Monday, 11 November 2013

Good, good, not good, good - quality learning

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  Last time we examined the reporting of progress and performance.

We now turn to the issue of quality, defined here as performance relative to a pre-determined level of expectation; where performance meets or exceeds that level, it is deemed good quality; where it falls short, it is deemed poor quality.
What is the problem? 

The changes achieved through projects are governed by the inter-action of 4 variables: time, cost, quality and scope.  Changing one of the variables will affect one or more of the remaining three.  However, since scope, time and costs are often set many levels removed from those performing the work, it is often in quality where pressure is felt (i.e. increasing the scope of work will require an increased budget and schedule if quality is not to suffer).

However, quality issues are not confined to projects and can appear in any area of an organisation and it is important to remember that quality issues are just symptoms of other problems.  Failure to recognise this results in mere ‘sticking plaster’ solutions.  Simply employing more people to check for errors can actually increase the failure rate (since each additional check becomes less rigorous as each person presumes that any missed errors will be picked up by their colleagues).
How does it manifest itself?

Manufacturing companies suffering problems of quality may experience high mechanical failure rates; catering firms may use or produce food that is either not fresh or, in some cases, not even what it purports to be (i.e. horse-meat in burgers etc.); IT companies may produce equipment or software with bugs and glitches and any organisation at all can experience excessive absenteeism and high staff turnover.
What is its impact?

In the short-term, poor quality often necessitates re-work which increases costs and delays completion.  However, in the long-term, failure to address the underlying issues that caused the loss in quality can result in repeated poor performance, leading to reputational damage and loss of business.

What recommendations are made to address it?
Organisations identifying quality problems generally address them in one of two ways: introducing a quality control (QC) function (or reinforcing such a function if it already exists) can help identify errors, faults and glitches before the customer does. However, this does not reduce the overall failure rate, can be expensive and, as seen, can be a somewhat counter-productive short-term response. 

A longer-term solution is the conduct of root cause analyses to understand why the expected performance level is not being achieved; the use of tools such as Six Sigma may be appropriate, as will the application of systems-thinking.  Additionally, such technical interventions are most successfully implemented when complemented by cultural change, achieved through effective leadership and a review of incentives to encourage and empower everyone to see quality as ‘their’ concern and not just that of the QC team.

For information on lessons learned meetings, at which these issues have been raised time and again, please visit the Knoco website.

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