Quality: You Don’t Get What You Don’t Measure

I am not a saint. There have been some awful quality problems in the products that I was directly or indirectly responsible for.

No, I was not responsible for accidentally sending that email to 1,000,000 people instead of just 10,000 registered users. And it was not me who messed up the home addresses of a few thousand on-line buyers so that their products could not be delivered. And I had nothing to do with the bug that allowed 9 out of 10 players in a lottery to win the main prize. But I will eagerly tell you about my own programming errors. If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.

The problem with quality is that it is often simply assumed by everyone. This is exemplified by the well-known triangle of constraints, which lists all important constraints, except quality. Customers just assume they will get quality products, and managers assume that employees know how to build them. And, unfortunately, 80% of people actually believe that the quality of their work is above average. Obviously it isn’t.

Self-organization can solve many quality problems, as long as you put the right constraints in place. It is sometimes said that managers get what they measure. If you make it a point that products must be delivered to customers before their deadlines, then self-organizing teams will do exactly that. They will push (sometimes crappy) products out the door on the day of the deadline. If you make it a point that products have to be reliable, scalable, well-performing, and secure, self-organizing teams can build exactly that. They will deliver high-quality products many months after the customer gave up waiting for them and went elsewhere. And if you manage your constraints to have products delivered on time and of high quality, again you get exactly what you want. But the products will contain less than half of the features the customer originally asked for.

Figure9-5c I prefer to depict these choices in my favorite adaptation of the iron triangle, where quality is added to turn the triangle into a square. Part of your job as a manager is to think hard about the kind of constraints you place on self-organizing teams. You not only get what you ask for. You also don’t get what you don’t ask for. Too often, managers forget to define clear constraints for quality in their products. And if you don’t define it, you are not going to get it.

(image by Nick J. Webb)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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  • http://imistaken.blogspot.com/ Lior Friedman

    Hi Jorgeon,
    Actually in most version of the triangle I know (see Scott Ambler), quality is placed in the middle. And with a good reason. Quality is the one thing that one should not “manage” by. Meaning, that one should always aim for the highest quality standard they can possibly achieve, and never be tempted to “trade it” off.
    While I agree that it must be defined and measured, I don’t think that it is smart to place quality in the same category as resource, schedule and scope since its much more important.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    I respectfully disagree with that vision. There is no such thing as the “highest” quality standard. Quality is a never-ending scale, it can always be higher. So it has to be capped somewhere.
    With quality, like with any other constraint, there MUST be a trade-off.
    What will be the quality of my book? Will I have full-color pages throughout the book? With glossy paper? And in a hard cover? And edited/reviewed by the best in the world? With the most beautiful photographs?
    Hell no.
    There’s no budget for all that.
    Quality has to be balanced with all other constraints.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/wineyard Wineyard

    I think it was Kent Beck who said something like “There’s only two sensible levels of quality: High and extremely high.” The reasoning was that high quality is the most cost and time efficient (so lower quality wasn’t really a trade-off, it was only increased cost and time), while for life-critical systems the quality needs to be extremely high – which costs more.
    However, we tend to discuss “quality” as if it’s a well-defined term, but it really isn’t. Kent’s statement was about technical quality, which might be one aspect of quality. It says less about fitness for purpose, which might be another aspect of quality.
    Anyway, I greatly enjoy your blog and your thoughts, and I really look forward to your book!
    Best regards,
    Trond Wingard

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