inherent competitive bid process and competitive environment, there has been and still is an emphasis on quick work and short time horizons, and a lack of emphasis on long term viability and quality (McCollough and Benson, 1993). The total quality management TQM concepts which have been developed to improve quality and the control of quality in manufacturing and process engineering are broadly applicable (Feigenbaum, 1989). This includes construction where the concepts are being slowly adopted As these concepts are recognized by the construction industry, mentalities are shifting to acknowledge quality as a primary construction goal. There is, however, much dissimilarity between the areas of manufacturing and industrial engineering and the areas of construction engineering and management. TQM techniques are desperately needed in the construction industry, but before the techniques can be wellapplied they must be adapted for the construction industry.

A 1996 NSF research planning grant funded this preliminary research. Its intent was to identify the status of TQM knowledge in the construction industry, to identify the critical components for adapting the most essential TQM techniques (which were also identified by this research), and finally to initiate research on applying TQM techniques in the construction industry.

Industry Status

Millions of dollars of public money are spent each year in the construction industry. A significant portion of this money is lost as a result of shoddy work, poor construction management, and the competitive environment of the construction industry (McKim and Kiani, 199S; Mann and Wells, 1994). The construction industry is dynamic, risky, and extremely competitive. The number of companies desiring to be contractors and the competitive bidding process which awards contracts to the lowest qualified bidder result in emphasizing quick work and short time horizons to the detriment of long term viability and quality.

In 1993 the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) issued a 300-page manual on how to implement TQM in a construction company (Tuchman, 1993). The manual emphasizes the attitude of quality in a company as demonstrated by partnering, team building, and employee empowerment. This effort formalized the effort of some in the industry to endorse the concepts of TQM in the hopes that their application would improve the industry as a whole. However, the construction industry is still in a very immature state of realizing TQM benefits (Boaden and Dale, 1992). The efforts thus far have been to encourage construction industry acceptance of TQM concepts and to suggest general guidelines on how to implement a TQM program within an individual company to improve project control.

This has been a good start, but there are still barriers to successful implementation of TQM in construction. A few of these barriers have been overcome. The overall training and attitudes of workers and field managers, as well as the quality of plans and specifications are improving (McCollough and Benson, 1993). The competitive market of the industry, which places quality as a distant goal (if at all) behind meeting deadlines and budgets, will not be changing anytime soon; however, the mental barrier preventing quality from being an equal goal with deadlines and budgets is diminishing. Companies that have begun a TQM program are convinced that the cost savings are even more substantial and far-reaching than they have been able to validate in firm numbers. These cost savings are primarily a result of improvements within the management of the companies, better trained employees, and a focus on quality which has permeated the company (Burati et al, 1992).

Acceptance of TQM concepts in construction has pulled the industry out of a crisis mode that existed for quite some time (Deming, 1986). Quality and the control of quality have, in the large sense, been recognized as vital to the continued success and well-being of a construction company, and acceptance of the importance of quality and quality control continues to grow in the industry (Abbott, 1993; Burati et al, 1991). The change of attitude has seen some cost savings for those companies implementing a TQM approach (Biggar, 1990). However, there still exist significant barriers to implementing TQM in the construction industry. Among these are the lack of procedural instruments for applying TQM to a new industry (Davis, 1994 and Greene, 1993).

The construction industry has reached the point where intentions of quality need to become actions of quality. It is only through applying TQM that the emphasis on quality and the quality “attitude” will develop results. Without appropriate methodologies for applying TQM concepts to construction, the industry is left with nothing more than good intentions.

A Survey of the Construction Industry

The primary goal of the NSF research planning grant was to identify the critical components for successfully adapting TQM techniques to the construction industry. The results fall into three areas. First, identify the events in construction which were critical to the efficient and effective use of time and money, and critical determinants of project quality. Second, identify the current level and type of technology used in the construction industry. Finally, review TQM concepts endorsed by the construction industry and those not well-accepted.

To acquire this information a survey instrument was developed requesting information in each of the three areas (see Exhibit 1). The survey was sent to the entire membership of the Dallas Chapter of AGC (Associated General Contractors of America), numbering over 650 general and specialty contractors. The 16% response rate slightly exceeds the statistical average survey response rate of 15%. The survey instrument was open-ended and was not intended to gain statistical data and did not query about specific TQM tools or techniques until a known level of knowledge and desire to implement TQM became apparent. As such the survey instrument did not pin point information specific to certain tools or techniques. It was very effective in revealing insightful views of what is happening in the industry now and where the industry is heading, as well as TQM understanding within the industry, and in identifying the desired critical criteria. Obviously, there is a chance that the construction industry in the Dallas area lags or leads other area in adopting TQM. However, for exploratory research a focus on one area was thought to be better than a study with a wider geographical coverage, but lacking depth in any area.

Survey Findings

Exhibit 2 is a qualitative summary of survey results. A discussion of the most important aspects of these results follows.

Well over 80% of the responses indicated that training, and very capable personnel, were critical to their firm’s overall success. This is an excellent indication that the TQM concepts pertaining to training programs and to continuous improvement have pervaded industry thinking. Better-trained employees was one of the things recognized as contributing to cost savings in companies which have endorsed TQM (Burati et al, 1992). Well over 80% of the responses also indicated that quality plans and specifications as well as conformance to those plans and specifications are critical determinants of project quality. The quality of plans and specifications has been recognized previously as being important to the final quality of a project, and the quality of these plans and specifications have improved over the years (McCollough and Benson, 1993). Conformance has been used by many, such as Phil Crosby, to define quality. For contractors to list conformance as a critical determinant of project quality is to effectively define project quality as conformance to the plans and specifications. This is not only appropriate, but also recognizes that the project’s design, engineering, and documentation are critical to the project’s quality. Assuming that conformance to plans and specifications is achieved, the resulting project quality would then be determined by the project’s initial design and engineering. All of this implies that owners, designers, engineers, and builders must effectively communicate and work together if a high level of project quality is to be achieved.




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