Examine the brochures of virtually any company involved in the construction industry today and it's an even money bet you'll find the word "quality" used at least several times. It's one of those buzzwords - along with "on time" and "on budget" - that contractors have discovered owners must hear if their company is to be seriously considered for a project.

But unlike "on time" and "on budget" - which have always been easily measurable - quality has been more of a touchy-feely issue. Although every contractor claims to deliver it, only the most sophisticated owners are capable of knowing whether or not they're getting it, given the complexity of the construction process.

It was in the mid-1980s that American industry truly began to become aware of quality and discovered it could, indeed, be measured. Manufacturers, led by the automotive industry, saw how the Japanese had integrated the quality principles into their system, and the advantage it had brought them. In response, U.S. automakers began to implement quality standards for their suppliers.

The construction industry, however, hampered by a "we've always done it this way" attitude and the fact that the standards being applied did not readily adapt to their unique business, lagged behind.

Only recently a progressive few of the more than half-a-million contractors in the United States have come to realize that quality - the execution, not the word - could lead to increased profitability, greater employee and customer satisfaction, and enhance their ability to market their firms. But, as in most instances, the contractors needed a push.

For Condaire Inc., a St. Louis mechanical contractor with annual revenues in the $15 million range, it was the aforementioned auto industry that provided the impetus. After completing the quality efforts aimed at their parts suppliers, the Big Three auto makers turned to their service providers, including contractors. As one might imagine, the auto industry is a major buyer of construction services.

"We wanted to solidify our position in the St. Louis automotive market," says Malcolm Sweet Jr., president of Condaire, noting that there are two Chrysler, a GM and a Ford plant in the city. A significant portion of Condaire's work has traditionally come from the auto industry, dating back to 1970, when his father, who had spent many years working for area mechanicals in large commercial and industrial projects, purchased the firm and shifted its focus to process piping.

Sweet knew that if Condaire were to remain one of the two or three bidders considered for the city's automotive mechanical work, it was going to have to do something to document the quality of its work. "We've always been a benchmark organization in terms of profitability and customer service, so we knew we must be doing some things right," Sweet says. But he knew that reputation alone was no longer going to be enough.

Sweet, now in his 23rd year at Condaire and 10th year at the helm, had had several conversations with Mike Morrissey, owner of Sylvan Industrial Piping in Pontiac, Mich., whose focus is similar to Condaire's. Sylvan was the first mechanical contractor in the country to earn Ford's coveted Q1 status, a rigorous undertaking. Morrissey had achieved Q1 with the assistance of Corporate Development Services (CDS), headed by Dr. Anthony Costonis, respected construction industry strategic planners for the past 25 years.

In December 1996, Costonis began working with Condaire on a TQM program, with an eye toward Ford's Q1 certification. For four months, the efforts focused on core competency - laying out in detail everything about the company, from its financial through its operational details. "There was a lot of initial soul searching, everyone analyzing how they do various functions," Costonis says. "It was hard for them to see how it was all going to come together in the end."

At that point, Sweet decided to shift gears a bit. "Ford seemed to be de-emphasizing Q1, so rather than target ourselves toward that, we decided we'd go all the way and get ISO 9000 certified. People told us that if you achieve ISO, that's the ultimate. It would put us right in position for QS 9000, which is the auto industry's version of ISO."

Enter Jay Schlickman, a 35-year veteran of high-tech management with a 20-page résumé and the past six years dedicated to ISO. Brought in by Costonis, Schlickman was new to construction, though he had supported the ISO certification of more than 50 companies in other industries and was able to adapt quickly. "I liked the people I met," Jay says. "Contractors are down to earth, yet they're technical and very practical. And always in a hurry."

Sweet wanted to fast-track the process and complete it in 12 months. Schlickman told him that was pushing it and would require a Herculean effort on the part of Condaire's people. But Sweet insisted.

Among Sweet's initial goals, which Costonis helped him realize, was the restructuring of his organization, removing him as the point person for all operations so he would be free to do more strategic planning and long-range goal setting. Three new vice presidents were appointed - Ed Wolf for business development, Greg Harrop for operations and Charles Lombardo for finance - who would handle the day-to-day management in their respective areas.

"Even tougher than ISO has been the challenge of teaching these new VPs their jobs - how to manage employees, work with others, in short, to be a boss," Sweet says. "No one had occupied those roles in the past, and now they were trying to learn while at the same time our ISO program was requiring major commitments of everyone's time."

Condaire is not a large organization - only 26 overhead staff - so everyone was pressed into service during the ISO program. Cases in point: Malcolm's wife, Anne, who is the safety director, became the ISO auditor; Kathy Ryals, newly elevated to accounting manager, took on the responsibility for typing all manuals, formatting them and drawing up all process flow charts.

"The business didn't quite run the way we would have wanted it to during the year because we were trying to do two things at once," Malcolm says. But Sweet was prepared to accept a certain number of lost opportunities during the year.

"We took on ISO at exactly the right time for us," Sweet said. "During the prior three years, the entire auto industry in St. Louis had undertaken gut rehabs to all their plants. We were able to put money in the bank from that work to carry us through what we knew would be a tough year."

Key to the program's success - and any quality effort - is to gain a buy-in from everyone involved. Being a union shop, Condaire knew that having the support of the field staff - the union pipefitters and plumbers - was essential. Rather than waiting for problems to develop, management took a proactive tact, approaching the unions at the earliest stage and making them a partner in the process. "We addressed their concerns early in the process," says Wolf.

With Schlickman driving the ISO component, Costonis providing the industry-specific perspective, and their associate, Nick Hackenberger, facilitating the pre-ISO quality program, aided by the extraordinary commitment of Condaire's entire staff, things progressed rather smoothly. Only once, in December 1997, did tempers flare a bit, when Schlickman's pushing to complete the documentation phase collided with several of Condaire's project commitments. Calm was restored quickly when everyone came to realize they were pursuing the same goal and a month was added to the schedule.

When it came time for Schlickman to do his ISO certification readiness assessment, he was surprised at the results. "Normally, when you hit 90 percent on our list of 22 quality preparedness attributes, you're ready for the initial assessment. You've done a good job. Condaire's scores in the readiness assessment were up in the 92, 95 and 97 range. They'd done an incredibly fine job."

"Their documentation was outstanding," he adds. "And these are mechanical contractors, people who are not used to documentation control systems - give them a set of drawings and they're off to the races. But ISO says, 'Wait a minute, are those drawings up-to-date? Prove it to me! Show me your testing procedures!' Few foreman had heard those words before."

What really blew Schlickman away, though, was when the ISO assessor sent by the registrar did Condaire's document review. Condaire presented the assessor with a 7-inch thick book, combining their quality policy manual, procedures and field work into one. The assessor did not write up a single noncompliance against the ISO Standard that mandates a response to over 300 requirements.

"That's the first time in my observation of over 70 manuals I've seen zero noncomformances," says Schlickman, who regularly performs third party assessments and has recently published a highly praised book, ISO 9000 Quality Management System Design. "Normally, when I do ISO assessments for a registrar, I write up ten to 30 noncompliances."

According to Sweet, "In the end, we discovered that in about two-thirds of the cases, the way we decided to do business was the way we were already doing it. Our problem was we didn't have it written down or we had only pieces of it in writing. We were able to develop internal quality audits, something virtually unknown in construction."

"Already we are seeing people work more as a team, putting responsibilities where they belong." "Plus," he adds, "we've noticed an improvement in the quality of our work."

Last April, 16 months after embarking on its quality journey, Condaire received its initial ISO 9001 certification assessment, becoming only the second mechanical contractor in the country to achieve this quality benchmark. Today, Condaire's certificate hangs proudly in the company's lobby and a large banner, signed by all the company's employees is displayed outside their offices.

The company is now embarking on a public awareness campaign to let those both in and out of the automotive industry know of their achievement. "Our competitors may claim to be quality contractors," says Wolf. "We can prove our claim. Our message to potential clients is, 'If you require a project completed on time, within budget and with the highest level of crafts-manship, you should be talking to us. We've made the investment in quality.'" Condaire believes its ISO certification will become a key element in its goal to enter new markets and attract more negotiated work.

Asked what lessons he learned along the way, Sweet is emphatic. "Anybody who is going to do this has to accept the fact that everything has to be open to change. You can't go in with the idea that we're going to write a program that fits around the way we're already doing things. Making an organization better means changing it.