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March 26-29, 2012, Software Test Professionals Conference, New Orleans
July, 14-15, 2012 - Test Coach Camp, San Jose, California
July, 16-18, 2012 - Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST 2012), San Jose, California
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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Quality is a slogan

Some long-time readers may recall that I am a member of the American Society for Quality, one of the larger, older and more influential non-profits in the Quality Space. ASQ has historically focused on manufacturing quality, but ASQ does have a journal and certification program on Software Quality.

This year ASQ is starting a new initiative on "raising the voice of quality", including blog posts from it's executive director, Paul Borawski.

As someone active in the quality community on the intarwebs, the ASQ leadership asked me to participate in a program called "Influential Voices." As much as I am enjoying the test estimations series (with more to come), I hope you can agree this opportunity was too good to pass by.

The first assignment was to write a response to Mr. Borawski's first blog post. Here goes ...

On the ASQ Blog, Paul Borawski wrote:
"Here’s my conundrum. Over the past 25 years I’ve heard some of the world’s best leaders extol the virtues of quality to improve bottom lines, top lines, and whole organizations. I’ve been in rooms of thousands when hospital executives, school superintendents, and city mangers all tell their stories of discovery, learning, trial and success. They tell their stories of transformation from the edge of failure to the summit of success. In the ‘80s I listened to Roger Milliken say, if quality is right, everything else follows. In 2010 I heard Alan Mulally (CEO, Ford Motor Company) in essence say the same thing. I get inspired and excited. Quality really does offer answers to what organizations most need.

So, what would it take to get the world’s attention to focus on that truth? What would it take to have the world realize the full potential of quality?"

There's certainly a lot in there, but let's start with this idea that many big, important people have championed the value of quality.

Well, um, of course they have, right?

I mean, can you imagine the CEO of Ford stepping up and saying "Quality? Nah, not really. I mean, that's not /really/ important."

I have a hard time imagining any corporate executive saying that. After all, Quality is sort of like Mom, Apple Pie, or "The Children Are our Future", the kind of thing you can appeal to and get easy, universal agreement.

Why, right now, I'm looking at the side of a five-dollar pizza box, from a company known to use big vats of pre-processed cheese, pre-processed tomato sauce, and pre-cooked, frozen pizza crusts. (In other words, the cheapest pizza with the simplest assembly-line process.)

What does the side of the box say?

(company name) uses only the finest ingredients to provide top-quality products

No, seriously, that's what it says.

Clearly, something is going on here.

I'm all for quality ... as long as it doesn't cost me anything

That is to say, Americans want quality, but they don't want to pay for it.

Maybe it started with Phil Crosby's little book, Quality Is Free, in 1979. The basic theme of Crosby's work was sound: If you do a better job, you'll have less defects to fix and correct later, and defects slow you down. So by investing in quality, we actually get payback, whereas trying to go fast right now actually slows things down in the long term.

The problem is, Crosby's book wasn't called "Quality is an investment", it was called "Quality is free."

I doubt I am the first person to observe that our culture wants quality -- as long as they don't have to pay for it.

Quality is ... wait, what is quality, again?

Let's be honest. We don't agree on what quality is. Joseph Juran told us quality is is fitness for purpose, Crosby says it is conforming to requirements, while Jerry Weinberg suggest that quality is value to some person. (I'm with Jerry, for the record.)

That lack of definition introduces some problems. For one thing, it brings us people counting defects, arguing a lower number of defects is a more "quality" piece of software.

But there is another, more sinister problem: If you've never defined what quality is, yet agree it is good, then we've got a situation. This "desire" for "that thing, you know, that quality stuff", creates a market opportunity for consultants, gurus, authors, and all kinds of leaders.

That's not necessarily bad. I'm a guru of sorts, and, on a good day, I have had a few people tell me they have succeeded with my ideas, which is very gratifying. But a market without discernment ... that troubles me.

And it gets worse

To most folks in quality, the "Japanese revolution" is old news, so I will be brief. Over a period of a few years, the Japanese changed their reputation from making cheap plastic junk to making high-efficient, low-defect, last-a-long-time electronics and automobiles.

They went from followers to leaders.

About that time (surprise surprise), back in the United States, we developed a market for "that quality stuffs", but, as the secret reply also went "...keep in mind, we're busy with the business of production. So let's hire some bright young engineer and give him the role of director of QA."

Another common secret statement was "But don't change the way we do business, or interrupt production!"

Can you imagine why that didn't work?


Another monkey-wrench in the works

About a hundred years ago, a man named Frederick W. Taylor wrote a book entitled "The Principles of Scientific Management"

I would be reluctant to call the book science, by any stretch of the term, but it is worth reading, if only to know your enemy.

Taylor was kind of jerk.

His basic idea was to "separate the worker from the work" by having an elite group, the scientists, design the work to be done a specific, exacting way.

Another term for this is "defined process."

And, while Taylor's "Scientific Management" might have worked in 1910 to move iron from one place to another (though modern historians debate that), it certainly doesn't work well to create intellectual property, like books or software.

Imagine a publisher telling an author or artist when to sit down, when to write, and when to take breaks. It just doesn't work that way.

My research into the Japenese Revolution, specifically Toyota, shows a style that is roughly the opposite of Taylor. The Toyota way involves engaging the workers in the work by giving the team interesting assembly problems and asking them to find the best way to build the product.

For that matter, forget "best"; the Toyota way asks the team to continually improve the process of building the product.

So we Americans sent people over to Japan to figure out what they were doing and systematize it, just as Ray Croc had done with McDonalds.

So we came back with Lean and Six Sigma and standardization.

But something happened along the way. By translating these ideas from the far-east, we injected some of that old "Tayloristic" ideology. America, fresh from the great success of McDonalds, was in love with systems and process and standardization. We were also in love with command and control methods of management.

Nobody seemed to recall that McDonalds had to experiment first, to find a good burger that could be made quickly; we just thought standardization was good.

Now on Toyota's teams, it is the team that decides what things are worth writing up standards for, to help the new guys. On a Toyota team, making a standard pre-maturely is a kind of waste; it causes you to make rules today that will be out of date tomorrow. Or worse, causes you to build things in an old, out-of-date, slow, error-prone way because "that is what the process book says."

Yet I've read several books by Americans on "Lean Manufacturing", and can not recall ever reading anything about just-in-time standards. Instead I read "standardize, standardize, standardize"

Why, we even have a "quality system", ISO-9001, that is all about documenting processes.

About ISO-9001

The basic belief system of ISO-9001 seems to be: If you do something, you should do it the same way, every time. You should write down how you do things. Then you can hire people to come into your shop and audit, to see if you are in fact doing things the way the book says.

All of this pre-supposes that it is possible to write down a process that will lead to zero defects. With hardware, where you can "insert tab A into slot A" in a cookie-cutter process, that might be possible. In software, where the process has to say, at some point "... and then the developer writes the code", or "... and then the tester does some testing", it'll be impossible to have that kind of certainty with defined process.

Also, this pre-supposes that having new ideas, and changing our process, in the moment, is less valuable than having a stable, predictable, repeatable process.

And that, since the process doesn't change too much, the cost of documenting and maintaining change control over the process will not be overly onerous.

System Effects

So we've got a system where we define "quality" as good and no further, which creates a market demand for a product that is hard to evaluate. We have these leftover ideas of class warfare from the 19th century that are clouding our vision. We have traditional command-and-control managers that want "that quality stuffs" as long as that doesn't mean any change to them or their power base.

So people who come in selling "quality" as something that doesn't require change, that reinforces command and control, will likely have more success than those trying to reform things.

To go back to Mr. Borawski's charge, I have to say, the question should not be "Why hasn't quality had more impact?" but instead, we should celebrate the little impact we have had.

My fix? Well, I actually have some good news

The Good News

Outside of the government and some elements of the health care sector, most of North America is living in a free market economy. That means we get to compete against other companies for products and services.

If Quality is value to some person, as Weinberg tells us, and the customer is that person, then those of us who build better products will sell more of them, make more money, and have successful businesses.

Of course there are exceptions; big brands getting by on reputation, companies creating monopolies or manipulating the market. But, by and large, those focused on the "accidental" side of quality - meaningless metrics or silly process - will not do as well as those focused on excellence in product development, operations, or sales.

In other words, in the long term, the good guys win.

Now as for the other concern -- that this idea of doing quality work can lead to better products, more products for less cost, and lower defects -- well, I agree. If you think about it, "if everybody did it", we would create an abundance of resources (by which I mean, actual stuff) and make the world a better place.

Where can we start? Well, once place to start, I think, would be by giving examples and case studies of successful organizations, along with exploring ideas behind systems thinking.

Sure, Six Sigma and ISO-9001 might be tools, and they might have a place, but they are relatively shallow tools with a niche place. Let's radically de-emphasize the role of those tools, choosing instead to focus on systems thinking.

To do that, we would first model our workplace as a system, then see what the right tool is for the job, focusing all the while on the customer and customer needs.

Of course that's only a start. We'll have a whole year to debate these ideas back and forth, and I suspect we'll end with something strong than that.

But it is a start.

Now get out there and change the world!


David Gilbert said...

Great post man!! Hopefully, in the year, in my new position that I just started, I can provide some of those case studies, examples and discussions. It is exactly what I am here to try and do, and God knows it was all but impossible in my last gig. But for me, this is the key line in your entire post

it is the team that decides what things are worth writing up standards for, to help the new guys.

I am looking really closely at Lean; I think it has a lot to offer. But as you say, at some point, the coder codes, the tester tests, and the user accepts, happily or otherwise...those things can NEVER be processized. Is it possible to blend formalized process with creativity? Seems to me our modern musical system demonstrates that it is not only possible, but it is quite doable. Hmmm, that sounds like a blog of my own in the making! ;)

David Gilbert

Markus Gärtner said...

One thing about quality which I would add is that qualty is ambiguous. In that sense, quality means different things to different people, and is therefore quite unhelpful to have a meaningful discussion about. Instead let's find out what quality means to the people we care about.

Carl said...

Excellent post! In our cheaper, better, faster world I believe quality gets lost. Lately I have observed to much complacency with respect to quality in the software industry. We all need to evangelize quality! You are off to a great start with this post.

QADog said...

The ambiguity of quality is precisely that which makes it slogan material. Excellent insight Matthew and Markus.

Sloganeering has its place, though. Big change usually only comes from an emotional impetus. There has to already be a desire for quality (regardless of form) before data about quality will have any effect. Once that desire is in place, you can start the real work of negotiating how its going to look.

Pete Walen said...

No, No, No...

"Quality" is something other people do."

Michael Bolton said...

Markus raises a most important point: quality does indeed mean different things to different people. Matt refers to a "lack of definition". I don't think that's at issue; I agree with Jerry Weinberg that quality is value to some person.

Note that this explains why low cost at some value is sufficient for some people. It also explains why standardization is the acme of quality for some people. So powerful is the value of standardization and predictability that people will accept the illusion of standardization and predictability—and will go a long way to preserve the illusions if the realities aren't available.

Markus says, "let's find out what quality means to the people we care about." Absolutely. And let's also notice that when their notions of value seem irrational, they're rational with respect to a different set of values.

---Michael B.