On a sunny afternoon in late August, Kent Olsen, an assistant supervisor for MBK Homes, warmly greets Felecia Ash at Briar Rose, the builder's neighborhood at Ladera Ranch in Mission Viejo, Calif. As MBK's quality assurance auditor, Ash is there to check out whether imperfections she spotted during a previous visit inside some homes near completion have been fixed. Her job, bluntly, is to monitor the work of Olsen and the rest of MBK's construction team, and she has the authority to postpone buyer walk-throughs if a house doesn't meet the inspection standards that she helped set. But Ash does her job with such a light touch that the supervisors, after some initial pushback, embrace auditing as a useful measurement that keeps them on their toes.

“It's made a huge impact on improvements,” says Alan Baird, MBK's director of construction. “It's amazing to see what's acceptable for concrete, then and now.” Ash will have audited about two-fifths of MBK's 523 closings this year, examining some houses three times. The inspection scoring system she devised (see inspection sheet, right) breaks down a house under construction into rooms and installations that Ash goes over with a fine-tooth comb, looking for the kinds of flaws—mismatched cabinets, paint splatters, uneven molding, sticky doors—that, while not significant from a structural standpoint, are what home buyers notice. Indeed, Ash sees her role as the buyer's advocate. “It's unacceptable to build a house that doesn't meet customers' expectations,” says Tim Kane, MBK's president.

MEASURING QUALITY: Felecia Ash is MBK Homes' quality assurance watchdog.
MEASURING QUALITY: Felecia Ash is MBK Homes' quality assurance watchdog.

Ash's winning personality—friendly, amenable, but not a pushover—is why this program succeeds in the field, say several officials at MBK's Irvine, Calif., headquarters. It's also hard to argue with results: In 2005, MBK finished second in the country in combined customer satisfaction ratings, as tallied by Eliant, a marketing firm that tracks consumer perceptions about builders' operations, and won five first-place awards. MBK's vice president of operations, Mike Schmidt, told BUILDER in August that in the previous six months, every house MBK built had received a final audit score from Ash of 2.5 or better (2.5 being the minimum acceptable rating out of a total of 3 from the auditing department).

Quality assurance auditing is part of MBK Homes' broader effort to upgrade its image as what Baird calls a “customer experience company.” Schmidt says MBK models itself on the hospitality industry and focuses on four goals: treating customers graciously, meeting its commitments, improving efficiencies, and increasing referrals. MBK started moving in this direction more aggressively after Kane became president in June 2003. But the trigger event for the audits happened two years ago, when Kane and Lisa Wood, MBK's manager of quality assurance, walked a house in Ontario, Calif., with its new owners and, as Wood recalls, “we were mortified to find that it was really dirty.” Kane decided the company needed someone who could look at a house in progress with “fresh eyes.” He wanted a woman (believing that a woman would have a better eye for detail than a man) who had no construction experience, who was detail oriented, and who could get along with people even when tough calls were being made about a home's condition.

Ash, who joined MBK in its accounting department in February 2004, fit the bill, but she admits to being surprised when she was offered the job in the summer of that year. Ash now understands that Kane chose her for her demeanor and work ethic. “I'm so meticulous that [a job] has to be perfect or it's not going to work for me,” she says.

Kane and Wood anticipated that hiring a female quality assurance auditor might not sit well with MBK's supervisors. (They even bought her a pair of boxing gloves, in jest.) And Baird says he thought, at first, that Ash was “magnifying” what she perceived as installation flubs. But by simplifying her inspection-scoring sheet to one page, photographing the defects she saw, and interacting with supervisors in a non-confrontational way, Ash won them over. “There were some ‘how dare you's,' but now [the supervisors] welcome me with open arms,” says Ash, who e-mails supers her audit results within 24 hours of completing them.

Ash is in the field three times a week, and an inspection can take up to two and a half hours per home. She says the upstairs level is the easiest area to audit, and the kitchen the most involved. During audits, she'll be on her hands and knees inspecting walls and floors for such things as improperly installed tile or unevenly applied stucco.

Wood says Ash is now proficient enough to differentiate the quality of different subcontractors' work. Long-term, MBK wants to expand the audit process to specific trades, but the next phase of this program will find Ash auditing the appearance of entire communities. She's also training more auditors, as MBK Homes extended its home building operations into Northern California in August. That doesn't mean, though, that she's stepping back from conducting audits herself. “I love being in the field,” she says.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.