Quality Management 101

In a professional design practice, there are 6 main management facets, discussed under the corresponding hexagonal links above right:

Practice, Client Relationships, Risk, Quality, Design, and Projects.

Quality Management

Quality Management (QM), like risk, is everywhere, all the time, an integral part of the design process, whether or not visibly present or acknowledged.

Indeed, in most design practices quality decisions are made almost unconsciously, as designers balance the varied and complex drivers for project execution. The myth that “QA is about paperwork” is simply wrong and confuses the issue needlessly.

A  better way to think about QM is to appreciate that it is about being able to retain the decision-making process, and be able to refer back to it as the project moves through its various stages. Or, indeed, months or years later when the spector of risk rears its ugly head. In that context, QM is about decision-retrieval – NOT about useless paperwork.

A  common error designers make when they read the international quality standard (ISO 9001) is to assume they need to keep “records of records”. If your primary records are in order, they are all the records any logical QM system needs.

QM has (in this DesignNode model) 4 main functions listed below (D01-D04). In addition, this section houses some related documents (D05-D08). Actually, there are more than 4 functions – there are 10 sections, 28 articles and 43 clauses in the international standard ISO 9001. However, these 4 that I’m highlighting are the ones you really need to think about if you are considering going down the ISO 9001 certification path.

D01     Quality Planning
D02     Leadership
D03     Project Quality Reviews
D04     Continual Improvement
D05     CHECKIT System
D06     MQIA Key Resources
D07     MQIA Papers
D08     Outstanding Examples of Quality

Quality Planning

Quality planning is a requirement of ISO 9001, but it also makes just plain good sense. The standard requires the following planning actions:

  • Determine external/internal issues relevant to its purpose and strategic direction, and monitor and review information about those issues.
  • Determine “interested parties” relevant to its QM system, the requirements of those parties, and monitor/review information about them. (For us, “interested parties” are clients, approval agencies, and other stakeholders.)
  • Determine risks & opportunities that need to be addressed to give assurance that the QM system can achieve its desired results, enhance “desired effects”, prevent or reduce undesired effects, and achieve improvement.
  • Plan actions to address these risks and opportunities, integrate and implement these actions, and evaluate their effectiveness.
  • Document and maintain information on quality objectives.

I’ve abbreviated the requirements here, but that’s the gist of it. Although designers use different words to describe these actions, they already do most of them. What most don’t do is to make this planning explicit – it is typically more of an “oral culture” – always open to interpretation and consequential risk.

One of the problems is the unfamiliarity of the “Esperanto” of the quality standard, which many find hard to translate into the language of architecture and engineering. Relax! Help is at hand – see sidebar. Managing Quality in Architecture is your guide to successful implementation of ISO 9001.

Although published in 1996, prior to the release of the 2008 version of the standard, it is still relevant. This guide includes chapters from 22 authorities on QM in all aspects of the built environment.

Quality Leadership

The current version of ISO 9001 has expanded the leadership and commitment requirements for top management with a more detailed description of management’s responsibilities for quality, maintaining a client focus, and establishing, communicating and implementing a quality policy; but has removed the requirement to maintain records on these actions other than to document its quality policy.

Frankly, there is nothing onerous in any of it – it’s what you would expect of involved and conscientious firm leaders. All of these “requirements” could easily be translated into a checklist that leaders went through once a month – or once a quarter or even semi-annually – that might take perhaps 2 hours.

It is hard to get firm leaders to see the need to regularly review their firm’s quality performance, and even if they see the need, to actually make the time do it. Again – oral culture.

Project Quality Reviews

Project quality reviews are an important objective for design professionals. Every design professional I know does project reviews – they are SOP in our industry. Often, even typically, these reviews look at “quality” of the project in the broad context of that idea.

So, the mechanism is there. But where these reviews (or “crits” as architects call them) fall down in regard to ISO 9001 as (a) records of reviews are rarely kept, and designers tend to be a bit sloppy about comparing the design iteration to the client’s stated requirements.

ISO 9001 requires design & development planning, inputs, controls, outputs and changes. OK: I’ve summed up a couple of pages of the standard here. But once you get past the “Esperanto”, this is in fact exactly what we do. The one difference might be that the standard requires you to “retain documented information” on these actions.

Before you leap up to say, AHA! That’s what’s wrong with ISO 9001!, I’d like to ask: Are not your fee agreements, scopes of services, minutes of project control meetings, design submissions of various stages, and specifications, etc. “documented information” on these 5 steps? Of course they are! The normal records of any prudent practice that thinks about risk would satisfy all but the most persnickety of quality assessors.


Continual Improvement

The no-brainer way to think about continual improvement is that every aspect of practice is subject to re-thinking, whenever it no longer operates the way it was intended.

To make this work in practice does require applying some brainpower, at all levels of the practice. That means that:

  • Every member of the firm feels comfortable reporting anything that isn’t working the way it should (and believes they should do so);
  • Project Managers hear their team members, look into any reported inadequacies of process, and report the outcome up to the Quality Manager, Project Directors or Principals as appropriate;
  • Senior management considers and acts on all reported “nonconformities” as they are termed in the international quality standard; and
  • Systems and processes are changed to reflect these actions, and the effects of these changes are monitored for efficacy.

The CHECKIT System

CHECKIT is a simple, durable set of 26 one-page checklists, developed for the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1986, and today implemented directly or indirectly in most Australian architects’ QM systems. The original CHECKIT is available as a free download.

 MQIA Key Resources & MQIA Papers

This site will, in due course, include biographical material on the many contributors to Managing Quality in Architecture, as well as the full version of their contributions (which were mostly shortened due to the publisher’s book length requirements.

Outstanding Examples of Quality

This site will include stories of projects, ancient and current, that for me define “quality”. They will be listed here as they get written.

Two Bridges in France: A very brief look at Lord Norman Foster’s amazing Millau Viaduct and the nearby, 2,000-year old Roman Pont du Gard.

Rethinking Quality Management

I don’t think this page needs a checklist. If you embrace the concept of “quality” at all, especially in today’s rapidly changing world, you really have to accept the idea that “quality” and “continual improvement” are synonymous. If you don’t buy that idea, farewell – you’re living in some other time; some other world. Good luck on your journey.

If you do buy that idea, then your only choice is implement a non-stop, never-ending attitude of rethinking everything about your practice that has to do with “quality” – however you choose to define that word.

Return to Rethinking Quality page.