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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