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Quality and R&D July 16, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Organizational dynamics, Quality.
Tags: , , , ,
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I took some time off but I’m back to blogging again. Earlier this week a former HP colleague named Daniel Mueller posted an interesting question regarding the organizational tension between R&D and quality functions and how to improve the working relationship between these groups. Daniel asked for my reply, and I’m re-printing it here.

From Daniel:

“What do you see as the biggest conflict between Quality and R&D, and how do you go about resolving it?

“The “biggest conflict” however exists at a cultural level. When both functions understand their proper roles, there are no significant conflicts between Quality and R&D. I have had the privilege of working in teams (over the last seven years with Hewlett-Packard Company) where R&D considers itself totally responsible for quality, and where Quality feels equally responsible for achieving a design that is right the first time. In other words, both parties aim to make one another successful, and team members assume personal accountability when problems arise. When this level of teamwork exists, the likelihood of the above problems manifesting is greatly reduced.

“So how is a healthy Quality/R&D alliance created? Here are three suggestions applicable to the Quality Department side of the equation. First, hire Quality Engineers who have walked in the shoes of R&D Engineers in their previous positions, so that Quality Engineers can appreciate the challenges of meeting cost and schedule constraints. Second, select Quality Engineers who have engineering expertise with the technologies surrounding the product, and are thereby able to contribute to design solutions. Third, Quality Engineers must bring to the development team a full spectrum of quality tools to help R&D optimize designs through experimentation, statistical analyses and problem solving. These are some means by which Quality can build its credibility, and prove its value to the organization. As result, Quality will find it easier to drive for high quality standards, and no conflict will exist between Quality and R&D.”

My reply:

I agree that there is the potential for misalignment and conflict when the quality function and the R&D function are divided in two separate organizations, often with different objectives and performance measures. The danger comes when R&D folks start to see themselves as less responsible for product quality as they assume that the Quality organization exists to ensure that warranty cost and customer satisfaction goals are met. In these environments many R&D teams forget their own role in achieving quality, beginning with early system design and architecture and including daily decisions made by individual development engineers. When customer-reported quality issues occur, there’s a tendency in these businesses to blame the Quality organization for failing to detect issues or failing to effectively advocate for design changes late in the development lifecycle.

I agree that this was not typical at Hewlett-Packard, mainly because senior business managers did hold R&D accountable for quality, and expected product teams to hit intermediate quality targets at phase gates throughout the lifecycle. Whether the quality engineering function was part of R&D or part of a different organization there was effective partnership among engineers and managers to meet common goals.

Regarding your suggestions about creating a healthy alliance between the functions:

1. Hire quality engineers with R&D experience
This sounds good, but may be tough to implement. Most businesses value R&D engineering more than quality engineering, and this makes it difficult to attract people into quality engineering. The result is that people who end up in quality engineering are often not highly-respected for their technical expertise. Higher-level business managers can help address this through formal and informal recognition programs, and ensuring that job responsibilities and compensation are consistent across the organizations.

2. Select quality engineers with appropriate product-specific technical expertise
Absolutely. Again, it comes back to the technical credibility necessary to succeed in a quality engineering role.

3. Ensure that quality engineers apply a “full spectrum of quality tools”
I agree. This is where the quality engineers differentiate themselves and add value to the overall product development process.

I would add:

4. Make sure the performance measures for each function are complementary and aligned.

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