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Quality Under Constraints: Making the Best of It July 9, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Product design, Quality.
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Lately I’ve been seeing news reports that illustrate the difficult environment that most quality professionals operate in. Here’s one example: executives from the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) were recently called to testify before the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to address recent, highly-publicized delays and whistle-blower complaints. Former board members and employees have described a dysfunctional culture where criticism of management is considered “disloyal.” Independent investigators have reported a large and growing backlog of unfinished investigations, a situation made worse by employee attrition. The former employees report a failure to prioritize the pending investigations, “nor is there any discussion of the priorities.” The current CSB Chairman cited a lack of resources in his testimony: “We are a very small agency charged with a huge mission of investigating far more accidents than we have the resources to tackle.”

Obviously the report of a dysfunctional culture at the CSB is something that should be seriously investigated and addressed. However, my interest in this story is the struggle to prioritize investigations, do a thorough job, and close them out while operating within a constrained budget and increasing workload. I think everyone has to deal with this kind of problem in their work: too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it all with the level of completeness and quality that we would like. The old joke is you can’t have cost and schedule and quality, you can only choose two.

However, people who work in quality feel this problem more acutely than most. After all, you can directly measure cost and schedule, but it’s a lot harder to measure quality objectively. Quality professionals deal with statistical probabilities and risks, rarely with 100% certainties. In most cases, all you can do is minimize the risk of failure within the given constraints, and make sure everyone understands the inherent assumptions.

A good example is the hardware product development environment. The release schedule and ship dates are often constrained by contractual commitments to channels or customers. If the design work runs longer than planned, as it almost always does when you’re doing something new, the time to fully test and qualify the design before going into production gets squeezed. This is the same problem that happens with teams that use the old waterfall model for software development.

Yes, you shouldn’t wait until the end of the project to start thinking about quality, and there are certainly things you can do to enhance quality while you’re doing the work, and sometimes quality itself can be a constraint (as in highly-regulated environments). However I contend that managing quality will always be about prioritizing; applying good judgment based on experience, and data, and statistical models; and generally doing the best you can within constraints. Ultimately our success in managing quality should be judged by the soundness of our processes and methods, and our commitment to continuous improvement.

For the CSB, these are the questions I would ask if I were on the House Committee looking into their effectiveness: What is the quality requirement for their investigation reports, and how well do they understand it? How much faster could they release reports if those requirements were changed, while still operating under a limited staff and budget? What is their process for prioritizing investigations? CSB management should certainly be changed if the work environment has become dysfunctional, but they should also be changed if they can’t articulate a clear process for managing quality within the constraints they’ve been given.

 

 

 

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