If you've initiated quality control in your company, you've probably covered; prospecting, bidding, project control and materials ordering at the very least. Staying consistent at the early stages of the job, and keeping a tight rein on deviation from your established norms, makes everything downstream run smoother. Being able to cross check your procedures when something doesn't get done is usually enough for you to bring the QC back into line.
As an example, let us say that you've lost a bid on a project, and the general contractor says that you haven't returned the original bid drawings. A quick check of your plan log can prove him or you right. A simple notation indicating the date the plans were returned and the persons initials who did the returning should solve the mystery. Conversely, an open line in the plan log tells you that the plans were not returned and now you need to find them and get them back to the general. The key here is maintaining a consistent method of quality control and following through with it in every case. In the office environment, let's call it the pre-project environment, establishing and maintaining a quality control program is much easier than it ever is in the field.
Managing quality control in the field is akin to herding cats; it is exhausting, difficult and is all but impossible. Because of the very nature of our trade, the level of expertise of journeymen and apprentices varies so widely, in today's market, that setting a standard of excellence in trade craft is not a practical solution.
So, what can you do? Obviously, there are inspectors from the municipality who can, and do, hold your people to a minimum code standard. On some projects, the general contractor, architect or engineer must pass judgment on the quality of your work, and sometimes the owner gets involved at that level, but how do you establish and enforce a level of quality craftsmanship with your people?
Starting out you, or a designated foreman, can critique the workmanship of your employees. This will result in some hard feelings and, more than likely, some folks quitting. Small loss. If they are unable to achieve the level of skill that you have set as your baseline goal, and get huffy over being told that their work is subpar, then you really didn't want them working for you anyway...did you?
The employee who takes the criticism in the spirit that it was meant, understands the need for it and accepts that they need to maintain that level of expertise is a much better employee than the one who quits or, worse, continues to work but is resentful. It's not rocket science — it's human nature.
Continuing education, pairing marginally skilled people with your better, more skilled people, holding classes and practice sessions are all things that will help improve your people's skill set. Settling for mediocre, sloppy or incomplete workmanship is the one thing you must not do! We all recognize the dearth of qualified journeymen, nationwide. It's a fact of life in our trade today. Learn to deal with it. In many cases, a warm body that can solder halfway decently seems to be preferable to not getting the work done, or properly manning a project. I humbly suggest that you do not succumb to this type of thinking.
It will require work on your part, of that you can be sure. Planning for your company's future and its (and your) reputation demands that you take the time to establish an acceptable level of performance that your field personnel can achieve, and then making sure that it is adhered to. Developing a program for improving the skill levels of your field people will go a long way toward making their work conform to your expectations. Foremen need to put emphasis on quality workmanship, and to be ready to stop work that is substandard, rather than passing it by because you are on schedule and it passed inspection.
Simple things need to be emphasized, like level and plumb. This should be one thing you emphasize. Straps and hangers are another. Making jobs look good makes your customers feel good. It also makes your company look good. It improves the sense of pride in workmanship of your people when someone comments on how neat and 'squared away' everything looks. Moreover, it is something even a green helper can be taught to do. Maintaining quality control in the field starts with things like that, and builds from those basics. Again, doing things consistently, and requiring your field to do the same makes quality control achievable. Accept nothing less and your crew will, eventually accept nothing less either. Pride of craft can't necessarily be taught, but it can be learned.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].