Ensuring Project Quality – Key Ideas
May 3, 2011 Leave a comment
A project’s ultimate success is attributed to two key factors: the completion of the requirements as dictated by the scope and the inherent quality of the deliverable when it reaches its GA (General Availability) stage.
Whatever the project’s inherent deliverable, ensuring the result of the team’s efforts meets a certain level measure of quality is extremely important from the standpoint of gauging the project’s success. Customers will act quite unfavorably if they have to contend with sub-standard results in the form of a poor quality offering from an organization. Not only could that hurt general sales, but it will garner a poor reputation for the company and damage their standing. First impressions are, after all, everything and being as diligent as possible in fostering an environment that focusses on quality in addition to quantity is imperative.
With that being said, the project manager is ultimately responsible for the resultant quality of the deliverable. Like other factors, such as successful completion of the needed scope, timely release of the deliverable as defined by the schedule and managing the budget, quality is the ultimate measure of the project’s success upon delivery.
So when it comes to ensuring quality of the project’s deliverable, what steps can the project manager take to ensure that quality is not overlooked? What are some of the techniques and ideas to maintaining quality throughout the life-cycle of the project and not simply viewing it as an afterthought or something to be considered during the final stages of the project rollout?
1. The Project Quality Plan
The successful outcome of virtual anything requires good, up-front planning. And quality is no exception. Having a well-defined project quality plan is imperative to ensuring that the end deliverable is going to be at a level that maximizes the enhancements and minimizes any issues. Afterall, customers want to explore all the new ‘widgets’ without having to constantly contend with potential problems in their product. Many a time, a good set of enhancements can be easily eclipsed by a few moderate to large quality problems. Humans by their very nature often remember bad experiences with more clarity and will especially scrutinize problems they encounter.
The actual project quality plan should be part of the greater project management plan and should define up front, how quality will be handled for the duration of the project’s life-cycle. This means scheduling in quality controls and tests, defining quality resources and itemizing a plan of attack should larger scale issues arise. All should be contained within the project quality plan.
2. Monitoring Quality (Assurance and Control)
Once the project quality plan is defined, ensuring that its various aspects are being implemented is vital. Throughout the duration of the project, quality MUST be continuously monitored to ensure that as the product is forming and maturing, any issues that have arisen are addressed accordingly. Quality should NEVER be left to the last-minute, even if time in the schedule is allocated to a full testing cycle. The main reason is that, while a defined schedule release cycle is likely valid, issues that arise have an additive effect. Also, regressions are harder to gauge if the focus is entirely on the new attributes of the product and most of the quality assurance is simply unit testing. As with anything, do not make assumptions about the quality of the product during the project implementation phase. One can get into the habit of just simply verifying that the new features are working as expected while ignoring other issues that manifest themselves.
3. Quality Tools and Processes
Like many other things, we are often only as good as the tools and methodologies we adopt to do our jobs. And quality is no exception. Various things are available to help team members and the project manager continuously monitor and verify project quality throughout its release cycle. The tools themselves can include both actual tools for the testing of quality, such as test harnesses, test case tracking and bug systems, analysis tools, et cetera along with the measurement tools or concepts that are also available. Some of those include things like Pareto Charts, Ishikawa (or ‘fishbone’) Charts, scatter diagrams or burn-down or ‘trend’ charts of bug control and closure. Note that there are also entire processes that are available for focusing heavily on quality. Sig Sigma is a very strict process whose entire purpose is to ensure minimal defects in the end deliverable by adhering to the notion of having only 3.4 defects per million units shipped (99.99966% defect free). ISO9000 is also a family of standards that are very focussed on product quality and achieving this certification is a demonstration of the company’s commitment to a philosophy of high standards.
4. The Alpha and Beta Release Cycles
While this is somewhat more prevalent in software (and hardware circles), it is worth noting here. The idea behind these release cycles is that the product is provided to a set of predefined customers who will exercise the product in their own environment to gauge its new features, provide feedback and assess any issues they have encountered. For those familiar with how movies are made, this is akin to the ‘dailies’ where filmmakers will showcase un-edited footage of their movies to a screening audience to gauge their sentiment and reactions. Similarly, the alpha and beta release cycles are the ‘dailies’ of the quality management area.
For further granularity, the actual definitions of the two cycles are dictated as follows:
Alpha Release – The deliverable is made available to a set of target users, usually internal to the company but not directly related to the product itself. They may be members of another team or maybe a set of senior level engineers who did not work on the product but are familiar enough with its workings to be able to successfully screen it. Note that projects can sometimes have more than one ‘Alpha’ cycle and the number and type of those cycles is varied. Usually, how many will occur is dictated in the quality management plan.
Beta Release – The deliverable is made available to a set of users in the broader external community outside of the organization. Beta releases are usually provided to individuals part of the developer ‘network’ as opposed to the average consumer. For example, Microsoft’s’ MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) is often given Beta versions of software that is slated for future release. These individuals will have a first look at the new offering and give feedback to the company and file any issues they have encountered. The Beta Release Cycle can be both a blessing and a curse. While it is good to be able to utilize customer feedback to better gauge the success of new features for the product, it can also lead to problems if the Beta release itself is full of issues. So it is imperative that the Beta release still be treated with as much regard as the GA or General Availability release. The Beta is, after all, the first impression and most companies will want to ensure that it meets the highest quality standards it possibly can.
5. Quality Follow-up
Once a product is eventually rolled out, the project itself has completed its work on the deliverable. However, it should be noted that a project should NOT be closed immediately post-release of its deliverable. Invariably, it is extremely important to provide quality follow-up for any issues that emerge that were not otherwise caught during the standard testing cycles or the alpha/beta release cycles. While customers can be forgiving for ‘minor’ issues that may have manifested themselves, they are likely not going to be very patient if the company turns a blind eye to these issues or does not provide follow-up adjustments in the form of workarounds or patches. So the quality management plan should have some provisions for monitoring product quality post-release and have action plans and processes in place for any follow-up ‘fixes’ that may need to occur.
Quality should never be considered an after-thought. New widgets in your product are great. Beating a competitor to market can be a boost to your company’s bottom-line. But if all of that is achieved at the expense of quality, the long-term ramifications could be dire. As such, it is imperative for the project manager to keep a close eye on over-all project quality, ensure that a quality management plan is in place and convey to the team members how quality will be handled for the duration of the project. One only needs to review historical cases of products coming to market that were innovative but were disastrous from a quality perspective. Those situations must be avoided at all costs to ensure the reputation of the company is not tarnished.