Cracking the Quality Code

October 31, 2014
November/December 2014
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2014 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Over the course of my 30-plus years in the home performance industry, I’ve found that most contractors have only the slightest notion of what constitutes quality work. This became clear to me when, during my talks to contractor groups around the country, I started handing out 3 x 5 cards asking the attendees to write down their definitions of quality. If there were 50 people in the audience, I would usually get back 50 different definitions. In many cases, it was the first time any of them had stopped to think about the subject.

Although most of these people really want to do good work, their lack of clarity concerning good processes makes it hard for them to deliver—and it’s costing them a lot of money.

My aim in this article is to provide a crystal-clear definition of quality, and to give you guidance on how to achieve it. I will also demonstrate why dedication to quality not only pays for itself but also adds to the bottom line.

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John Tooley talks about the effectiveness of process during a session at ACI’s 2013 National Home Performance Conference. (Home Performance Coalition)

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John Tooley tells attendees of the ACI National Home Performance Conference in Denver, Colo., to “think of information as data that makes a difference.” (Home Performance Coalition)

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Figure 1. Checklists minimize the number of customer callbacks by ensuring that the job is done right the first time.

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The Standard Work Specifications offer pictorial guides for contractors to use in the field. Here’s an example for air sealing around windows and doors.

What Is Quality?

The definitions I’ve seen on those 3 x 5 cards include phrases like “goodness,” “better products,” and “work that satisfies the customers”—little more than well-intentioned sentiments. Such sentiments have two major shortcomings: They’re open to interpretation, and they’re not measurable.

Real quality work starts with a definition that’s clear and measurable. Here’s the one I use: Quality is doing agreed-upon requirements and standards. That means for every job, as well as for every part of the job.

Below I offer some definitions of quality that home performance professionals can put to work immediately in their businesses. First, however, it’s important to understand that agreed-upon requirements and standards must leave nothing to the imagination. They cannot be open to interpretation, and they cannot be based on feelings or wishful thinking.

If I agree to make that bonus room above the garage feel more comfortable, that promise is open to interpretation. If the homeowner and I have different interpretations of what feels comfortable, the stage is set for conflicts and callbacks. If, on the other hand, we agree that, after I insulate and air seal the room and install new low-e replacement windows, the temperature in the middle of the room will not deviate more than 5°F from the thermostat set point, then our goal is clear and measurable.

If, after the work is complete, the homeowner decides that a 5°F variation isn’t comfortable enough, we can set a new goal using a different number. But no one can argue that we failed to meet the original goal.

Quality Control Vs. Quality Assurance

In the above example, note that there was a process (measuring the temperature in the middle of the room) in place for determining whether the contractor met the agreed-upon goal. That’s what we mean by quality assurance (QA). It’s the act of measuring—monitoring the work to ensure that the contractor’s processes are working.

If the contractor is working for a utility or government program, as most home performance contractors are, then the program usually does QA. However, if the program isn’t consistent with its QA process, or if the contractor is working for private clients, I’ll make the case that it’s in the contractor’s financial interest to have an in-house QA program.

The above example also implies that the contractor has a set of processes in place to avoid deviating from requirements and standards that would meet the agreed-upon goal. That’s quality control (QC). Unlike quality assurance, QC is always the contractor’s responsibility.

Remember our definition of quality as meeting agreed-upon requirements and standards. Our standard of quality is zero defects. Not 1% or 2% defects, but zero. There are no gray areas here: Either you meet the standard or you don’t. Either that bonus room stays within 5°F of the set point or it doesn’t. Period. In short, we MUST refuse to tolerate defects. Our culture must be one of prevention. When we make a mistake that causes a defect, we set in motion a process that will prevent the mistake from happening again. It’s a standard of zero defects.

The sad truth is that we are fighting the same fires year after year in that most contractors still lack the processes to make sure the work gets done right consistently, or to confirm that it has been done right.

One of the services offered by Advanced Energy Corporation, the company I work for, is helping home performance contractors to implement quality programs. We start by looking at their current work processes. In doing so, we have found that defective work is costing most of them 25–40% of their operating budget. Although some contractors count on the fact that the program’s inspectors are only going to check 10% of their work, even a small problem like forgetting to weather-strip the attic hatch can be a $200–300 expense once you add up the time it takes for a worker to go back and fix it. Avoiding just a few of those problems will cover the cost of good in-house QC and QA programs.

A good measurement of quality is the cumulative cost of such problems. Although perfect conformance to standards is the ideal, no one is perfect. Good companies continually work toward that ideal. However, if the cost of nonconformance reaches 3–5% of the company’s operating budget, it’s time to double down on that work.

In fact, a few common but costly errors can take a company to that 3–5% threshold quite rapidly. Say, for instance, that a work order requires you to blow insulation into every bay in the exterior walls of a home, and that the crew misses just one bay. If that uninsulated bay shows up on an infrared (IR) camera scan, coming back to fill it will usually mean pulling a truck and crew from another job for at least a half day. That’s $4,000–6,000 in lost income.

Even the $5,000 cost of a conventional IR camera would pay for itself in one such avoided callback, but a recent innovation has made the economics even more attractive. At least one company, FLIR is promising an accurate IR camera that will plug into an iPhone 5. It is now available.

Setting Standards

The kind of QC that makes sure the above tasks get done every time requires clear, written standards for completing every task. Quality work is not possible without them.

While contractors can certainly write their own standards, there’s a plug-and-play solution—and it’s free. Advanced Energy, with funding from DOE, has helped develop a set of standardized work specifications (SWS) for residential energy retrofits.

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) website includes written SWS for single-family, multifamily, and manufactured homes. They’re very detailed, varying in length from just over 100 to just under 300 pages.

The SWS define the minimum requirements for every task that a home performance pro is likely to perform. To create them, we recruited the top experts in each phase of the retrofit process—attic air sealing, insulation, heating and cooling, ventilation, etc.—to help us. Using the SWS will ensure that tasks get done right every time, no matter who is doing them.

Contractors can realize big dividends by setting clear standards, working together with employees, and having processes in place to check the quality of their work.

The SWS are specific enough that crew leaders and inspectors can make sure that work gets done correctly, but broad enough that contractors have choices in how they complete the work. For instance, one standard requires that chases be capped with a material that doesn’t bend, sag, or move when installed, but doesn’t specify a material. The contractor can use plywood, drywall, oriented strand board, or anything else that meets the requirement.

Whether you use NREL’s standards or write your own, an effective standard must address a specific need, must define the tasks that have to be completed to meet that need, and must include a measurable performance outcome. Examples include the requirement that insulation be in contact with
the air barrier, that a vapor retarder cover 100% of a crawl space floor, or that a bath fan exhaust a minimum of 50 CFM to the outside.

We actually have a quality standard for quality standards: the acronym SAFE. All standards must be Specific, Assessable, Feasible, and Effective.

Specific. The outcome specified in a standard must leave nothing to the imagination. Requiring “substantially airtight” ducts is too vague. Requiring that they “not leak more than 99 CFM25” is specific.

Assessable. The outcome has to be verifiable using standardized equipment. This is what makes QA possible. Verification equipment includes tools like IR cameras, blower doors, and Duct Blasters.

Feasible. The outcome must also be something that properly trained workers can achieve on any job with standard materials. If a particular material, tool, or trade is essential, the standard must include it. Examples are the requirement that furnace tune-ups be done by a licensed HVAC contractor, and that a caulk meet the requirements of ASTM C834-10.

Effective. All solutions must be capable of producing an intended result. For instance, the only way to ensure that the attic is properly air sealed is to require that the air sealing be done before blowing in the insulation.

Making It Work

Creating a quality program is one thing. Getting employees on board is a steeper slope to climb.

We have found that SWS—or any quality program—will only get implemented when the contractor provides employees with written instructions. These include (1) notes to use when training employees on SWS, and (2) pictorial guides covering critical details that are stored in a binder in the truck or on a handheld device for use in the field. The contractor can create these references or can hire a consultant to do so. (My company offers this service.)

We also suggest using Mistake Proofing Verification forms (see Figure 1) that guide the crew chief in performing quality checks in the field. This ensures that the job was done right and minimizes the chance of a callback later.

But getting workers to follow the specs requires more than paperwork. It requires a change in attitude—not that of the workers but that of management.

It’s common for managers to look reflexively for someone to blame whenever something goes wrong. But my experience working with contractors—along with several years researching quality efforts in other industries—has taught me that quality problems are usually the result of failed processes. If a duct wasn’t properly sealed, it’s probably not an intentional oversight on the part of the workers. (Most people actually want to do good work.) It’s likely that the company lacks good QC and QA processes to ensure that the job gets done right.

If we believe that process fails more than people, then when there’s a problem we will look first at the process. Take the example of the chase again. Say that a worker caps the chase but leaves a 1-inch gap at the edge. Rather than yelling at the worker, you will get a better result by examining your processes to determine what would make that kind of error possible. You may find that your training is inadequate. Fix the training and the problem will probably not happen again.

This is what I call the blame-free workplace, and it’s a very powerful motivator. W. Edwards Deming, a founding father of the quality movement, outlined 14 points he considered essential practices for companies that want to increase the quality of their output. One of the most important was “drive out fear.” His point was that workers who fear their bosses will duck under the radar whenever there’s a problem, and will even lie to shield themselves from consequences. That kind of culture makes quality improvement impossible. If, on the other hand, workers know they won’t be blamed, they will be more willing to work with management to improve processes and raise quality.

I know this works because we’ve done it on the 20-person team I work with at Advanced Energy. We made a commitment that whenever problems arise, we get together, examine the process, and work to correct it. Our productivity has improved substantially, as has the quality of our results. And the company has become a much more enjoyable place to work. It took us a couple of years to fully realize these benefits, but we are a relatively large organization. A small contractor can make that cultural change a lot more quickly.

learn more

Download the SWS from the NREL website.

The point is that contractors can realize big dividends by setting clear standards, working together with employees to make sure the company meets those standards, and having processes in place to check the quality of their work. That’s why, when we help contractors with their quality management plans, we include all of the above. And the savings always more than pay for the effort. After all, no one loses money doing work right the first time.

John Tooley is a senior building science consultant with Advanced Energy Corporation in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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