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Accidentally Sacrificing Quality November 21, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Quality.
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I’ve seen this scenario play out many times. It starts when a senior manager sends a directive and asks for something that seems impossible. This could be an earlier completion date for an important deliverable, or it could be an expanded set of requirements that must be met without any change in schedule or resources. The team struggles to deliver, and some members may complain openly, but somehow they meet the challenge. The senior manager notes that despite the initial cries and worries from the team, it was right to press for more. They may conclude that the team collectively underestimated their own abilities and capacity, and might even go so far as to think that the team wouldn’t have succeeded if they hadn’t been pushed. The next time the manager makes a similar request and gets a similar objection, they will remind the team that they did it before and they can do it again.

Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps the manager truly has a better understanding of what can be accomplished within the constraints of schedule, scope, and resources, and uses the opportunity to teach the team how it can be done, thereby permanently increasing productivity. Perhaps the team was handicapped by negative thinking among some of its members, and the manager’s decisiveness and drive gave everyone the confidence to perform at their true potential.

Or, perhaps the team was right, and the directive really was unrealistic. How would you know?

It’s usually clear whether or not the team met the new, demanding requirements for schedule, scope, and resources (cost), but it’s almost impossible to tell whether quality was sacrificed in order to meet those goals. That may not become clear until weeks, months, or even years later. Because quality is hard to model and measure (ask anyone who’s tried to correlate customer-reported failures to test results), it’s easy to make decisions that keep the project on-schedule and under-budget without fully understanding the longer-term impact to quality. This is especially risky when the team is evaluating low-probability-but-high-impact events (see recent quality meltdowns at BP and Toyota).

How far can you push before you go too far? I don’t think anyone would suggest that you have to experience a costly quality failure in order to find the limit. Quality is at-risk when the team is stressed. Managers shouldn’t automatically tune-out the objections of their team, and they need to be especially tuned-in to understand how the new requirements will be met, what compromises, trade-offs, and sacrifices (if any) will be made, and ultimately how that impacts quality.

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