Project Management

How Do You Deal With Quality?

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Categories: Advice, Interviews


Situation: You’re grappling with quality issues.


Managing quality seems to be that hard to manage “blob” in the middle of the triple constraint.  It’s difficult to get a handle on and often takes a back seat to better defined success measures.

Joseph Phillips, PMP, Project+, is the Director of Education for Project Seminars. He has deep PM expertise, a lot of experience as a trainer and has contributed to over 35 books on technology, careers, and Project Management.  Much of his work has focused on project quality, so we asked for his input on a few common challenges that PMs face every day.



Q.  Often quality is ill defined up front and is only defined later once it becomes a clear problem.  During which project phase have you typically seen quality become an issue and what are the triggers that bring attention to quality problems?

Quality can’t be achieved unless the project manager and project team know what’s expected of them. Quality is an esoteric value that must be defined in no uncertain terms in order for it to be realized. Planning for quality is where most projects fail when it comes to quality – they either don’t define quality in enough detail or set unreasonable, unachievable goals for quality. Quality becomes most noticeable when it’s missing; when deliverables aren’t acceptable, full or errors, or the project is hounded with corrective actions you can bet there’s quality problems brewing.



Q.  What is your favorite technique for defining quality measures?

The best technique for defining quality centers on accurate requirements gathering. The project team, project manager, and the business analyst should work with the project team through interviews, focus groups, and iterations of requirements definition to specify what quality is to be within the project. Once the requirements have been defined the stakeholders should sign off on the requirements to confirm that the customers, management, the project manager, and the project team are all in agreement on what’s expected as a result of the project.



Q.  How do you set quality levels appropriately? (make them “just enough”)  Are there any rules of thumb or techniques you can use here?

Sometimes fast and good is better than slow and perfect. The purpose of the project deliverables should guide the expectations of quality. In my experience, stakeholders often confuse grade and quality. Low grade can be high quality – as long as the grade completely satisfies the purpose of the project. You can fly from New York to San Francisco in first class or coach; that’s grade. Quality is the fulfillment of the expectations, the requirements, and delivery on the promises of flying from New York to San Francisco.



Q.  What’s the relationship between quality measures, sponsors, and stakeholders?  What matters most and why?

It’s really about setting expectations, requirements, and cost-benefits realizations. The project sponsor, customers, or project champion may be closest to the vision of what’s expected as quality, for the project deliverable, and the cost they’re willing to pay to realize those deliverables. If the project manager and the project team don’t inherit the same vision or understand the quality expectations for the project deliverables then there’ll be a quality variance and issues, risks, and claims can sprout up in the project. Quality must be aligned with expectations, costs, and feasibility of accomplish the project goals in a reasonable time and for a reasonable cost.



Q.  How do you make quality measures real and important to the team?  What’s a good way to get people focused on quality when they have a hundred other distractions?

In my opinion, the project team is supposed to do their work accurately and correctly. I don’t like the idea that the project manager should bribe the project team to do their jobs. Project team members are given responsibilities and the project manager should expect them to do what’s right – and what’s right is to deliver their assignments with accuracy and to the prescribed level of quality. Having said that, I am a huge proponent of rewards and recognitions – when the project team does a good job they should be recognized for their contributions. If a project team generates a windfall or saves millions in costs for an organization I think it’s great that the project team should be rewarded.

Q.  What’s been your most difficult quality challenge and how did you resolve it?

A few years back I took over a failing project. The stakeholders were fuming at the bloated costs, late schedule, and lack of deliverables. The project team was lacking the skills to create the planned deliverables, and the project scope was vague, sloppy, and conflicting. Communication was the first order of business in this mess. We elaborated and defined the project scope, sliced out non-value added deliverables to maintain costs, and defined exactly what was expected of the project – what the first project manager should have done. It wasn’t an easy, happy approach, but it’s what needed to be done – someone needed to take charge. Once we had a clearly-defined project scope quality became a non-issue as satisfying the project scope means satisfying project quality. While this project ultimately costs more due to training, the added contractors, and the reduced size of the project scope, I still count the project as a success.



Q.  What are the top three most important things to remember when managing quality on a project?

First, the devil’s in the details; what means fast, good, or reliable to you won’t mean the same thing to the project customers. Exactness in the project requirements must be defined as part of the project planning. Second, the relationship of cost-benefits often shifts the perception of what’s needed and than in turn shapes the expected quality of the project. Finally, change in inevitable in most projects; when change happens, planned or unplanned changes, quality is affected because you’re not within the defined project scope.
Posted on: September 10, 2009 12:06 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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In reference to "While this project ultimately costs more due to training, the added contractors, and the reduced size of the project scope, I still count the project as a success.".... I think it is always important to signify what it costs more than, as in (perhaps) "...this project ultimately costs more than the stakeholders initially believed..." etc. You will often find that this level of specificity helps to clear up the bias that many have that quality on projects cost more; it usually helps to control and minimize costs if done correctly.

Specifically answering this question, in an article discussing the quality topic, is important to change the biased perception of many that quality always costs more.... it doesn't always cost more, and most of the time costs less because the correct level of quality prevents "bloated costs, late schedule, and lack of deliverables". The project mentioned was already described as having bloated costs and unclear scope, so I think it is disappointing that an article on quality would in any way infer that getting the level of quality necesssary "costs more".

David A. Mitchell, ASQ MQ/OE


On the topic of "Q. How do you make quality measures real and important to the team? What’s a good way to get people focused on quality when they have a hundred other distractions?"... I offer...

The answer lies more in two parts... (a) the existing culture, and (b) the PM''''s leadership skills.

For "Existing Culture", you can''''t instantly make a silk purse from a sow''''s ear, and if your team is a matrix organisation then you often just get what you''''ve got. If you are choosing your own team, then you need an A-string team if you expect A-string results (otherwise the PM has to shore up more of the imbalance with additional diligence and ulcer medication). But regardless of what you inherit, setting the expectations, and providing the tools, upfront and clearly, is your minimum job to have a remote chance. You''''ll reap what you sow. And this brings us to...

The "PM''''s Leadership Skills" is huge, and is largely made up of experience, and interpersonal acumen (my def''''n: knows how and when to communicate with various audiences, and does so sincerely). Books are written on this part alone, so I won''''t do so here, but technical or process genius will yield you nothing in the way of team quality, and by extension project quality. You have to sell, motivate, lead a team along (as in pulling a rope, since you can''''t push a rope) on the merits and value of your rationale, and make it their own.



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