Mark of quality – Inside Construction

CONQA – a digital tool specifically designed for subcontractors working in construction – is reducing rework, improving safety and reducing admin by making the task of quality assurance as easy as taking a photo. CONQA Co-Founder and CEO Daniel O’Donoghue explains how the digital revolution is coming, and you need little more than a smartphone to get involved.

For construction companies worldwide, a key cost in any project is the amount of rework that has to be done to fix mistakes that have accidentally occurred as different subcontractors complete their work. Although quality assurance (QA) is already in place as a measure against this, it is often seen as ineffectual and merely an administrative burden pushed to the end of the line when work has already been completed.

One New Zealand company making its mark in Australia wants to change this attitude towards QA through developing an easy-to-use digital tool conveniently accessible to everyone with a smartphone. With the QA platform CONQA, the aim is to put this process where it belongs – at the heart of every job undertaken on site to reduce rework, raise standards and improve health and safety.

Finding the problem

Recent reports have looked into trends in the construction industry, showing Australian construction companies spend on average one in every eight hours, or 12 per cent of their time, on rework. And, despite the low levels of digitisation in the construction industry, 43 per cent of respondents said that they believe that technology will help improve resource efficiency through fewer errors.

One such digital technology hoping to improve standards and generate significant cost savings is CONQA – a QA platform that subcontractors have on their phone, making it easy for them to complete their Inspection Test Checklist (ITC’s) and Inspection Test Plans (ITP’s) as they go, and upload a picture of the completed work to show the finished result. Not only does it ensure that a job has been completed correctly the first time – it also helps subcontractors feel confident in their work and remove the arduous task of tickbox paperwork down the line.

CONQA is the brainchild of three friends from New Zealand who identified a gap in the industry for a more intuitive and user-centric approach to managing QA.

Daniel O’Donoghue, Co-Founder and CEO, CONQA

“CONQA was started by myself and two friends of mine, and we basically wanted to solve big problems with technology,” explains Daniel O’Donoghue, Co-Founder and CEO of CONQA.

“We started off with the idea of wanting to build a business that could have an impact, but not necessarily a clear idea of what the business would do. So, we searched for problems that could be solved with technology and looked into a few different sectors.”

Having studied engineering at university, O’Donoghue reached out to friends who had become civil engineers on large-scale construction projects and asked them what problems they were facing in their day-to-day work. This is where QA came up – the series of checks needed to be undertaken to make sure a job has been performed correctly. However, the approach to QA had made it an inconvenient and time consuming box-checking exercise often delayed until the end of the month, when mistakes had already been made.

“A common mechanism for QA is with a checklist, much like you would use when you go to the supermarket,” says O’Donoghue.

“You’ve been to the supermarket 1,000 times, and you know how to go around the supermarket, but you still make a list as a prompt, so you don’t forget things. And it’s the same thing in construction – they’ve done a lot of this work before, they know the key steps, but the reality for them was, because it was so cumbersome, they ended up signing off all of these checklists at the end of the week, or the end of the month.”

He says that this would be like a pilot filling out their pre-flight checklist, designed to ensure that the plane is safe to take off, after the flight has already landed at the other end.

“Approaching QA in this way means it has zero impact on rework,” he says.

“That was the catalyst for building CONQA. From that point, we researched the industry quite heavily and spoke to a lot of people at the ground level who are having to do this task. We tried to understand why it was such a pain for them and what can be done to make it easier. The key thing that they would always say was that it just had to be a simple solution.”

Based in Auckland, New Zealand, the team put together the CONQA platform as a way for subcontractors and their employees to easily mark off the steps of a particular job, remind themselves of what needs to be done and quickly take photos as they go, removing the burden of admin and a pile of paper. The concept quickly grew, and now CONQA has expanded over the pond to open up three Australian offices in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.

“Construction is still quite a face-to-face industry,” says O’Donoghue of CONQA’s growing presence in Australia.

“Those handshakes and human contact – actually getting in front of people – that’s still a really important aspect for a lot of the contractors we work with and is really important to us. Having people on the ground in those markets has been about building great connections with the contractors we work with.”

Minimising rework

The core issue that CONQA is tackling is reducing the amount of rework subcontractors have to do on a project. One issue currently is that it’s difficult to truly understand the scale of rework taking place and the cost it incurs because the data isn’t tracked.

One study undertaken by the Get It Right Initiative in the UK in 2015 looked into the most economically significant errors in construction and their causes and found that avoidable errors cost around five per cent of a project’s value. This is around £5 billion per annum across the sector in the UK. With unmeasured and indirect costs added in, this rises to somewhere between 10 and 25 per cent of a project’s costs due to causes such as inadequate planning, ineffective communication and a poor culture around quality assurance.

“Rework triples the cost for a subcontractor, because they’re paying to do it the first time, they’re paying to do it the second time, and then it’s the opportunity cost of what they could have been doing with that time,” says O’Donoghue.

“Also, if a subcontractor has to go back into an area to redo work, this has a ripple effect on every other contractor who follows them. It can cause chaos, with people working around each other. And, if you do that 100 or 1,000 times on a project, you can start to see why it becomes such a productivity killer. It’s costing time and materials if you’re redoing work, so it becomes a big financial burden.”

This is where CONQA comes in as a way to tackle mistakes and ensure the correct processes are followed every time.

“We want to minimise and prevent as many mistakes as possible,” explains O’Donoghue.

“The end user is someone who works for a subcontractor. Whether it’s plumbing or pouring concrete, subcontractors are the ones who are organising the labour and they are the ones who need to check that what has been done is correct before they hand it back to the head contractor, who gets the next trade in there.”

QA, as a practice, should sit with the subcontractor. CONQA takes the old checklists, which are often written down on paper, and optimise these for the crew as they work – breaking down each project into a folder structure on the mobile app. This contains all of the activities that will be done for a particular job in an easy-to-follow sequence.

“Each of those activities will have an Inspection and Test Plan associated with it and the user will go through and complete that using their mobile phone, taking photos as they go, which addresses the problem of rework,” says O’Donoghue.

“They capture the evidence of their work to demonstrate to anybody looking at it later that they’ve done the process well, as well as capturing the conditions that surround their work, which helps from a liability perspective. Once done, they just put their phone back in their pocket and they get on with their day.

“That’s the key – to try and make this process, which is important but not very enjoyable, as fast and easy as possible. And then, from that work being done on the front lines, the information that comes out of that process is relevant to a lot of other stakeholders as well, principally the head contractor. It can also be used to help communicate progress and support claims from a cost perspective.”

What’s clear is this definitely isn’t a one size fits all process – CONQA takes an individual contractor’s work needs into account to tailor the platform to individual needs and make sure it’s as useful as possible for the company and its employees.

“The type of the construction work that a subcontractor may be doing on site will vary, even within a company,” says O’Donoghue.

“And this is also true for the mistakes that can cost them money, which are the things that you end up putting on a checklist to prevent them from happening. Sometimes it can vary to an individual team level, depending on their experience. In most projects everything’s very bespoke – very rarely do you see two buildings that are the exact same, or two roads being built under the exact same conditions. Due to their nature, tasks will vary. There are common threads, but the way projects are set up will differ.

“This is why we tailor our software for the specific needs of a business and a particular project. That’s what makes CONQA work well. We trim out all of the fat that could effectively bog people down on site. By keeping it clean and simple, with only the information that they need and not the stuff that they don’t, it makes it a lot faster and, therefore, a lot more engaging for them.”

Safety focus

Huge savings can be made in reducing the time and materials wasted on redoing work, but there’s the reduction on the physical and mental toll of rework on a labourer as well.

Australian construction consultant John Morrison from Frontline Coach looked into the impact of rework on health and safety incidents and found that there was a 70 per cent higher chance that a worker would be injured during a rework activity than the original job.

O’Donoghue says that this is because if a subcontractor team is going back in to redo work, it’s an ad hoc process where the conditions will have changed, other work may have to be undone to fix a problem and the planned sequence of events and who is supposed to be on site starts unravelling.

“And it’s not just the physical health and safety,” he adds, “it also has a big impact on mental wellbeing.

“Construction has a lot of issues with mental health. We partner with Mates in Construction and their research has shown that you’re six times more likely to die from suicide than you are from a from a health and safety-related incident if you work in construction. When there’s a mistake, there’s not always objective information as to who’s caused it and how it was caused. And most of the time it’s just natural human error.

“But disputes will arise around who has to pay for rework and those costs aren’t always factored in. This can put a lot of tension on a relationship between parties and cause a lot of mental stress.

“That’s one of the big motivating factors for us in that we’re not only helping businesses to become better and more profitable. We’ve got great stories of customers whose teams are able to go home on a Friday afternoon instead of having to go back on site and fix things up over the weekend. They know their job has been done well, and they can go home and enjoy time with their families. Minimising rework has a lot of positives to it.”

Digitisation of the industry

Although a solution to improving QA on site and reducing rework has been found, a challenge for CONQA has been addressing lack of familiarity to digital tools within the construction industry and ensuring that the CONQA platform is something that everybody can use, and would be interested in using, even for those who are more used to having a pen and paper on hand.

In terms of digitisation, the construction industry is far behind other industries such as media or finance but there are huge benefits that could be achieved by adopting digital technology on construction sites, says O’Donoghue.

“Digital systems have had a lot of positive impacts on how various industries work,” he explains.

“They create feedback loops that you can use to track and monitor information, which is practically impossible to do on a paper-based system. You minimise double handling and can ensure that the information captured is relevant and available immediately. Processes can be made easier and sped up.

“The challenge for the construction industry is that, apart from off-site manufacturing, it’s all site-based and the use of technology is limited compared to businesses based in an office. Therefore, we had to optimise our software for the tools that subcontractors have available – the most universal of which, from a digital perspective, is a phone. That’s what we’re focused on, really making sure that the software can be done super easily and cleanly on a phone, because even a tablet is impractical – you’ve got to remember to take it with you or people don’t have it on them all the time. Having this system available in the pocket is key.”

Also key has been subcontractor engagement, says O’Donoghue, and focusing on these businesses and their workers is how the industry can improve its utilisation of digital tools. However, a lot of the time, subcontractors aren’t involved in these discussions of what can be improved through using new technology.

“Subcontractors can represent up to 80 per cent of the workforce,” he says. “And if they aren’t at the table, if they aren’t part of that digital conversation, how do you expect the industry to change? All of the construction work, the actual nuts and bolts of it, comes together at the site. Therefore, you’ve got to get subcontractors engaged.

“I think a mistake we often see made is that businesses are waiting for the younger generation to come through and they really miss the opportunity. There are people who’ve been on site for 30 years, who are incredible at their jobs and know how to run a team well, but they might not be as tech savvy as some of the younger generation. By not bringing them to the table, so much opportunity will be missed.

“Focusing on clean, simple, and easy-to-use solutions that won’t alienate those people who can add so much value is important for the industry. If they wait five to 10 years for younger people to move into leadership positions, or running crews on site, those who can get their existing workforce digitally enabled now are going to be well ahead of them by years.”

O’Donoghue says that by working with subcontractors directly, he’s seen behaviours shift, with workers who were initially reluctant to use the new tool be surprised at how easy CONQA is to use and quickly become advocates for it. He says having the visibility available of who is doing work well helps drive engagement, which is critical to changing attitudes to QA and how it is undertaken. CONQA is looking to challenge the idea that QA is a waste of time and that on every project there will be a list of things missed or mistakes made that have to be redone.

“Once a subcontractor starts to be engaged and rework rates start to drop, they start to have better commercial protection and have the ability to support their progress claims. They save themselves a lot of time and it makes it easier for the teams on site, who’ve got a tough job before you add the admin workload on top of it,” says O’Donoghue.

“Some of the most successful contractors that we work with are using benchmarking and apply CONQA across their projects to lift their standards up so the whole company is benefiting from lessons that they learn. It’s fostering a culture of continuous improvement and using the software to help support that.

“The great thing about quality assurance is that it’s coupled to work verification. If someone has gone through and checked that they’ve done the work correctly, you’ve got a much higher level of confidence in that work. It can then be signed off and the area is ready for the next party to go in.

“QA has the ability to help inform the status of work, which is relevant to so many parties, particularly to the head contractor, who’s trying to coordinate many subcontractors. They can see the status of each subcontractor and make sure that the QA is aligning with the work that they’re completing. And the information captured is also useful for some of the compliance elements as well as the day-to-day running of a construction project.”

“I asked one of our customers why he uses CONQA, and he said ‘because your product works’. Once you have it functioning, a company can become more productive. They operate better, they communicate better, they can provide information to their clients, which helps their brand, and it helps to minimise liabilities. There are a lot of other derived benefits that come from your QA process just doing its job.”

Put into practice

One of CONQA’s clients that has seen significant benefits from implementing the platform on site is a concrete subcontractor based in Queensland. Initially, says O’Donoghue, the workforce had limited experience with digital construction technology and the company wasn’t certain that there would be uptake of the QA system.

However, by engaging the team with the QA process to document their work, hundreds of thousands of dollars are now saved each year.

“One of the key things that they’ve said is that it keeps their supervisors actually supervising their most valuable asset, which is their labour force,” says O’Donoghue.

“Rather than being back in the office doing admin, they’re out in the field, watching the work, making sure it’s at the right quality, so that they can deliver a great product to their client. And they’ve got the records to help back it up. So, from their point of view, it was about engaging their team with the QA process. Everyone’s found it easy to use and engage with. At the basic level, all we’re trying to do is make sure that the QA process actually functions.”

 

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