A common mistake made by project managers is to neglect quality management. Problems missed during the front end of a project will need to be addressed later, thus adding on additional time to the project and delaying its conclusion. It’s better in the long run to make time to address and resolve these problems in the early stages of a project than spend extra time at the end putting out the fires.

I recently bumped into Doug, who is managing a project to track response rates for direct mail campaigns. I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks. In the course of catching up with him, we started to discuss how his project was going.

“We’re getting to the end,” Doug said. “But the user acceptance testing is taking longer than expected. I guess that’s good and bad. It’s bad that it’s taking more time than expected. But on the positive side, the more errors we catch in testing, the higher quality the final solution will be.”

Doug’s mention of the ‘higher quality of the final solution’ interested me. “What kind of errors are you catching?” I asked.

“Our users are being very thorough, and they are catching all kinds of errors. Most of the errors are in the interfaces between the various subsystems. Some are programming logic errors. A couple of the worst problems were caused by some screw-ups in the original requirements. These have taken quite a bit of time to correct.”

“It’s great that your users are catching all of these errors. But did you perform any quality reviews or get any user signoffs on your work as it was originally being completed?”

“No, we didn’t,” Doug said. “We probably should have done more things like that. But it seemed like we didn’t have the time.”

“Actually, it seems like you do have the time.” I countered. “You’re just spending it now instead of earlier in the project. In fact, I’ll bet you are spending more time now fixing problems than you would have earlier in the project avoiding them.”

Mentor advice
There’s a saying that goes, “You don’t have time to do it right, but you do have time to do it twice.” The sarcasm nevertheless rings true on many projects. The incremental time required to validate that the work is done correctly the first time is sacrificed, and then buffer time is added to the work plan for rework and fixing problems at the end of the project.

Quality management has two main focuses—building work processes that reduce errors to a minimum to begin with and adding activities to find any leftover errors as early in the project life cycle as possible. For instance, misunderstandings in deliverables and scope need to be resolved in the planning process. Likewise, errors in business logic need to be caught in the analysis phase. The project manager should be aware that, in almost all cases, a good quality management process ends up taking more effort hours and up-front costs in the project. These costs are more than offset by a reduction in the time to correct errors in the testing phase, or worse, when the solution goes into production.

In Doug’s case, the fact that he is catching so many errors at the end of the project is not the sign of a good quality solution. In fact, it shows a lack of quality in the process used to build the solution. For instance, it would have been much less costly for Doug’s team to have spotted problems with the business requirements during the analysis phase of the project, rather than have to fix the problems during user acceptance testing. Some ways to increase quality include walk-throughs, inspections, and signoffs for all major deliverables as they are created. These steps are much more preferable to trying to catch and fix problems during testing (or worse, to rely on the customer to find problems after the solution is completed).

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 project management and life cycle skills to the IS division. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.