Establishing Quality Assurances and Quality Control in landscape lighting

Establishing Quality Assurances and Quality Control in landscape lighting

By Mike Gambino

Over the course of my 30-plus years in the home improvement industry, I’ve found that most contractors have only the slightest notion of what constitutes quality work. Although most of these people 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 unhappy clients!

My aim in this article is to provide a clear definition of quality and to provide 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.

What Is Quality?

Most definitions include phrases such as “goodness,” “better products” and “work that satisfies the customers” are 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 meeting agreed-upon requirements and standards for every part of every job. It is 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.

As an example, if I agree to make the brightness levels of the lighting visually appealing, that promise is open to interpretation. The homeowner and I may have different interpretations of what visually appealing brightness levels are, which could cause conflicts and disagreements and unsatisfied clients. A clear and measurable goal would be to agree to install fixtures that have individually adjustable dimmers on each, which would be used to adjust every fixture if necessary to the brightness level the client finds most visually appealing. If we met the goal after the work is complete, yet the homeowner decides that a slight variation should be made, then we can adjust and set a new goal. However, the original goal was clear and no one can argue that we failed to meet the original goal.

Quality Control Vs. Quality Assurance

In the above example, there was a process (assuring brightness levels in the garden) in place to determine whether the contractor met the agreed-upon goal. The act of measuring, actually monitoring the work to ensure that the contractor’s work performs as intended, is what is meant by quality assurance (QA).

If the contractor is working for private clients, it’s in the contractor’s interest to have an in-house QA program.

In addition, contractors need to have a set of processes in place to avoid deviating from the requirements and standards to meet the agreed-upon goal. This is what is meant by quality control (QC). Unlike quality assurance, quality control is always the contractor’s responsibility.

Remember, our definition of quality is meeting agreed-upon requirements and standards on every job. Our standard of quality is zero defects, not 1% or 2% defects, but zero. Either you meet the standard or you don’t. 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. The sad truth is 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 in the first place.

Failure to Implement quality programs can result in defective work which can cost contractors money and homeowners hassle. For example, even a small problem like forgetting to weather proof fixture connections can be expensive once you add up the time it takes for a worker to go back and fix it. Avoiding 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 goal, no one is perfect. However, if the cost of poor quality reaches 3–5% of the company’s operating budget, it’s time to take a hard look at that work. In fact, a few common but costly errors can take a company to that 3–5% threshold quite rapidly. For instance, when fixtures of lower quality are chosen and moisture gets into them and degrades and kills the LED’s it will be flagged for repair work. Returning to that job to replace the LED’s and repair the leakage problem (if it can at all be repaired and not have to replace the entire fixture) can become very very expensive.

Setting Standards

In order to ensure that work gets completed with the highest level of quality, written standards need to be applied to each task. Experienced contractors can write their own standards,

The Standard must define the minimum requirements for every task that a  contractor is likely to perform, and using these specs will help ensure that the tasks get done right every time.

The standards are specific enough that crew leaders and supervisors can ensure that work gets done correctly, but broad enough that contractors have choices in the materials to use and how to complete the work.

For instance, one standard requires that products must be manufactured with a material that doesn’t bend, is impervious to weather extremes, won’t rust, corrode  or decay when installed, but doesn’t specify the material. The contractor can use Brass, copper, stainless steel or any other material that meets the requirement like bronze.

An effective standard must address a specific need, define the necessary tasks, and outline a measurable performance outcome. Examples include: the power cable must be installed inside of minimum schedule 40 electrical grade rigid conduit and buried below grade 4-6″ deep.

Quality standards must be:

Specific: The outcome in a standard must be specific and measurable. For example, requiring “proper operating voltage” of fixtures is too vague. Requiring each lamp to operate at a voltage range of between 11.7-12.2V is specific and measurable.

Assessable: The outcome has to be verifiable using industry standard equipment. For example, verification equipment can include True RMS digital multi-meters.

Feasible: The outcome must be something that properly trained workers can achieve with standard materials. If a particular material, tool or trade is essential, the standard must include it. For example, using silicone that meets the requirements of ASTM C834-10 at all possible moisture entry points on fixture.

Effective: All solutions must be capable of producing an intended result. For example, the way to ensure an underwater fixture is properly water sealed, is to require the water sealing be water tested by submersing a fixture in a 2′ depth of water days before installing it on the project site.

Making It Work

I have found that the standards or any quality program will only get implemented when the contractor provides employees with written instructions. These instructions need to include: (1) notes to use when training employees on the standards, and (2) pictorial guides covering critical details that are stored in a binder or on an electronic device for use in the field.

I also suggest using mistake- proofing verification forms or checklists that guide the crew chief or project manager in performing quality checks in the field. Like a pilot who goes through a series of checks before a plane leaves the ground. This step ensures that the work was installed correctly and it minimizes the chance of a customer callback.

Having workers follow specifications requires more than just paperwork. It also requires a change in attitude—not in the workers, but in management. It’s common for managers to look for someone to blame when something goes wrong. But my experience has taught me that quality problems are usually the result of failed processes. If a fixture wasn’t properly sealed, it’s probably not intentional on the part of the workers, because most people actually want to do good work. It’s likely that the company lacks good QC and QA processes to identify and fix the problem, and ensure that the job gets done right.

If we believe that process fails more than people, then when a problem arises, we will take a look at the process, and not look to blame the people. This type of blame-free workplace is a powerful motivator.

One of the most important requirements for companies wanting to increase the quality of their output is to “drive out fear.” Team members 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 to increase quality.

I know this dynamic works because we’ve used it with our team. We made a commitment that whenever problems arise, we’ll get together to examine the process and work to correct it. Our productivity and the quality of our results have improved substantially, and the work environment has become more enjoyable. Contractors can realize big dividends by setting clear standards, working with employees to make sure the company meets those standards, and having processes in place to check the quality of their work. The savings earned by implementing quality management plans and standard work processes more than pay for the effort required. After all, no one loses money doing work right the first time and that success translates to happy clients!

This landscape lighting blog is published by Mike Gambino of Gambino landscape lighting inc. all rights reserved. Mike is a professional landscape lighting system designer/ builder and has been designing, installing and maintaining landscape lighting systems for more than 30 years. Mike resides in the Los Angeles area with his wife and 2 sons. To visit his website go to . To inquire about hiring Mike please click here .

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