Civil Engineering Construction Methods

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Total Quality Management (“TQM”) is an approach to continuous improvement of quality widely used in manufacturing. The core principle behind TQM is the idea that every member of a team has important contributions to make to an ongoing focus on high quality standards – from contract employees all the way to top executives.

TQM is a highly structured approach that has traditionally faced headwinds in implementation in construction. For a TQM program to be successful, processes must be developed to benchmark current levels of quality and improve upon them. Thorough documentation is needed alongside regular milestone reviews and detailed reporting from project stakeholders.

With the help of an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving, however, many innovations are being made in an effort to bring practical, repeatable TQM implementation to construction. Although the learning curve may be steep, the potential benefits are considerable.

The Importance of Quality Improvement

In manufacturing, conventional TQM implies a data-driven approach to reducing product defects over time. The quality of a manufacturing process can be measured on a quantitative basis using statistical modeling and analysis. Although a construction project contains too many variables to directly “translate” this process, the advantages of proactive quality management are undeniable.

Some of the key advantages gained through quality management include:

  • Improved Timelines: Timeline issues are a significant cause of budget overruns and serve to compound all the hazards inherent to any project – including safety issues, legal liabilities, and many others. Even a single day saved can make a significant difference.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Attention to quality helps ensure adequate personnel and resources are allocated at all phases of a project and that potential challenges are properly prepared for. This raises overall productivity and reduces costly procurement and rework.
  • Enhanced Safety: Safety is a paramount goal at any worksite. When work is performed efficiently and backed by a commitment to safety, reportable incidents can be reduced. Lessons learned in quality improvement can be applied to generate safety best practices.
  • Improved Workmanship: Every day a project is “live” helps determine the future fate of the structure. Overall cost of ownership and limits of usage are determined every day by the quality of the effort each stakeholder invests to realize the project’s aims.

Lack of knowledge, resources, or expertise in conventional quality management approaches can hinder their implementation on the worksite. However, some fundamental quality management practices, such as inspections, are very familiar. End-to-end approaches with the specific needs of the construction industry in mind are being synthesized more and more often.

Root Cause Analysis and Quality Improvement

Quality improvement is particularly important in compliance-driven environments, such as projects using federal procurements. FTA quality management guidelines include root cause analysis of faults, documentation of findings, and preventive measures aimed at keeping issues from recurring. In future projects, these measures are implemented during site inspection.

Root cause analysis can make use of the “Five Whys.” Here, the quality expert investigating a problem asks “why?” to the explanation given five times. This helps go beyond the observable symptoms of a problem to address real causes. For example, what appears to be an equipment malfunction could actually be caused by operator oversight, unclear instructions, and so on.

Work Sampling – A Popular Quantitative Approach to Construction Quality

Work sampling is a method of evaluating labor productivity by analyzing the way time is allocated and spent by personnel on the worksite. This divides the resulting timeframes into three categories that quality leaders can then seek to improve on:

  • Productive: Productive time consists of all activity contributing to physical construction of the project – painting, laying pipe, placing insulation, and so on as dictated by the skills of the worker being observed.
  • Supportive: Supportive time consists of necessary labor that directly supports productive time. This can include taking required measurements, blending paint, and so on. It does not include administrative paperwork.
  • Non-Productive: Non-productive time consists of all time that is effectively “wasted” and could be converted into productive time through improved processes. Arriving late or ending early accounts for the most non-productive time.

In practice, work sampling consists of observing individual workers at a specific time, creating a “snapshot” of the activity that was taking place. Work samples should be unannounced, and should be taken regularly until enough data is available to develop statistical insights. With a high quantity of samples, process improvement can be made efficient by targeting key issues.

Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QA & QC)

With the TQM method generally used for building projects, another method used by civil engineers for a variety of construction products is the FTS’s method of quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC). Using this method, a task is assigned to a construction engineer, and he or she prepares a plan of the work including the steps involved. Once the plan is finish, a meeting is held which is attended by representatives from multiple organizations. The safety professionals create a safety plan and QC determines the forms required for the task as well as any quality issues and what needs to be inspected.

The next meeting that occurs is at the site where the project is to be performed. This meeting contains representatives from the first meeting and all of the on site workmen involved. Work begins after this meeting and QC is on site to monitor materials and procedures. QA is also on site to observe and runs approximately 10% of the tests that a QC runs. QA checks on the quality of the product and project, and along with QC, files all appropriate documentation for future reference.

Current Trends in Productivity Improvement

Measuring productivity in construction is a multi-faceted task that requires developing the right metrics and focusing on key goals. Productivity can be measured at both the project level and at the task level. Although task-level performance is more granular, the construction industry has traditionally had great success monitoring it.

Many factors can contribute to enhanced productivity:

  • Better Scheduling: As there are only a limited number of workers who can apply efforts meaningfully to a given task at one time, scheduling crews so all members operate at maximum “output” for longer periods in a shift can be valuable. Limiting overtime and late night shifts can also contribute to improved productivity.
  • Improved Design Practices: Embracing innovative design practices can reduce time spent on individual tasks. Likewise, being proactive in incorporating new technology can raise productivity while curbing risk. Both these approaches require adequate supervision and support structures outside the individual project scope.
  • Field Employee Training: Lack of knowledge may be the biggest factor hindering the growth of new efficiencies. Not only should employees receive regular refreshers on the basics, but they should also be encouraged to develop their skills and become familiar with new tools and techniques that could have a significant cumulative impact on quality.

Innovative approaches to quality management may be among the keys to competitiveness in the construction industry of tomorrow. As experts in synthesizing the many inputs that make a project possible, civil engineers will no doubt have major contributions to make as construction leaders seek better, safer, and faster ways to achieve their goals.