Monday, 11 January 2010

Getting Value from the Quality Department (Part 3)

In the past couple of posts I've tried to set out my stall and ask the question about how organisations can get the best out of their quality departments. It's a double sided question, because it's primarily aimed at quality staff, namely how can you add value to the organisation through your activities?

My overriding observation about quality teams that I've worked with over the years is that they tend to be rather one dimensional. Their focus is often to 'audit' projects and teams and they carry out this task with demonic resolve like ferrets in a rabbit warren.

The audit schedule is defined at the start of the year so that all projects get audited at least once, preferably at different stages of the lifecycle. The auditors then spend their time trying to get access to the project teams, being rebuffed by the project manager at every possible opportunity because of delivery priorities. When they finally get into the project, they run through their quality checklists, ticking and crossing the boxes and passing a verdict on the way the project has complied to the quality management standards in play. The quality manager logs the findings and creates a pile of powerpoint slides which are presented to senior management at the end of the month. The management team asks some polite, semi-probing questions and accepts the answers provided, agrees some actions and the cycle continues.

This kind of activity may be in keeping with the spirit of the old 1984 ISO9000 standard but it does little in terms of adding value to the organisation and nothing to enhance the reputation and standing of the quality team. Organisations and quality teams need to radically move away from this Dilbert-like approach to quality, and the battle lines between quality staff and project teams must be broken up. So what to do?

1. Take the Initiative - It's vital that quality teams take the initiative and start to adopt a more collaborative approach to quality by working with project teams and management to establish what is really important to them. Doing things the way you've always done them doesn't make them right or useful in a modern environment. Engage with your quality lead and offer suggestions on how you can make your activities more valuable

2. Become more generalised - I've worked with many quality staff who have no first hand experience of the domain in which they operate. They audit programme and project managers but have never been either. I remember being at a European quality meeting some years ago where I was the only person in the room who had any management experience. Without first hand understanding of the problems faced by the people you are dealing with you cannot realistically expect them to take you or your suggestions seriously. Quality staff need to stop thinking of themselves as purely quality staff and get stronger exposure to the roles and functions they audit

3. End the Checklist Mentality - The best auditors use a checklist to guide them and help them remember key areas for investigation. If they find a particular area of concern during the audit they will throw away the checklist and pursue that matter more rigourously. (In order to do this, they have already followed step 2 above!). Ticking boxes is fine for a pure compliance audit but this type of audit does little to help improve an organisation, rather it serves as a stick to berate delinquent areas of the organisation

4. Proffer Solutions - I've seen so many audit reports which highlight deficiencies and non-conformances but do nothing to help the subject of the audit to understand or fix the problem. In the case of some non-conformances, it makes little sense to fix them anyway, because the moment has passed, or the cost may be too high in terms of the return. Auditors will be taken far more seriously if they can offer explanations as to why something is a non-conformance, and more crucially why a non-conformance may cause a problem later on in the lifecycle, in which case they should be able to proffer a solution, or better still, help the subject derive their own solution. In this way the auditor becomes more of a coach and a collaborator and less of a witch hunter.

Many quality staff and auditors are hard working and passionate individuals who are prevented from achieving greater things because the system itself is broken, and quality is seen as a necessary evil rather than a value add activity. This piece is not intended as a criticism of those individuals, but as a challenge to those who have the power to make things better. So it is a challenge to everyone who works in the quality field and everyone else who doesn't think they do.

Next time I'll focus on management responsibilities and the challenges they need to rise to.

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