For decades, the off-site construction industry has been achieving a higher level of quality than site builders. To be clear, the term “quality” in construction does not refer to the level of design, finishes, or craftsmanship. Quality is the ability to deliver a product that is free of defects. First-time quality is the ability to get everything right the first time, with no deficiencies to correct after inspections and no mistakes found during the punch list process.

It can take a lot of convincing for builders to agree that first-time quality is possible, but the off-site construction industry has been striving for and often achieving this goal since its inception.

Off-site construction methods that are used to build manufactured, modular, and panelized homes offer many benefits to both manufacturers and owners. They can be built faster, the indoor building environment is not exposed to weather, materials are readily available at the factory, and automation can be utilized for certain tasks.

These are incidentally some of the same reasons builders typically cite for not being able to achieve the same level of quality during on-site construction. Site builders depend on subcontractor schedules, site-built homes are susceptible to the whims of weather, superintendents have to juggle delivery of materials because of limited space, and the skilled labor pool continues to shrink against growing demand. However, these are not the primary drivers when it comes to quality. The main reason manufacturers are able to deliver first-time quality is because they use controlled processes that can be refined to become more efficient and remove deficiencies over time.

Although the construction methods might be different, site builders can learn a lot from how off-site manufacturers operate—and get closer to first-time quality—by applying five key concepts: setting standards, creating quality management processes, training team members, communicating effectively, and committing to a schedule.

Set Clear Standards
The standards in a manufacturing facility are inherently high because of the level of accuracy required for components to assemble properly. It’s simply not acceptable to cut corners or call a measurement close enough because it affects everything downstream and could result in a structure that doesn’t work. Modules and panels must be dimensionally correct and meet the specifications for the end product in order to be successful.

When a home is site built, little issues often become the problems of the subsequent trades. For example, a framer has to make corrections for a foundation that isn’t exactly square, which takes more time. These odd dimensions trickle down to the flooring installer, who must also take more time to make the necessary adjustments. All of this adds up to a longer timeline, higher costs, and lasting imperfections for the owner. Setting the standard that the foundation must be square to precise tolerances in the first place eliminates all of these problems downstream. When the crews and subcontractors know what they’re working toward, they are more likely to deliver the desired results.

Create Quality Management Processes
In addition to setting clear expectations, manufacturers have quality management processes in place to ensure that standards are met and to help improve quality over time. When issues arise, rather than just fixing them and moving on, they evaluate the situation to learn how they can avoid the same mistakes in the future. These lessons are integrated into the workflow so that others can also learn from them.

Site builders are accustomed to juggling multiple subcontractors and tasks, but scheduling activities is not the same as managing processes. Creating effective quality management processes for on-site building requires getting subcontractors aligned with priorities and creating communication channels that allow multiple entities to work as a single organization. Builders might not be able to get the entire team under one roof, but that doesn’t mean they can’t all be on the same page.

Train Team Members
Modular factories hire workers that are not necessarily skilled in the trades, so they must be trained to do one or more specific tasks. Because the factories are responsible for training, they are in control of the standards and processes that are taught to each individual on the team. They can adjust training content as new lessons are learned, provide ongoing education, and quickly deliver new information as needed.

Site builders work with a broad spectrum of workers, including highly skilled subcontractors who run their own businesses and crew members with varying levels of experience. Because of this, it often feels like there is less control over the standards and processes, but this doesn’t have to be the case.

Site builders can and should provide training, especially when new processes are introduced. One way to do this on the jobsite is through inspection checklists. Before a new task starts, a builder can assemble the team that will be working on it and go through the checklist that outlines the specific expectations for the work. This is an opportunity to discuss the mistakes that are typically made and how to avoid them.

Builders can also provide examples, either through photos or demonstrations, of how the work should be completed. Whether it’s a formal program or an on-the-fly demonstration in the field, training is an important component of eliminating deficiencies and getting closer to first-time quality.

Communicate in Multiple Directions
In a manufacturing facility, the individuals on the line can communicate with each other very efficiently, both to those who have done work before them and to those who will continue to work after their tasks have been completed.

Although site builders may not have the convenience of easy face-to-face communication between all parties all the time, they can still learn from this approach. The key is to facilitate communication between subcontractors and crews so they can all learn from each other. For example, a framer may not realize that their methods for accommodating an imperfect foundation create more work for the flooring installer. However, if there is an open channel of communication between them, they can work together to determine the most efficient methods for solving this problem.

Creating communication channels that go both upstream and downstream is critical for refining processes and eliminating deficiencies.

Commit to a Schedule
One of the greatest advantages of off-site construction is the ability to build on a shorter timeline. Manufacturers are able to do this because they commit to a strict schedule in order to keep the pipeline full and maintain the cycle times that support their profit goals.

Site builders might have different challenges when it comes to sticking to a schedule, but this doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Keeping a project on track is an important component of quality management and timelines should be considered when developing quality control processes and standards. For example, when subcontractors are required to leave the site job-ready for the next trade, there are fewer delays.

Although site builders might not be able to achieve the same build times as off-site manufacturers, eliminating inefficiencies in the process can shorten project timelines, which means happier customers, higher profits, and more time to do more jobs.

Off-site construction companies don’t achieve better quality because of automation or indoor working environments; they achieve better quality because they have processes in place to eliminate deficiencies. Site builders work in different environments and with a different set of challenges, but they can apply the same principles—and the same processes—to achieve first-time quality in on-site construction.