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  • 01: Construction Quality Programs, Does One Size Really Fit All ?

    While a Construction Quality Program can take on many forms, depending on owner agency resources and preferences, funding agency mandates, project type and size, project delivery mechanism, and numerous other variables, most effective programs involve a well orchestrated combination of construction management, verification through inspection and measurement, and physical property and behavior quantification through materials testing.  At the risk of gross oversimplification, the basic objective of any quality seeking program is to assure that by the end of the project, compliance with the contract documents has been both achieved and documented.   Most large public works agencies with multi-billion dollar construction programs, for example State highway departments, have developed, implemented, evolved and documented their own procedurally driven Construction Quality Programs, that when applied to all of their projects in aggregate, serves to validate their construction program as a whole.  In fact, even individual mega-projects, typically approaching a hundred million or more in construction value, often utilizing some form of alternate delivery method, employ their own well defined and regimented project specific quality programs in order to satisfy owner requirements, and upstream funding agency obligations.  A well conceived, and properly implemented Construction Quality Program will mandate the procedures and establish the checks and balances that are necessary for achieving consistent quality on very large agency wide efforts, yet that same Construction Quality Program may not be applicable to a relatively small individual, stand alone, construction project without scaling as appropriate, adapting to the specific conditions of the job, and considering the entities and roles involved.    Every agency, big and small, needs to understand and appreciate their own overall quality objectives, and define their own role in that process, before establishing quality program standards for their jobs.

    If you just have just finished this article and noted to yourself that the terms Quality Control and Quality Assurance were missing, your observation is correct.  Such terminology was intentionally avoided to reinforce my main point that all quality focused programs share a common objective, regardless of the names and labels applied, or the buzzwords thrown into the conversation.

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  • 02: Materials Testing and Quality Oriented Terminology

    Introduction – The quality of each material incorporated into a construction project is controlled by sampling and testing, comparing tests results with specification requirements, determining compliance status, and then responding accordingly.  On the surface that sounds like a pretty simple and straight forward statement; however, for those of us entrenched in the “Quality” assessment sector of the construction management and oversight industry, we know differently.  As it turns out, on a given project, the activities described above are often performed by multiple parties, at different frequencies, in different locations, and for different purposes. To further complicate matters, there is “Quality” terminology associated with all the roles and responsibilities that are involved in the activities above, and that terminology is often used incorrectly, incompletely, out of context, and inconsistently.  Hey, believe me, I understand  and appreciate that the “Quality” terminology is not always intuitive; however, as an industry member running a company whose project scope is often directly and significantly affected by the manner in which “Quality” terminology is used in RFPs, bid documents, and contracts, I have an interest in at least trying to clarify the basics.  My goal here is not to generate more, or less, need for materials testing, on any given project.  My only goal here is to have “Quality” terminology used correctly and consistently so that my potential future clients can more accurately convey the  magnitude of the materials testing services that they seek.  Once all parties are speaking the same language, and are interpreting terms in the same manner, the ultimate result will be a much better alignment between the client’s project service expectations and the materials testing firm’s proposed project budget.

    If you have 10 to 20 hours to kill, and an interest in the all inclusive concept of quality programs as applied to major design and construction efforts, let me suggest the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) document entitled Quality Assurance and Quality Control Guidelines (available on the fta.dot.gov website).  If you only have a couple hours to kill, and want an implementable materials testing example of the same type of content, tailored for a highway department, try Series 900 of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) Materials Testing Manual, Materials Quality Assurance Program.  Of course the CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS, 23 CFR 637, Subpart B, “Quality Assurance Procedures for Construction” is another good source.  But, if you just have 10 minutes and only want a few quick and applicable definitions, read on.  Keep in mind that a “Quality” organization deals with any and all products and services , but in my discussion below, I have attempted to relate the definitions to materials testing, and have also touched on how these concepts are supposed to compliment each other.

    Quality Control (QC)The operational techniques and activities that are used to fulfill defined requirements for quality.  QC is carried out by the operating or producing forces, which in most cases means the Contractor and those under his contractual umbrella.  In the context of materials testing, QC refers to the act of taking measurements, testing, and inspecting a placement process or end product to assure that it meets specification.  QC also includes documentation of measurements and observations by QC personnel, reporting compliance status to production forces for them to act upon, and ultimately verifying that any non-complying work has eventually been brought into compliance.  QC is NOT just the act of testing, but also includes the follow-up actions taken by production forces in response to testing.  When testing indicates compliance, the Contractor’s production activities are validated; however, when testing indicates non-compliance,  the Contractor is expected to adjust his own production methods, equipment, materials, or other activities in search of specification compliance.   QC is an internal operation conducted by the Contractor in order to satisfy himself that his production activities are producing a product that achieves the defined and measurable quality requirements.  When Contractors approach QC as a valuable tool for refining their operations in an attempt to avoid costly re-work and delay, they will commit the resources that it takes to actually control the quality of their product in real time.  While many Contractors take this regimented and formalized approach to quality on their own, the construction industry trend since the 1970s has been a gradual shift of more and more risk and responsibility to Contractors on public works projects, and as a result, Owner Agency mandated Contractor QC programs have become the norm.

    Quality Assurance (QA) – All planned and systematic actions that are necessary to provide adequate confidence to “management” that a product or service will satisfy the defined requirements for quality.   In this case, “management” is a designated higher level entity or authority such as Quality Oversight, Quality Surveillance, or most often the Owner Agency.  QA emphasizes upstream actions that directly improve the chances that QC actions will result in a product or service that meets the requirements.  Upstream actions include ensuring that the project requirements are appropriate for the intended product and ensuring that contractors are capable of performing tasks related to project quality, ensuring that they do carry out quality requirements, and ensuring that they do document quality efforts and compliance status.  At this point in the discussion, in order to stay within my self prescribed 10 minutes,  I am going to have to draw the line.  On a massive, billion dollar, design-build or P3 type project, even the function of creating and implementing an all encompassing higher level Quality Assurance Program, that contains the Quality Control Program, is assigned to the Contractor.  But QA programs on such mega projects, while effective, are quite complex and often significantly hybridized.  I am honestly trying to keep this simple, so for the remainder of this conversation, let’s assume that the QA role belongs to the Owner Agency.

    Acceptance TestingEven though Contractor QC testing is being conducted to control the product during production, the Owner still has a responsibility to assure himself, any higher level funding agencies, and the taxpayers, that he is only accepting and paying for work after his own verification efforts to confirm compliance. In the old days, there was no such thing as Contractor QC testing, there was only Acceptance testing.  Owner agencies were sufficiently staffed and so inclined to perform materials testing on a near continuous basis, which in effect, means that Owners were performing the testing portion of the QC function for the Contractor.  As the shift toward formalized Contractor QC became more prevalent, Owner Agencies did not stop Acceptance testing altogether, they just reduced their testing frequency, and in some cases changed the name to Verification testing.  Over the years, since this second level testing is part of the QA Program, some began incorrectly referring to Verification testing as QA testing, but for all intents and purposes, it is still just Acceptance testing.  The theory is that if Contractor QC tests are performed on a very frequent basis, and Acceptance testing of the same material under the same usage conditions is performed on a less frequent, but statistically significant basis, then the test results produced by each entity are related to each other.  In theory, when frequent QC testing is consistently demonstrating compliance, then less frequent, but well distributed, Acceptance testing of the same material can be used to verify the QC results.  For example, if a single QC test characterizes 200T of a specific material, and five consecutive passing tests are combined to define a 1000T quality lot of material that is claimed to be in compliance, then a single Acceptance test taken randomly within this same 1000T can be utilized to verify the entire quality lot, and hence can form the basis for acceptance. The numbers may vary from those used in this example, but the concept of Acceptance and QC interdependence remains intact.  NOTE: This example is intentionally oversimplified for demonstration purposes.  In reality, while the assumed ratio between QC and Acceptance may be reasonable, a valid statistical comparison between two data sets requires larger populations.

    Independent Assurance (IAS) ProgramThis program consists of IAS testing and Correlation testing performed for the purpose of establishing an unbiased and independent evaluation of the sampling and testing personnel, equipment and procedures used in the acceptance program.  Who performs these IAS actions is a function the project specific organizational structure, but key features are that IAS functions are performed by entities who do not have direct responsibility for Contractor QC or Owner Acceptance testing, and IAS testing is not used for determining the quality and acceptability of materials or workmanship.  This type of program certainly comes into play at the State Highway program level, on select very large projects, and nowadays even at the smaller local public agency level where federal funds are involved.  But that is about as much as I will elaborate on this topic.

    End Result, Quality Assurance Program – The reality is that I have only scratched the surface here when it comes to “quality” terminology; however, I hope that one key point is clear.  All of the materials testing functions discussed above represent a hierarchy for determining materials quality and each level gains confidence from the others.  At the project level, the Contractor QC program involves the smallest quality lots, and if uniformity and compliance is consistently demonstrated at that level, the Acceptance program can have confidence that their less frequent verification conclusions are valid.  Likewise, if the IAS and Correlation testing is statistically confirming the accuracy of the Acceptance testing across all of the projects within an agency program or major project defined corridor, then the Quality Assurance Program within which all of these activities exist is functioning properly, at least with respect to materials testing.

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  • 03: Which Came First, Budget or Scope ?

    BALANCE SCOPE & BUDGET:  One challenge that a materials testing and inspection firm encounters on a regular basis is that of balancing scope and budget.  In reality, it should not be that complicated, but when you only get to load, or unload, one side of the scale, and there are numerous external forces pushing the other side up and down, achieving and maintaining balance can become a continuous struggle.  The testing firm can only control how he employs his own resources such as field labor hours, site visits, laboratory tests, coordination time, data processing and reporting time, and other items such as tools, special equipment and even project specific facilities.  But variables such as how frequently, to what extent, and sometimes even how efficiently, those resources are utilized are significantly influenced, or outright controlled directly, or indirectly, by others.  All of the resources employed by the materials testing firm have real costs associated with them, hence, the more resources committed to a job, the more expensive that job becomes to both the providing firm and the paying client.  And the reality is, changing client demands, and any resulting scope growth, are often major contributors to blown budgets.  Now, having said that, my ultimate objective here is not to deflect budget responsibility, but instead, my goal is to provide some insight into how budget problems develop and how clients and materials testing providers can, and should, work together as a team to keep the materials testing scope and budget properly aligned with each other.

    WIN THE JOB FOR THE SAKE OF WINNING:  For the construction contractor estimators out there, most of you don’t need me to tell you this, but for a service like Contractor Quality Control (QC), the real distinguishing factor you should be focused on when comparing QC bids is the unit rates, not the extended total project cost.  Obviously, you need to look at the total extended cost, but it is in your best interest to assure yourself that the QC resources shown in the bid are reasonably consistent with the defined project requirements, if any, and your own QC service expectations for controlling quality.  The extended total cost is only as accurate as the quantities by which the unit rates are extended, and while I don’t want to get too bogged down in a discussion on unbalanced bidding, rest assured that there are no winners when a materials testing QC contract is won by plugging in unrealistically low hours and numbers of tests just to keep the bottom line artificially low.  Typically, budgets that are conceived with no correlation to realistic project minimum requirements are doomed from the start, and the unfortunate reality is that this can ultimately impact project quality.  For the owners out there, you have a role here too.  If the owner wants to mandate that a Contractor QC program exist on their job, then the full scope of that program, materials covered, test frequencies, and measurable deliverables also needs to be defined in the specifications at bid time.  The more explicitly defined the requirements are, the more likely that a contractor’s bid will reflect those requirements, and if the project is properly priced from the beginning, then theoretically, budget overruns will be less frequent, and when they do exist they will be due to known, planned, and defined scope changes.

    UNPLANNED SCOPE GROWTH:  Even when the materials testing firm is experienced and knowledgeable enough to prepare a realistic and responsible initial cost estimate that will satisfy the project requirements as written, in the end, our clients still usually have complete control over how the construction work is scheduled and sequenced, how rigidly the specifications will be enforced, and when we are invited, allowed, or required, to be on the project.  Above and beyond the contract specifications and agency guidelines, the magnitude of materials testing resources ultimately required to complete a given project will vary significantly depending on the contractor’s philosophy and approach to scheduling construction activities,  the client project manager’s approach to quality assessment, the contractor superintendents or agency inspectors influencing the work on grade, and the level of involvement of any of the external overseeing entities.    When left unchecked or ignored, some of these variables can lead to significant materials testing budget overruns, but that need not be the case.  Rather than look for reasons to justify violated budgets after the fact, a materials testing firm can seek to eliminate overruns before they ever happen by acknowledging that construction projects are extremely chaotic, have constantly changing needs that are not always predictable, and hardly ever go exactly as planned.  By embracing the fact that project success is largely determined by the effectiveness with which key project individuals communicate their needs and expectations to each other, excuses should not be necessary.  The reality is that sometimes the materials testing budget is set by agency project managers, or contractor clients, based on rigidly fixed project percentages or severe funding limitations, and are not based on specific project features or a direct correlation with testing requirements.   When that is the case, the challenge of the materials testing firm is to develop a scope that meets the general objective of compliance assessment while still staying within the prescribed budget.  While making the scope fit the available budget works in theory, in recent years it has become apparent that there is often an unintentional disconnect between the client project managers and estimators who formulated and approved our initial project service scope and budget and the subsequent client individuals requesting our services in the field during construction.   In order to avoid the budget issues that can result from this potential disconnect, the materials testing firm must go to great lengths to proactively communicate with the ground level service requestors so they are aware and appreciative of the scope of service assumptions that guided the budget, and to assure that they are continuously kept abreast of actual cost accumulation in relation to budget status.   By continuously communicating throughout the project, service adjustments can be jointly developed when necessary, and in turn, potential budget issues can be avoided.

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  • 04: AASHTO Accreditation Involves What ?

     

    COMING SOON . . . .

     

     

     

     

     

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