By Colin Foreman
A look at ISO accreditation and what it means for the construction industry
Qualifying quality: ISO accreditation in the construction industry|~||~||~|Quality can be easy to define. Consumer products can be assigned minimum standards that they must meet. Products can then be tested scientifically in laboratory-type conditions to ensure these standards are met. Such standards have been used around the world for a number of years. The famous British kite mark celebrated its hundredth year last year.
Although construction is all about building an end product, it is more of a process and at the same time to some extent a service. As a process it is more difficult to measure quality. Although buildings are tested thoroughly once complete the results may not truly reveal a contractor’s performance. The job may have been delayed or be horribly over budget.
For a contractor to meet these three criteria it must be well managed and have satisfactory processes in place to ensure that this is so. This is vital, because potential clients must know it is well managed in order for it to be successful in the marketplace.
Amongst other things, the larger contractors in the UAE have used ISO accreditation to achieve this end. By going through the ISO process and drawing up its own quality manuals the contractor shows that at the very least it is moving in the right direction towards quality management. “A company that is ISO certified is not necessarily superb, but it does mean the company is trying to talk one language in terms of quality,” says Jamal Chaykhouni, group quality systems manager, Dutco Balfour Beatty Construction.
By the mid 1990s a number of contractors in the UAE had been accredited to the 1994 version. Although this was a step in the right direction the version was much more of a document-orientated system. “It did mean that companies had to document their operations throughout departments. This ranged from head office duties through to work on site, the written word was critical,” says Richard Corish, quality assurance manager, Al Habtoor Engineering.
Despite the benefits that the 1994 version delivered it was generally perceived as a rigid system that did not really permeate right through a company at every level, instead it tended to organise the upper echelons of the management process. The ISO 9001: 2000 more closely resembles a truly integrated management system, but above also else, it places greater emphasis on customer satisfaction.
By doing this, the standard delivers to contractors one of the main aims of going through the accreditation process in the first place. Satisfied customers are likely to be repeat customers, and in an industry such as construction where the number of quality clients is limited, and bad news travels fast, repeat business is of paramount importance. ISO accredited companies must gather customer feedback and analyse it to learn how best to satisfy the customer. From this data, and from suggestions from within, the company is able to improve, the second major theme of ISO 9001: 2000.
Apart from data gathered externally information from within the company should also be considered. Indeed, as a flexible working document, the quality manual drawn up for ISO 9001: 2000 can be revised. “The procedures set down are always open to change. Should somebody come up with an innovation then it will be reviewed, and if it is a valid point and does improve the business, then it will be implemented,” says Chris Barry, operation manager, BK Gulf.
The channels for feedback should always be open, but the ISO quality manual also prescribes audits when feedback can be given. Audits are conducted internally and externally – with ISO Certified auditors – in order to guarantee that an interface for feedback exists. Such improvements from within help boost customer satisfaction by detecting any potential problems before they are passed onto the customer.
The audit also examines the various facets of the business. In the case of contractors it would involve the commercial, financing, estimating, procurement construction operations. By checking and ensuring that the procedures laid down in the quality manual are actually adhered to.
This is necessary as in any organisation it is natural to expect a certain degree of resistance to change and reluctance to implement new procedures. Employees who have been performing their duties for years may feel that the standards are not needed. Another reason is that people often do not wish to see themselves as pawns merely performing prescribed job functions – this should not be the case if the quality manual is formulated correctly and allows innovation. If innovation is sacrificed the manual will not work, as internally driven improvement will be stifled.
“You must allow people a dialogue, otherwise they will not be innovative because you have stifled their thought,” says Corish.
Looking forward ISO 9001: 2000 aims for continual improvement. Although the current standards are of benefit to the construction industry they are still generic, however it should focus more on process integration & details useful to the industry as they move further towards being a total quality management solution. “It is not quite at that stage yet, but it is moving in the right direction. “Under total quality management process and results are integrated and Organisations may adapt to the fast changing environment in a more Dynamic pattern . The British Quality Foundation and European Foundation on Quality go a little further than ISO and I think that is the way ISO should go,” says Chaykhouni.
Despite having some way to go before it becomes a total management system, ISO 9001: 2000 has been successful in attracting companies to begin thinking about the quality of their management. Once companies begin this thought process it is likely that they, along with ISO will develop towards the ultimate aim of total quality management.