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This first article of a series on project quality management looks at its role as part of a firm-wide quality management system, or QMS. Subsequent articles will look at the various phases of a project and recommend actions your firm can take to incorporate quality management into each.

Take a few moments to reflect on one or two problems you’ve recently experienced on your firm’s projects. What could have prevented these issues? Is it possible there are gaps in your project quality management system that need to be addressed? Or…is it possible that while your firm has an overall quality management system, you don’t have a system that specifically addresses project quality?

Our intention is to give you the basics for creating an effective project quality management system for your firm. Future articles will cover project quality management during the following phases:

— Proposal and post-project-award

— Design and engineering

— Project completion

Let’s first look at quality management systems, or QMS.

What is a quality management system?

To paraphrase Wikipedia on the subject, a QMS is defined as a formal system that documents processes, procedures and responsibilities for achieving quality policies and objectives. A QMS directs an organization’s activities to meet customer needs and regulatory requirements and to improve its effectiveness and efficiency on a continual basis. A QMS may include everything from strategic planning, hiring practices, cyber security, and employee health and safety to the ways you manage and meet your clients’ expectations.

A QMS goes well beyond checking your designs for errors and omissions. According to architect Charles Nelson of (Managing Quality in Architecture), the high-level structure of an ISO 9001:2000 QMS (see more about the ISO standard below) includes the following:

— Management responsibility:  Describes how top management demonstrates its commitment to its QMS

— Resource management: Sets minimum staffing requirements for system operation and customer satisfaction

— Product realization: Presents the definition and requirements for design planning

— Measurement, analysis and improvement: Sets requirements for measurement, analysis and improvement functions, including statistical techniques1

Within each of these standards there are multiple sub-categories, providing guidance for preparing a strong QMS.

Your firm’s QMS may use a structure and guidelines that you’ve developed or that you’ve borrowed from others and tailored to your firm. Here are a few of the quality management systems most often used by businesses of all types:

Continuous Quality Improvement – CQI focuses on continuous improvement by emphasizing the roles that teams and individuals play in the process. It follows the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” approach that’s been adapted to fit many industries.2

International Organization of Standardization 9001:2015 – The ISO 9001 international standard specifies requirements for a QMS. It defines rules and standards to aid in the way products are made and quality control tests performed. Organizations follow the standard to demonstrate their ability to consistently provide products and services that meet customer needs and regulatory requirements.

— ISO 9001 requires internal and external audits. External audits are conducted by a third-party auditor and include the certification audit and ongoing surveillance audits. Internal audits are self-performed and assess conformity and evaluate opportunities for improvement. They also prepare your firm for the external audits. 

— ISO 9001 may be more common in A/E firms that work internationally and firms that work with clients, e.g., manufacturers that follow their own ISO 9001 processes. Firms that have become ISO-certified have endorsed the process as a valuable effort to document and establish a process for improved outcomes.

Project Management Institute – PMI’s The Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide (PMBOK) presents generally recognized good practices within the project management profession. It provides a project management framework, which is broken down into 47 processes, each of which includes inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs. Like CQI above, PMBOK follows the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” approach.

— Anecdotal evidence indicates there are A/E firms in the U.S. and Canada that require PMI PMP (Project Management Professional) certification for their project managers as part of the firm’s internal professional development program.

Six Sigma – This intensive and expensive data-driven approach aims for perfection in quality. It focuses on the reduction of product deviation through specific processes. Six Sigma is currently most commonly used in large organizations within the manufacturing, finance, supply chain, healthcare, and IT industries. It’s also used by large design firms that can support the investment.

PMI and Six Sigma provide certification of individual competence, experience and passing a written certification exam, but their certifications are not applied to the organization as with ISO: 9001. Those individuals who have earned PMP certifications from PMI and/or Black Belts from Six Sigma bring the associated structures from these organizations to their companies.

A QMS goes well beyond checking your designs for errors and omissions.

Developing your own system

Over the years, your firm may have developed its own quality management system, complete with documented and regularly updated processes, policies and procedures. You may even have made a QMS resource digitally available on your intranet.

There are trade-offs to this approach, primarily cost and time. If you have the expertise and financial means to develop and maintain a system that takes your firm’s specific needs and characteristics into account, this may work. However, following a well-known and documented approach to a QMS will likely be more efficient. It’ll also enable you to use many of your currently developed policies and procedures and overhaul or eliminate ineffective practices.

An approach to project quality management

As we examine effective project quality management, we’ll focus on the underlying processes that should be baked into each phase of project work, beginning with project team roles and responsibilities. The guidelines for these roles and responsibilities have been tested and followed by a range of A/E firms.

This model includes four primary roles:

Senior manager – In this model, the senior manager role may be filled by a department manager, division manager, or principal/owner.

— The primary overall responsibilities are quality leadership and accountability. Their main project responsibilities are staffing and client satisfaction. They should address such questions/issues as:

Are projects adequately and appropriately staffed?
Do we need to reallocate or hire more staff?
Before we agree to additional work, are we certain that we have the resources to complete it?
Have we verified owner satisfaction with completed designs or engineering?


Project quality manager – Assigned to a project or all projects, advises and mentors the project manager on issues of quality. The PQM verifies that project work has not only been completed but completed to meet the firm’s standard of quality. They do not assume responsibility or authority over the project manager.

— This role may be filled by one of the qualified senior managers listed above; individual quality manager assignments might be department-, location-, or seniority-based. Once the request for proposal is received, the project quality manager is named and maintains that role through project completion.

— The PQM has a single priority and role on the project: seeing that the quality process is followed throughout all aspects of the project. Therefore, they cannot serve in a senior manager role on the project or as the project manager.

Project manager – The PM bears primary responsibility for planning, implementing and monitoring project quality (except for project staffing/resource management). This includes managing the following:

— Budget for all QM-related activities

— Quality planning

— Quality control (review)

— Risk management

— Schedule

— Resource management (with the senior manager)

— Resource monitoring

— Verification of owner satisfaction

Project team – This includes everyone who touches the project, including architects, engineers, designers, and CAD and administrative staff. While the project team does not have primary responsibilities for the overall project quality, team members do own the quality of the work they complete on the project.

1 Nelson, Charles, page 93, Managing Quality in Architecture, Integrating BIM, Risk and Design Process, 2nd Edition, November 2017.
2 The “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle was defined by Walter A. Shewhart and modified by W. Edwards Deming for the American Society for Quality Handbook, 1999.

  • About The Author
  • Project Management Professional (PMP), Risk Manager – Loss Prevention and Education, Design Professional
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