Do You Need a "Quality Program"?

This content is syndicated from On Agile Leadership by Manfred Lange. To view the original post in full, click here.

My answer to this question would be: It depends.

It depends on what you mean by program. If you mean an elaborate and detailed plan it will be highly likely that by the time you get to start executing it the conditions have changed and many of the details are no longer valid in the changed context.

And here is a related question: Is Quality Improvement a one-off? Again, it depends. If it means that once you have rolled out the quality improvement - you ticked off all the items on the list - you are done then in all likelihood your organization will fall back in terms of quality again even if it doesn't degrade.

But if you understand Quality Improvement as a process, if you construct it as a set of guiding principles and values, then you are on the path towards a sustainable approach.

And here is how it might look in practice.

Option 1 might be: Create a detailed program so that you cover all aspects of what is going wrong. This may take weeks or even months just to get this plan set up. And it will take some more time to roll it out. And then it will take even some more time to show results.

Option 2 could be: Create a laundry list of things that may have an immediate impact. Your people know what's broken. Poll their views. Then make small, incremental changes. Observe. If it works, do more of it. All of this can be instigated, modified, or cancelled within days or weeks. Yes, you might be wrong. But with small items all of them suggestions from your people who are as close to the problems as possible you will get the majority right. And for the few that don't work, you can react extremely fast and can cancel it.

I personally would go for option 2 since it would help showing results very fast and very early. Each small item that is cleaned up will uncover or emphasize other items that are broken. And this could be a bug that you fix, or it could be a small change in the process that you apply. With small incremental steps you achieve short term results, you don't have to flush down major changes that go wrong, and you plant the seeds for a continuous improvement and learning process.

Let me give a very concrete example. And this one amazes me again and again because it is so blatantly obvious that it is surprising that there are still companies out there who don't do this. Let's assume you have a system of a significant size. This can be an in-house solution, a one-off, or a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) product. Assume further that you have an issue with the bug level. There are just too many of them. Then here are the rules that you can put in place to address the problem, fix it, and prevent it from reappearing:

  1. Each bug must be reproduced by an automated test.
  2. The automated test is to be included in the automated (regression) test suite
  3. The code is modified until all tests pass.
  4. A new version, e.g. a patch, can be sent out only if all tests pass.
  5. If the bug is fixed on a support branch it also has to be fixed on the main development stream (potentially other streams as well but I think that's a business decision)
With this set of rules in place, meticulously followed, you can expect the bug rate to fall noticeably within a short time frame. In one case that I'm aware of the bug rate reduced by 30% within 12 months (starting with zero tests!). I'm sure that some improvement was already visible after 3 and 6 months.

Bugs are not the only type of lack of quality. You can equally find lack of quality around processes, requirements, tools, etc. The approach would still be the same. Instead of a sledgehammer or Ben Hur sized quality program, try a continuous stream of small incremental changes. It's slow at the beginning since there is so much to clean up. But then it will gain momentum, and when it has become a habit your organization has changed it's behavior. Quality has been established as a process, as a part of the culture.

So, no, I don't think you need an elaborate program. Small, incremental changes, observation, then adapt, are extremely lightweight and can be introduced today. But you need certainly guiding principles that help your team understand that you mean business when you talk quality.

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