Peter S. Barrett and Miguel T. Curado

University of Salford, Research Centre for the Built and Human Environment, UK


During the last decade a great emphasis has been made on the implementation of quality management systems. For the construction industry, as for other sectors, more often than not, these systems were built to conform to standards (usually ISO 9001 or 2 [1,2]).

The systems resulting from this effort are commonly oriented towards compliance and consistency, rather than excellence. As these systems mature their real benefits for the construction sector are questioned more and more.

The first steps in the standardisation and certification of environmental management systems point in a similar direction. Once again a process approach is being taken, without a clear assurance of attaining successive improvements.

This paper discusses the above trend. Given the obvious impact of the construction sector on the global environment no room can be allowed for the repetition of past errors. In such a context this paper seeks to discern where mere marketing benefits of actions like certification of environmental management systems end and where a contribution to achieving sustainable development might commence.

KEYWORDS: Quality; Environment; Management; Change; Improvement; Conformity


One Talmudic text suggests that there were 26 attempts to create the World before the present Genesis and that this creation was accompanied by the less-than-omniscient sounding words of God, 'Let's hope it works' [3]. So far it has.

Humankind has for millennia profoundly influenced the environment, and only very recently acquired a, sometimes guilty, sense of sustainable development. From a slightly cynical point of view this concern may appear as a return to basics in terms of Maslow's [4] hierarchy of needs. That is, in order to sustain the present levels of satisfaction of the higher level needs (social, esteem and self-actualisation) we are being pressed to re-address the satisfaction of physiological and safety needs, by means of environmental preservation (Figure 1). Another way of looking at this phenomenon is to notice that sustaining satisfaction of the higher level needs has questioned the sustainability of the lower level needs. An equilibrium is essential.

Figure 1: Return to Basic Needs


The construction industry has wide environmental impacts, originating in land use, energy and natural resources consumption, pollution and upstream industries. In spite of this, the traditional character of the construction industry allowed it to escape environmental concerns while other high profile offenders caught the attention of the public opinion. However, over the last few decades the environmental impacts of the construction industry have been increasingly scrutinised.

The attention to environmental questions in construction has been focused mainly in technological aspects. This focus has involved in the first place: developers, designers and materials and components producers. Naturally these are the players most affected by environmental regulations.

As an evolution occurs towards Environmental Management Systems (EMS) more of the players in the construction sector will have roles to perform, e.g.:

  • Clients may improve procurement practices by considering project life-cycle costs;
  • More environmentally-friendly production methods can be employed by contractors;
  • Researchers and consultants can contribute with diagnostic and solutions' development for environmental problems as well as by making available valuable knowledge;
  • The creation of apt regulatory measures can be performed by national and supra-national regulation bodies, involving all the relevant stake-holders;
  • Educators, environmental lobbyists and governments may ameliorate the availability of information on environmental issues;
  • Local communities and lobbyists may convey to the industry non-obvious environmental requirements;
  • Investors criteria may reflect society's environmental concerns;
  • Forums seating the stake-holders may improve communication and lead to a clarification of goals and limitations.


In concise words the field of Quality in the construction industry saw an evolution from quality control, via quality assurance, to total quality management (TQM). The development of the ISO 9000 standards and the certification schemes associated with them created an alibi for many companies to approach quality from a point of view of mere compliance. As the systems matured a number of voices have questioned the advantages of management systems created in that way (vide [5,6,7,8]).

Deaf to the growing concerns in the field of quality, environmental management seems to be following the same path. The attention world-wide is centred in the publication of the new ISO 14001 standard [9], providing a referential for a procedural EMS. A number of companies have embraced this concept by way of third party certification, either against working versions of ISO 14001 or against the British standard for the same area, BS 7750 [10]. Among this growing set of companies several from the construction sector can be found.


While for the construction industry as a whole best practice in quality took several decades to evolve from control, to assurance and to TQM, for the individual firms a number of stories can be told. Different companies took diverse routes in their quality efforts, as well as different time frames.

In their research and professional activities the authors have encountered companies that followed the sequence mentioned above, but also a wide range of other cases. Some companies are still in the quality control stage, a lot remain in the quality assurance echelon (some started there). Some small service companies started with TQM and were forced by the clients to also develop quality assurance, yet others started with quality control and reached TQM skipping quality assurance (figure 2). The commitment to quality resulted in a variety of time-frames for the stages chosen by (or imposed on) companies.


Figure 2: Some Routes to Quality


The above considerations show that the historic route for the industry may not be the best path for each company within its own business environment, although some authors recommend a predefined set of stages, and a specific time frame for the implementation of quality in companies in the construction sector (e.g. [11]).

The route and the rate of change in the quality area has been very influenced by the evolution of clients' requirements and by the degree of perception of quality as a competitive advantage by companies. Behavioural characteristics of organisations may place restrictions on the rate and scope of changes. Learning is not an easy, automatic or uniform process, and companies should be aware of their learning, creativity and innovation capabilities and limitations when endeavouring to achieve profound changes. Learning faster than its competitors has been classified as the only form of sustainable competitive advantage a firm can rely on [12], but this valuable attribute does not come easily.

It must be kept in mind that the evolution in the field of quality benefited from a an informal brainstorming process which attracted a lot of participants and was enriched by self-styled champions of quality, sometimes called 'gurus'. Thus the evolution in the management of quality was never dominated by one single point of view, witnessed to by a huge volume of debate and cross-fertilisation.


As the importance of environmental issues increases for the stake-holders of the construction industry, the companies in the sector will reflect this within their structures. Those companies considering environmentally correct practices and cost effectiveness as incompatible may be excluding themselves from a growing sector of the market, and jeopardising their long term survival.

Embracing environmental management should be a long term commitment. Companies should resist the temptation of the permanent search for magical management solutions. This ‘flavour of the month’ posture usually leads to unconsolidated management systems being half-forgotten as new apparently very promising concepts are hastily implemented. The lack of adequate follow up on systems that are still immature may be an important reason for an eventual performance far bellow the initial expectations. Perhaps as worrying is the scepticism and demotivation this posture can cause among staff suffering from ‘initiative fatigue’.

However it is the authors’ belief that creating an EMS with documented procedures conforming to a given standard will not be enough to accomplish an environmentally correct practice. Environmental management will only make sense if it achieves a permanent improvement thrust in the environmental performance of companies, attaining ever more ambitious goals. This can hardly be the spirit of systems built to conform to a standard and aiming mainly at consistency.

This kind of system tends to be implemented in a top-down manner, oblivious of the behavioural and informal aspects in the organisation. Such systems can discourage both learning and innovation. For companies embracing environmental management the techniques of Quality Function Deployment1 (QFD) may prove useful. QFD although associated with quality management, can also allow to mirror inside the construction company the environmental requirements of the stake-holders.

In spite of this a black and white view of the procedural solution to environmental management is not in the authors’ opinion the best perspective. The concepts of situational leadership introduced by Hersey and Blanchard [15] might be useful in broadening this idea. These authors define the readiness of an individual or a group as a function of both ability and willingness, and argue that different management styles are appropriate to different levels of readiness. The style depends on varying the levels of task and relationship components of leadership2. Therefore it seems logical to expect the need for a stronger procedural approach3 to the implementation of EMSs in organisations that present lower levels of readiness, while for higher levels of readiness a more behavioural approach may prove itself more suited.

The development of environmental management was initially dominated by legislators and regulators and now standards have also reached prominence. A wide reaching and permanent debate so far has not emerged. Interestingly, and unlike for quality, gurus have failed to appear, maybe because most people dwelling in the environmental management field have sector specific concerns and audiences. Even the stake-holders, in some cases being very disperse, have failed to transmit their requirements. As a result of this the waters have not been agitated at all, and the companies are usually in a reactive position.

From a response to ‘control’ by authorities and regulators, firms are now adopting an ‘assurance’ posture, opting by conforming to standards and going for third party certification. This stage is in some companies marked by marketing orientated action, with well publicised environmental policies and certification but little or no real performance improvement. It seems that the next natural step will lead to what we would designate as ‘Total Environmental Management’. This latter approach would be centred on achieving environmental excellence, answering and attempting to go beyond stake-holders’ formal and informal requirements.

But this raises the question: should companies go through this multistage process? We have seen for quality that an number of different routes and time frames could be adopted by each company. The same degree of liberty can be applied to environmental management. Companies may choose to start in an advanced stage, rather than following the beaten track and waste time and resources.


Companies can both excel in fulfilling stake-holders’ requirements and achieve competitive advantage by means of innovative management practices. Flexible and yet strong responsive systems can be created, facilitating a continuing cycle of improvements. This approach to management has been termed ‘Supple Systems’ [17] and may address environmental issues but also involve other areas, in a loose-jointed non-bureaucratic pattern.

The environmental requirements may even be seen as part of a wider approach to quality requirements that would include not only the traditional quality parameters but also areas such as the environment, safety and health, business ethics, etc. A similar approach has been advocated recently, [18] with environmental as well as safety and health issues under the large umbrella of ‘quality criteria’.

Renfrew et al. [19] went a step further, introducing QUENSH4. This article notes that a single system covering quality, environmental and safety and health aspects will be more efficient than considering separate systems by:

This approach is being followed by some large companies in the construction sector5, although at present it is still difficult to establish a clear picture of the results.

This ideas are also being used in the development of standards. A proposal for a standard covering general management principles was introduced in Canada [20]. This draft notes that "such general principles would guide the manager with one set of management system principles which would provide one common management model for use in many different management sub-systems". The Canadian document aims to "provide to management of organizations a simple set of management principles which can be used to support the management of any function, for any objectives, in any size of organization, and at any level of an organization". The future will show if this view is realist or over-ambitious, in business a environment where organisational change and diversity are of growing importance.


Human beings, and as a consequence, organisations have a limited capacity to deal with innovation and complexity and, as Louis and Sutton remarked [21], tend to rely on ‘habits of mind’. This is not wrong per se, but is dangerous when change is required. Organisations may attempt to absorb change by means of the repetitive use of procedures, or to minimise it by means of façade systems, or decide to be committed to change.

However change does not necessarily have to follow tracks previously used. This way known pitfalls can be dodged, avoiding superfluous use of valuable resources and loss of competitiveness. Companies followed a number of different routes for dealing with quality management, not only the ‘historical’ path. For environmental management the authors believe the same is valid. Companies may direct their efforts towards a form of ‘Total Environmental Management’ without first passing through an ‘environmental assurance’ stage, focusing on permanently improving flexible systems.

The raison d’être of the systems must never be put aside and their content should be considered carefully. Improvement can only by measured in terms of performance. Sheer improvements in the system may by useless, since systems make no sense by themselves and may even perform better when integrating several areas.

Managing change is a complex and sensitive activity but in the words of Lenin: "Stupid is not the man that makes a mistake. Stupid is the man that repeats one."


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2. International Organisation for Standardisation. ISO 9002 - Quality Systems - Model for Quality Assurance in Production, Installation and Servicing. ISO, Geneva, 1994

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10. British Standards Institution. BS 7750 - Specification for Environmental Management Systems. BSI, London, 1994.

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13. Burrows, P. In Search of the Perfect Product. Electronic Business, June 17 1991, pp. 70-74.

14. Daetz, D; Flaherty, T. K. et al. Quality Function Deployment - A Process for Continuous Improvement. GOAL/QPC Research Report 1989, QPC, Methuen, Massachusetts, 1989.

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1 For details on QFD techniques vide [13,14].

2 Koivu [16] employs the situational leadership model to classify management styles in the construction sector in Japan and the Nordic countries.

3 A strong behavioural strategy would include low levels of both task and relationship leadership, when appropriate.

4 QUENSH = QUality + ENvironment + Safety + Health.

5 The authors encountered this approach in companies in the UK, France and Portugal.