Quality – Achieving Assurances through Established Controls

A Quality Management System, incorporating the elements of Quality Assurance and Quality Control, can reduced risk and increase efficiency. An effective Quality Management System identifies issues before they become problems, triggers preventative and corrective actions, and provides a process that streamlines operations through a system that feeds back critical data and best practices from the field.  Too often, Quality Assurance and Quality Control are thought of simply as  necessary evils with associated expenses, when in fact, when done right, a well-designed and implemented- Quality Management System will pay for itself and drive savings to the bottom line.

The Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS) has been performing both Quality Control and Quality Assurance for more than 30 years working with federal, state and local government programs.  This article will clearly define the difference in Quality Control and Quality Assurance, and how successfully using Quality Control information can lead to ongoing Quality Assurance within a program.

So what’s the difference?

Although often used either interchangeably or synonymously, the terms “Quality Control” and “Quality Assurance” are distinct and describe two related, but different functions.

  • Quality Assurance is the part of the quality management system focused on providing confidence or assurance that quality requirements are being fulfilled. Quality Assurance is a set of activities designed to ensure that the development and/or maintenance process will meet its objectives and it ensures that the right process or step is followed by the right people. Generally, Quality Assurance is aimed at predicting and preventing errors before they occur. This builds quality into the process and product and integrates all people involved.
  • Quality Control on the other hand is more product-oriented and is as part of the overall Quality Assurance program. Quality Control is a process designed and implemented to determine whether a product is meeting established requirements. Generally, this is accomplished by evaluating and comparing actual performance and planned performance, and taking action on the difference. Quality Control is more focused on defining and carrying out processes that consider inspection criteria, rejection criteria, and acceptance criteria and taking the required steps to improve the quantity of product passing the established requirements. Sometimes, Quality control also includes in-process inspections carried out on semi-finished products or subassemblies during manufacturing to check conformity to requirements before further assembly and processing.

Why are they both so important?

Quality Control and Quality Assurance both exist to organically improve products or processes, programs, and projects. Without a proper quality program that integrates QA and QC and measures and tracks quality performance or process and product, projects and programs are exposed to greater risks of non-compliance, safety, rejection, productivity and related financial impacts.  With construction related projects, the consistency that both Quality Control and Quality Assurance can provide paves the path for increased risk mitigation, code and standards compliance, regulatory and program compliance, safety, and contractor payment verification.

Quality Assurance, as defined above, is the monitoring of processes and an associated feedback loop that promotes error prevention. Quality Assurance is more than just checking work for problems, it is a system that creates a culture of continuous improvement. What is often referred to as Quality Assurance in the Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy industries and community development, is in fact Quality Control. Managing a proper quality management system requires an understanding of the compliance and quality expectations from the customer and developing a plan to actively meet these expectations.

Are there examples that illustrate the differences and help make the distinction?

An example of quality control would be verifying that the correct nailing pattern has been achieved for exterior sheathing on the construction of a new home.  The residential building code and the manufacturer’s installation instructions, both serving as a standard, specifying the nailing pattern.  A QC check would validate through an inspection that the completed nailing pattern is compliant with the standard and compliance with which would be a requirement for acceptance of the product.

Quality assurance, in its broadest sense, is any action taken to prevent quality problems from occurring or to improve an overall process.  In practice, this means improving systems for carrying out tasks that directly affect product quality or productivity.  Quality Assurance, more specifically, relates to the process or audit function used to create the product, as opposed to the condition of the product itself (the focus of Quality Control).  From the Quality Control example above, related Quality Assurance might include reviewing the training and directions given to the framer and observing the individual load the nail gun and shoot nails into the exterior sheathing.  This activity allows for determining the need for process or procedural change because of differences between the designed process and the resulting execution.

Let’s examine a non- construction related quality assurance example:  A cooking recipe is a system or process for preparing a particular dish, or a means for Quality Assurance. It describes the ingredients, utensils, and specific actions necessary to prepare the food, the method of cooking it, how to test when it is ready, how to store it, and how to serve it. Cooking to a recipe produces better and more consistent results. If you want to alter the taste or how many servings a recipe yields, you change the recipe. However, the product should remain consistent. Consistency and process improvement is the primary goal of Quality Assurance.

How do I integrate QA and QC in my organization?

Quality Control systems of various kinds are, theoretically, already part of most business organizations.  It is unfortunate that there are still organizations that do not thoroughly address the Quality Assurance aspect as a separate and important issue.  This issue can be addressed by creating effective ways to use quality control results to develop and propel a quality assurance program to new heights.

To implement integrated quality management systems for an organization, there are several basic considerations that must be addressed:

  1. Develop the system and define the quality objective,
  2. Document the system through policies, procedures, and reference information,
  3. Ensure there are individuals accountable for specific elements, and
  4. Inform, instruct, and train the workforce.

Ongoing training and continuous procedural evaluation and changes make the quality assurance process better, more efficient, and create the potential for realizing more profit for a business.

Integrating existing Quality Control with ongoing Quality Assurance will require identifying quality control deficiencies over time and rigorous data tracking to identify trends including strengths and weaknesses. Recording and tracking data collected in the quality control program, and making necessary adjustments will be a big step towards establishing a symbiotic relationship between quality control and quality assurance.  Over time, deficiencies can be tracked and analyzed to determine elements within the program which need improvement.

Improvements can be made through various ways including workforce development training, standards development or modification, process changes and industry awareness.  A complete Quality Control program must include tracking data and identifying opportunities for ongoing process improvement.  It is the failure of a program to include these two components that keep ordinary quality control programs from progressing to ongoing quality assurance.

I already have a program that integrates QA and QC, so now what?

Ongoing improvement of a quality assurance program and in return, improvements to the final product, relies on new and innovative ways to improve the systems and processes and collecting the data necessary to know what can and should be changed.  “New and innovative” means creatively thinking outside the box, and testing new questions that can potentially be included into the quality assurance program. Think of a standard roof inspection on a construction site.  Quality Control checklists lead a worker or inspector through a series of straight forward compliance-related inspection pieces. These are questions that are designed to measure whether a quality roof is being built.  Now think of three additional inspection items that are not on the current quality control checklist but could be added at little to no inconvenience and minimal cost impact since the inspector is already on site. These additional checks may provide invaluable program intelligence over time when tracked and analyzed.  These items may not necessarily be checking for deficiencies but perhaps collecting project data such as: roof pitch, roof type, and number of roof penetrations.

All program stakeholders such as the project manager, owner of the building, even those that are performing the labor on the roof should be considered when thinking about collecting additional information or tracking certain data.  The information could be extremely valuable over thousands of inspections yielding program intelligence reporting that correlates deficiencies and building information that are difficult to determine without the necessary data.

What should I do with all this information that I am now collecting?

Tracking of quality deficiencies with checklist items in the context of the application can provide insight into how to improve the completed work and in the end improve the conformance of the product.  A tracking system should be maintained for all inspections and should not be limited to the checklist items but also the parameters or the conditions of the application.  The data entered into a tracking system should be of sufficient detail to allow analysis and facilitate recognizing specific trends. The trend analysis will provide invaluable information about what kinds of preventative action can be undertaken, what improvement in the installation of the application can be made, and recognition of where repairs maybe needed.

The tracking of quality deficiencies only facilitates the ability to recognize trends.  Once a trend has been identified, the root cause needs to be determined and an accountable individual needs to be identified so that preventative actions can be under taken to avoid the same or similar issues in the future.  In order to determine the root cause, at a minimum, the following five investigative questions should be asked and answered to find out what needs attention:

  1. Who is the assigned responsible individual?
  2. Is this responsible individual sufficiently knowledgeable to do what is being reviewed?
  3. Is the responsible individual’s role and knowledge documented or recorded?
  4. How well is the responsible individual fulfilling their role?
  5. Are the responsible individuals provided adequate resources and do they use them adequately?

Don’t try to improve a program without the necessary buy in and support.

Quality Control and Quality Assurance “best practices” are relatively easy to identify and implement, and could have a significant impact on quality and bottom line.  Implementation however is a procedure in itself, and requires buy-in from the top down.  The best way to implement these “best practices” consists of creating, or reiterating workforce development and training programs, and system evaluations.  A consistent workforce and training program provides everyone from the project manager to the customer with a procedure for preserving data integrity and creating a quality product. In order to be effective though, the quality program must have support at all levels within the organization.

Within the IBTS Quality Management Programs, Quality Control Inspectors are equipped with Field Inspection Technology, FIT®, which gives the inspector a predetermined form to complete with built in logic which controls the sequence of the inspection and drives the quality of the inspection deliverable.  For example, under the IBTS Solar Quality Management Program an inspector is asked whether the installed system is ground mounted or roof mount.  Once the inspector determines the panel is a ground-mounted unit and properly notes this finding, the report immediately eliminates any questions pertaining to roof mounted solar PV panels.  Additionally, if an inspector notes a deficiency in the solar PV panel, they are then prompted to attach a photo of the deficiency identified.  From the surface, this may seem more of a process efficiency mechanism but its purpose is primarily to control the quality and consistency of the Quality Control Report, inspection efficiency is secondary.  The preservation of data integrity is the most important component to improving quality assurance.  Without data integrity, you can iterate time and time again only to realize the results generated are not consistent enough to draw supportable conclusions.  This is a form of proactive quality control within our Quality Management Program as it is a mechanism to ensure quality of the deliverable.

With over 30 years of experience in the private, public, and government sector, IBTS recognizes the necessity for an ongoing improvement in a business’s Quality Management Program through the constant measuring of Quality Control to ensure ongoing Quality Assurance.