10 September 2020

Picture this press-heading: the housing construction and maintenance sector is commended as one of the best sectors in the world for managing quality and safety. Standards are met or exceeded, and employers and residents are 100% satisfied with the quality of work.

The right data required to maintain homes are provided, assets perform as expected, supply chains are streamlined, materials are standardised, and costs are reduced. I know I’d be right in saying that given the challenges the sector is facing because of poor quality construction and maintenance work this picture is currently unrecognisable for some.

Let’s look in our rear mirror. In 2016, Construction Excellence reported that an additional 1-5% of project costs go on correcting construction errors and the ‘Get it Right Initiative’ has found that errors are costing the construction sector a staggering £10-25 billion every year.

Progress has been slow and there are more recommendations on the horizon. The government’s draft Building Safety Bill was published in June proposing new measures and RIBA is planning the biggest shake-up of the profession since the 1950s. Architects could face reaccreditation every five years in response to improve quality.

There are other safety-critical sectors such as high-speed rail, aviation and healthcare facing similar challenges. Picture the operating theatre – an extraordinarily complex environment. The complexity starts with individual patient needs, and then there’s the sophisticated instruments, new technologies, the volume of information that needs to be processed and considered, speed and precision are required, communication must be crystal clear or life could be put at risk. There’s urgency and uncertainty with which decisions and interventions must be made. Surgeons have challenging workloads and limited resources too. This sounds familiar to the housing sector.

These challenges make surgical care vulnerable to errors, but most cases are addressed safely and surgeons are trusted for providing a quality service. These safety-critical sectors adapt error and quality management models such as the Ergonomics and Human Factor, Helmreich’s Model and the Reason Model. These are used to guide the ‘lessons learned’ process, which is a crucial part of quality management. Whilst some of these models have been criticised for their simplicity, they’ve helped to improve how quality is managed.

These models share some things in common. They advocate that the root causes of error or poor quality need to be understood and addressed. Poor quality is preceded by a chain of individual errors and influenced by a wide variety of contributing factors. Therefore, focusing on the precursors is important. Precursors include gaps in competency, organisational culture, operating risk factors or poor budgeting, design, decision-making or communication.

This way of thinking places the emphasis on ‘why’ and ‘how’ things happen, but without blame and penalties. The sole purpose is to gather, analyse and share data to improve quality. Inspections, monitoring and reporting form part of the learning process instead of being the answer to error and quality management.

In housing, quality inspections are used more frequently than the lessons learned approach. There are several types of inspections that are carried out concurrently when new homes are built including:

  • Health and safety.
  • Traditional clerk of works.
  • Mechanical and electrical.
  • External wall fire review.
  • Building control.
  • Build warranty.
  • Preoccupation fire risk assessments.
  • End of defect liability.

Regrettably, all these inspections haven’t resolved the problem and we’re still grappling with quality issues.

Now picture an inspector sitting at the end of an assembly line looking at each widget for obvious defects as it comes along the conveyor belt. This type of inspection examines the finished product with little emphasis on the entire system or process that produced the product. The opportunity to review and learn is not realised. Could this way of managing quality be part of the problem? The crucial point is that lesson learned approaches allow you to go much deeper and understand the root causes.

It’s common to undertake lessons learned reviews following the completion of a project. The information gathered is used to improve design, specifications and building operations. However, the scope of these reviews are sometimes limited because of commercial and confidential barriers.

Based on these examples, there are similarities and differences in how the different sectors manage quality.

  • All sectors adapt the lessons learned and quality inspection approach – both are crucial. The difference lies in the extent to which the two are used.
  • Some focus more on understanding and learning from the root causes, the precursors, as well as a poor-quality incident itself, and without blame. There’s structure to the way the learning is done. Quality inspections form part of this process but isn’t the dominant factor.
  • The housing construction and maintenance sector predominantly use quality inspections and there’s no sector-wide structure for reviewing and learning from the root causes, precursors and poor-quality incidents.

If, after several recommendations, the level of improvement required in the housing sector is slow, we need to do things differently. By raising these examples, I hope it helps spark discussions about what else there is to challenge us individually to seek them out. And if it works, let’s adopt them.

The latest call to improve quality in the sector is because of the Grenfell Tower fire. Like most of you, I can’t bear to imagine the despair of residents, and colleagues, if these changes don’t result in real change or if change is slow. I leave you with this thought. What would happen to our sector’s reputation if the terrible events at Grenfell recurred? We must keep improving. We need to do more individually. We need to improve our joined-up thinking. And we need good leadership to make change happen quickly.

Becky Utuka

Becky is Director of Development and Sales at Gateway Housing Association.

Becky Utuka joined Gateway Housing in January 2017 as the Head of Development and becoming the Director of Development and Sales in November 2018. Becky sits on the Board of a Housing Association as a Non-Executive Director. And she has previously worked for London based Housing Associations.

Ensuring we have quality social homes fit for the future