Small projects rely on quality activities instead of processes

Project managers of small projects don't have the luxury of a formal quality process. Instead, small projects require individual quality activities. Anything more can be a waste of project resources.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

I'm a big believer in managing quality on projects. A few years ago, I managed a large project and implemented a very good quality management process. The client even recognized the extra effort that we put into making sure that we delivered a quality product.

My last couple of projects haven't been as large, and I haven't been nearly as successful at implementing a quality management process. I think the reason is that the project timeline was not long enough to allow a good process to be established. By the time we would have put the quality process into place, the project would be over. However, since I had such a great experience on the project a few years ago, I feel like I'm missing something in these more recent ones. How do you set up quality processes on these smaller projects?

I’m glad to see that you had such a positive experience managing quality on your project a few years ago. Quality management requires an investment of time and resources with the belief that your project and deliverables will be of higher quality in the future. This higher quality, in turn, will lead to less rework and a more satisfied client. The basic value proposition for quality management is that you will save more cost and time over the life of your project than the cost and time required to set up and manage the quality management process.

Let’s look at that value proposition in a little more detail because there's a flip side. Like most project management processes, the time and effort you invest in quality management must be appropriate for the size of the project you're undertaking. So, the quality process that you implemented on your long project probably would not be appropriate on the smaller ones. If you implement too elaborate a quality process on smaller projects, it may well be that the overall cost and time savings will not offset the cost and time required. In general, this isn't a good situation and isn't a good use of project resources.

It sounds like you're finding this out firsthand. The great quality management process that you developed for the longer project a few years ago does not fit the smaller projects you've managed more recently.

Large projects need a formal quality process
Large projects typically have more that can go wrong in terms of the quality of their deliverables. They also have larger teams and more complexity in terms of how the project is executed. Quality management is not only helpful for large projects—it's required. On a large project, the quality management process can consist of:
  • Awareness and training: You can invest the time to make sure your team understands the importance of quality and what its role is in making sure that quality results are produced.
  • Quality management plan: The project team can develop a specific quality management plan that describes the quality assurance and quality control processes that will be followed. In many cases, large projects include specific full-time or part-time resource(s) to manage the quality process.
  • Metrics capture: You need good data to show the overall quality of your processes and the products you are delivering. Identifying and capturing metrics gives you the information you need.
  • Process improvement: Analyzing the results of the metrics gives you the information you need to change and refine your processes to improve the overall quality of the deliverables you are producing on the project. This information can be used to update and improve your quality management plan. The capturing of subsequent metrics will point out whether your changes are resulting in process and product improvements.

Small projects rely on individual quality activities
Project managers of smaller projects can't implement such formal quality management processes because they don't have time to get through the metrics collection and process improvement steps. If your project is three months long, you may not be able to collect product-related metrics until halfway through the project. If you collect metrics at that point, you have very little time to make process changes and then collect another set of metrics to see whether you improved or not.

That does not mean you need to give up on quality management. However, your overall process will be much simpler. You probably will not have a formal quality management plan, but instead you will build quality activities directly into the work plan at appropriate points. For a small project, specific activities might include:
  • Discussing the importance of quality at team status meetings.
  • Using preexisting templates and checklists to manage certain aspects of work.
  • Performing walk-throughs and inspections on deliverable components as they are built.
  • Getting the client involved in testing as early as possible.
  • Identifying simple metrics that can be collected early, with the hope that you can make one or maybe two rounds of improvements before the work gets too far along.

Of course, all of these types of activities could also be a part of a larger quality management plan. However, with smaller projects, the quality steps are usually seen as individual activities, rather than in the context of an overall larger quality initiative.

Quality management processes must be scaled to the size of the project. In general, larger projects should have a formal quality plan and a quality management process. Smaller projects can get by with identifying specific quality activities. Remember that there's a cost to managing quality as well as a benefit. The effort and time required to manage quality must not exceed the overall value that you expect to gain from the process.

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