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Quality in Project Management: When “Doing A Good Job” Collides With “Just Get It Done”
By Susan Peterson

One of the most obscure “measures” of quality is the specification of “good enough”. Despite efforts to unequivocally define quality in the planning phase, the actual project execution is filled with instances where “differences of opinion” surface in determining if deliverables actually meet specifications, requirements, and standards. In the continuing series on quality this month’s column addresses the challenges of actually meeting the formally defined quality measures that were so diligently documented in the beginning of the project. The concepts discussed include underlying elements of risk assessment, which are often not correlated with quality management.

“What difference does it make?”

There are many clichés that deal with the challenge of keeping a “big picture” view versus focusing only on details. “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that the original purpose of the project was to drain the swamp” is one of the more relevant sayings in this regard. As a project moves into its main activities, attention often fixates on separate tasks and outcomes with little attention being paid to interim and final deliverables. Using the deliverable sequences and dependencies as a benchmark can aid tremendously in determining if a stellar or a mediocre effort is needed. For example, shortcutting the cure time for a building’s foundation slab impacts every deliverable that follows that activity. However, the color of the slab should not be a quality concern unless the slab is noticeably visible after construction is completed.

“The long and the short of it”

People vary in their perspectives on time. Think about the last time that you moved. Did you stuff everything in the nearest closet in your new location to get it out of the way with the idea that “someday” you would reorganize every storage space? Or did you methodically keep everything in full view for an extended period of time knowing that once everything was put “in its place” there would be no future need to reorganize? “We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over” is a long-standing commentary that is unfortunately as true today as when it was first uttered. Products are rushed to market to beat the competition only to suffer costly recalls due to known defects that were ignored. Immediate solutions, such as reorganizing a struggling project team in crisis, are rushed into place only to be followed by other “knee-jerk” solutions, such as project dissolution, to “undo” the damage of the first “fix”. In the preceding example, “doing a good job” would have involved not only searching for the source of the conflict but also invoking long-term leadership actions to ensure that the problem did not appear in other projects. While these efforts might be perceived as taking too much time, the project manager must recognize that a series of “quick fixes” always takes longer and is less effective than taking the time to understand and address the true issues.

However, time in and of itself is not necessarily an accurate measure of quality. The Pareto principle (“80/20” rule) mentioned in last month’s column also applies in the project execution phase. If “just one more week” of research, design, or testing will not produce any significantly improved results (as estimated by progress to date), then the quality is probably as good as it will get.

“The world is not a perfect place.”

I was recently at a retirement reception for a wise individual who had served faithfully for many years through some tumultuous changes in his organization. As I was greeting him, an individual interrupted our conversation to complain about some ongoing injustice in the organization. The about-to-be retiree smiled and sighed, “The world is not a perfect place”. The statement was not meant to be an excuse, as the retiree had been heavily involved with others in trying to resolve a very controversial situation. Rather, the statement was more a reminder that when one has done all that he/she can do, that really is all that can be done. So also must we remind ourselves that trying to do a “good job”, even if it goes unnoticed and unrewarded, is better than not trying at all.

“Doing a good job” is a mindset that a project manager can instill in his/her team and sponsors simply by setting an appropriate example. The true measure that your example is working is if people say, “He/She never expects more of us than of himself/herself”.

© 2009 Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. An overview of her program and project specialties is available at PMI – San Diego Chapter. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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