We can't afford quality!

Understanding the impact of quality

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Credit: Jason Cipriani

A client recently made a statement to me that roughly translated as I am concerned about the high cost of doing a quality job. Wow! Talk about not understanding the impact of quality. The organization was hemorrhaging from the consequences of low-quality work in a major software implementation. One of several root causes of that situation was a complete lack of quality management in the software build.

Unfortunately, they were contemplating the same ineffective approach the second time around. It was as if their failure had been caused by some mysterious external factor rather than poor management. If an enterprise software implementation is a disaster the first time around, using the same management approach will produce the very same outcome every time thereafter. Quality must be envisioned and planned from inception. "Once the plans are part way in place, it is too late to build quality into a product." (Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis (p. 212). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.)

High-quality work is expensive, but you only pay for it once. Low-quality work is unaffordable, because your organization will pay the price forever.

Quality is universal and interdisciplinary

I found my first really good piano teacher when I was 16 and the fundamentals of quality I learned from her still resonate intensely nearly 40 years later. I have yet to master and live up to the standards she taught me in the late 1970s. Over the ensuing years, I learned a great deal from many other fine teachers and mentors, but none instilled in me the work ethic and pursuit of perfection that Bella did.

Bella had been a student of Isabelle Vengerova at the Curtis Institute of Music along with many of the finest musicians of the 20th century. Every week for several years, Bella and Max (her English bulldog) put me through a grueling workout that included a devastating blend of castigation, insults and humiliation. In our second lesson, she told me, “My god, I do believe that is the worst thing I have ever heard.”

I kept going back for more because the value received was far greater than the pain inflicted. She was a chain-smoker and bore a striking resemblance to Max — they were both adorable. Neither she nor Max were proponents of the namby pamby, “I’m OK, you’re OK” coaching and management style that rules today’s world. I had to work my ass off to get a minuscule compliment, and her brutal honesty toughened me up considerably.

Bella taught her students to seek perfection by relentlessly focusing on fundamentals while adhering to the highest standards of quality. “It’s not what you play; it’s how well you play it” she taught.

Most of the managers I encounter could learn a great deal from Bella’s approach to quality management, but only if they could learn to tolerate brutal honesty and the deep introspection that it should trigger. Too much management is based on quantity rather than quality.

Consequences for delivering poor quality

A while back, I had a contract with a generally well-managed company that was 300% over budget on its ERP implementation. The executive team quickly grasped the root cause of this problem: The CIO had championed the project, established business requirements, and managed the implementation. It was his responsibility to ensure that quality goals were met. That company believed in accountability so the CIO decided it was time to retire.

Quality is inclusive

One of the things I like about an agile approach for business process and software development is the inclusion of end users from the very beginning. Agile recognizes that quality is defined by the customer rather than by specifications. Customer-centric quality control is built into the process.

End user participation and input is absolutely essential to creation and validation of quality during the process of building a system, whether it is a commercial product or custom-developed software. Some of you are probably saying, “Jeff, that's self-evident. Everyone already knows this.”

Unfortunately, everyone does not. Every major enterprise project failure I have studied over the last 20 years has largely excluded end users from the development and quality validation processes. The application was dumped on the plate of the end user with an attitude that said Here it is; you had better like it. In those failed projects, quality was defined by a developer or by managers who would never use the product. Consequently, there is a direct correlation between project failure and exclusion of end users, at least in my experience.

In many of these failures, a traditional project management approach had also been used. Maybe the result was due to the practitioners rather than the approach, though. There is no reason why one can’t modify a waterfall project management approach to include end user quality validation. The only thing likely to get in the way is the ego of the project manager.

Quality creates a chain reaction

I have seen the results of brilliant quality management in many organizations. Outstanding quality is visible when you walk in the door, and you can hear it through a phone in the voice of a receptionist. Every employee in the organization radiates excellence, and the entire organization is just wet and dripping with exceptional quality. One organization that immediately comes to mind is the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, but many organizations do it fantastically well.

When you do it right, the quest for quality becomes part of your organizational culture. You can implement quality in your department, but you’ll find it easier if you have executive support.

Improvement of quality transfers waste of man-hours and of machine-time into the manufacture of good product and better service. The result is a chain reaction — lower costs, better competitive position, happier people on the job, jobs, and more jobs.(Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis (p. 2). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.)

How about your organization? Is it slick and shiny with quality? Or dingy and rundown like a barracks in a Soviet gulag?

If you would like to read more about quality, try the following works:

Out of the Crisis, by W. Edwards Deming.

Managerial Breakthrough, by Joseph M. Juran.

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