“Quality”, whether it’s quality of and in the goods and services we buy as consumers, or quality of the products and services we as professionals are building and offering to the market, or of the organization we belong to – we all want it, but what does it mean, and how do we get it ?
The typical corporate response to quality issues is to launch some type of “quality initiative” with a number of “quality boosting” KPI’s defined, but frankly, most of such initiatives I’ve seen over the years have yielded very limited results, at least longer term: some time after the initiative, things tend to regress back to where they were from the beginning.
The problem with “steering by KPI’s” (or Management by Objectives, which was the corresponding buzz word some 20 years ago) is that “what you measure is what you will get”, i.e. KPI’s tend to result in very local optimizations, with less attention being paid to the overall big picture. Steering by KPI’s is like reading about Disney World, instead of being in Disney World, that is, what you will get by reading instead of being is a very limited and obscured picture of reality.
In this excellent short paper, David Chappell cuts “quality” into three different dimensions, “functional”, “structural” and “process”, each of them essential for overall outcome, i.e. the overall quality of the end product/service. Basically, “functional quality” is about the ability of the product/service to do its job, i.e. about the features & functions, the performance, the usability etc, that is, those “qualities” that matter most to the intended end users. “Structural quality” deals with the architectural and design issues, the key “abilities” that come from a sound architecture: extensibility, testability, reusability, understandability, etc, i.e. “qualities” that matter most to the owners and developers of the product. Lastly, “process quality” is about the effectiveness and efficiency of the “production factory” itself, i.e. how the development is organised, what processes and organizational structures are in place etc. “Agility” and “Lean” are modern ways to organize development to provide better quality in the process dimension.
Another, perhaps slightly more philosophical “definition” of quality is given by Robert M. Pirsig, the author of “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”:
Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.
Robert M. Pirsig
While it might be a bit hard at first to grasp what Pirsig means by the above statement, he ends his book – which really is a quest to figure out what quality really is – by stating that “Quality is to care!”, i.e. quality is a direct result from people caring about what they do.
In other words: caring about what you do is a necessary condition for quality to materialize.
This realization, that caring is key for overall quality, raises some interesting questions in context of the modern, shareholder value based economy, where employees are seen as replacable human automations, subject to constant cost cuttings and job reductions at the tiniest indication of a downturn of corporate stock price, and generally very little investments going into the physical, mental, intellectual and social well-being of the employees: I see an imminent risk for employees eventually stopping “caring” about what they do, about the organization they work for, and the products/services they produce, their colleagues, and ultimately, the intended consumers of those products and services. And in line with Pirsig’s thinking, when employees stop caring, quality will suffer.
I’m seeing this happening all over the place, in many domains, such as the public transportation system of Stockholm, the public health care system, the schools for our kids, as well as within areas of my professional world: employees no longer seem to “care” as much as before, and seem to have gradually lost their interest, pride, loyalty, respect and sense of personal ownership and responsibility: “It’s just a job, for God’s sake!, I do my hour’s, then I’m out of it until tomorrow!”
To reverse this trend, what can we do ? My recommendation for all corporate leaders and bean counters of today’s shareholder focused world would be to start having a look at Dan Pink’s video about motivation: