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Priorities must be rebalanced to strengthen focus on quality for project success

Five Stars, Quality Management

We have never needed projects to be more successful than now. Firstly, there is so much change needed in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which is changing permanently the way we work, shop, travel and live. Secondly, there is limited money in many organisations’ coffers, especially the Governments’.  So how do we make projects more successful?

We have to deliver the ‘right projects right’ and that means ensuring we deliver effective solutions i.e. they deliver the benefits needed. “Finishing on time and within budget is not much consolation if the result of the project doesn’t work.” (PRINCE2)

It is quality that delivers an effective solution and its benefits.

What is quality?

Quality is not just about ISO 9001 or compliance with standards. There are two critical definitions of quality: 

  • Fitness-for-purpose – the solution delivered by the project must do the job needed
  • Conformance to requirements – the solution must meet what has been asked for

If a project delivers a poor-quality solution i.e. it’s not fit for purpose, and doesn’t match what was asked for, it will not be a success.

The iron triangle of project management is published in two versions: 

  1. Time:Cost:Scope
  2. Time:Cost:Quality

In this context scope means ‘those requirements that will be met’. Quality is not the same thing as scope though.  The difference between the two models is that the first version comes with no guarantee that the result is fit for purpose or meets business needs.

Descoping a project means some requirements will not be met, and this will have a business impact. Cutting individual requirements may be done piecemeal, and under time and budget pressures, without full impact assessment. Requirements not met will undermine fitness for purpose and many projects fail when it becomes clear that successive scope cuts have left a solution that is no longer fit for purpose.

Often the outcome is a crippled solution waiting for ‘phase two’ to deliver the benefits planned. Worst case scenario is that all the effort and budget spent is wasted.

Here’s a genuine case: a major global manufacturer was looking to cut its IT infrastructure costs and started a programme to centralise all electronic document management – a visionary and innovative step, ahead of anyone else in the world. Sadly, trying to meet aggressive time targets led to a focus on time not quality, and the programme was cancelled having wasted €2M on hardware and effort, delivering no benefits. 

What is quality management?

According to the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition, project quality management has four elements:

  1. Quality planning
  2. Quality assurance
  3. Quality control
  4. Continuous improvement

I’d add element 0 though – requirements validation, since requirements are the basis of quality management. Unless the requirements are sound i.e. correct, complete and coherent, meeting them doesn’t guarantee success.

Good quality management is essential through the complete life of a project not only for project success but also to prevent major, catastrophic failures. I recently watched a documentary on the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, killing 43 and injuring others. As with so many disasters, several quality failures conspired to result in death and destruction: 

  1. The design was not fit for purpose – it had a single point of failure; if one of the stays failed, the bridge would fail. By encasing the stay cables in concrete to ‘protect against’ corrosion, it made effective inspection of corrosion impossible too.
  2. The build did not meet requirements – the steel stay cables were supposed to be completely embedded in highly alkaline grout that would prevent corrosion, but there were voids in the grout that left steel cables exposed to air and water, leading to corrosion.
  3. Maintenance did not meet the requirements – only two of the three pylons supporting the bridge were repaired (corrosion in them was recognised to be dangerously advanced). The third was not repaired (repairs were considered non-urgent due to the state of corrosion being underestimated). This pylon collapsed.
  4. The corrosion measuring techniques were inaccurate and not fit for purpose.

Why do priorities need rebalancing to strengthen quality?

Doing the right project right isn’t about easy options, quite the opposite – it’s about doing the spadework up-front, which pays major dividends over the life of the project or product. Getting things right is a prerequisite for project success; using completion on time and budget as primary key performance indicators for project success can fuel corner-cutting. These lead to rework, delays and subsequent failures, sometimes with tragic results. So we must balance our priorities and ask ourselves, is this fit for purpose? If not, it’s a waste.

Measuring progress against schedule and budget is simple, and relatively easy. Measuring progress in quality terms is not and requires a substantial investment in quality planning early in the project lifecycle. Pressure to deliver visible progress ('the rush to concrete') suppresses the good planning needed to avoid delays and cost rises.

Why this pressure? Without pressure, planning and solution design has a nasty tendency to drag on and on. One banking project was launched with a five year deadline and spent four years planning, leaving just one year of panic to deliver and hit the target. The pressure must be there to make progress, but it must be the right progress i.e. including good design and quality plans.

Poor quality on projects leads to:

  1. Health and safety issues, even deaths. Health and safety is a subset of the requirements for any project (hence falls within quality management). Projects must be safe for those working on them and those using their outputs
  2. Reduced and delayed benefits, as the project’s outputs deliver benefits late, reduced, and at additional cost
  3. Delays, for redesign, rework and contractual negotiations
  4. Cost increases from the same reasons

Skimping on getting it right doesn’t save time and definitely doesn’t save money. A focus on quality is a step in the right, safe and successful direction.  In the next blog in my series on quality management in projects, I’ll explain who is responsible for good quality management.

Further reading:

Image: mentalmind/Shutterstock.com

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