Quality management requires focus on processes, not just people

Ensuring the highest quality on project deliverables depends on the skills of the project team. But even top-notch people can't achieve project success without an adequate process for managing quality. Project Mentor Tom Mochal explains how it's done.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice on how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management techniques.

If you work as a project manager, do you know what it really takes to ensure a quality project? In this scenario, Mochal points out to one project manager why high-quality projects are only partially the result of good people.

The dilemma
My weekly meeting with Bob, a project manager, had been getting pretty routine. His project to upgrade the voice mail system at Blue Sky manufacturing had been going well. But he hit a bump this week.

“The CIO asked us to give him a demo of the new voice mail software,” Bob said. “This should not have been a problem. But when we went to his office, wouldn’t you know it—the system didn’t work correctly. We had to come back a half hour later to finish the demonstration. The CIO liked the new system, but I’m sure he’s losing confidence in our team.”

“Sounds embarrassing,” I said. “What went wrong?”

“We’re trying to get additional people trained on how to install the software,” Bob said. “Unfortunately, we assigned one of our newer people to work on the CIO setup, and he missed one of the steps. Maybe he cannot be trusted to do the upgrade. We may have to remove him from the project.”

“You have thousands of phones to upgrade. I think you’re going to need all the help you can get,” I cautioned. “What procedures are in place to help these new technicians?”

Bob thought for a minute. “These guys are supposed to understand phones and the voice mail software. We spent time showing each person what needs to be done for the upgrade. Then, we assume they’re skilled enough and professional enough to do the job right.”

I started to see a problem with the team’s quality process. “It seems like even if your team is very diligent, there is a good chance that problems will crop up on some of them. High-quality projects are only partially the result of good people. They are also the result of having good quality processes. When quality problems surface, don’t blame your people—fix your processes instead.”

Mentor advice
If people always produced high-quality results, there would be no need for quality management. However, even the best people make mistakes, including the project manager. One of the most important aspects of a project is to have good processes in place to provide team members the guidance they need to ensure that all project deliverables are complete, correct, and of acceptable quality.

In the case above, Bob’s frustration with a team member’s performance is misplaced. Sure, it hurt that the upgrade process failed for the CIO. But similar problems are bound to happen at any time to other employees as the upgrade is rolled out.

Instead, Bob needs to focus on processes. Examples of quality processes that Bob could implement are:
  • Providing better initial training for new employees.
  • Creating written procedures or checklists.
  • Pairing new members with more experienced people.
  • Having a second person check behind new employees to ensure the work is done correctly.

Most projects do have simple quality checks built into the work plan, but proactive quality management allows for more comprehensive processes to be put in place to prevent problems. To create these processes, capture metrics on midsize and large projects to determine the level of quality being produced. The team can then monitor the metrics and improve the overall work processes when possible.

The key to quality management is to stop errors as early in the project as possible. It is cheaper to build good quality processes than to clean up problems at the end of the project.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project-management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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