A project manager’s ruminations on quality
And what is good, Phædrus,
And what is not good…
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
…so runs the quote at the start of Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In the book, Pirsig introduces his ideas on the metaphysics of quality in which he argues that quality is undefinable because it precedes analysis. Or, to paraphrase the quotation above: when we see something good (i.e of high quality) we just know it is good without having to analyse what makes it so. When I read the book some years ago, it seemed (to me at any rate) that Pirsig was using the term “quality” in a different and expanded sense from its usual meaning(s). Experience also confirms that using the word in any discussion leaves one open to being misunderstood because it means different things to different people. This brings me to my point: it is important for project managers to ensure that all stakeholders have a common understanding of quality. I expand on this thought below, drawing on what leading project management frameworks – PMBOK and PRINCE2 – have to say about quality.
It is worth starting with a couple of dictionary definitions of quality, if only to show how worthless they are from a project manager’s perspective:
1. An essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute.
2. High grade; superiority; excellence
Not much help, right? In fact, it’s even worse: the second definition confuses quality and grade – two terms that PMBOK assures us are as different as chalk and cheese.
So what is a good definition of quality from the perspective of a project manager? The PMBOK, quoting from the American Society for Quality (ASQ), defines quality as, “the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfil requirements.” This is clearly a much more practical definition for a project manager, as it links the notion of quality to what the end-user expects from deliverables. PRINCE2, similarly, keeps the end-user firmly in focus when it defines quality, rather informally, as, “fitness for purpose.”
The PMBOK/ASQ definition of quality, through its use of the word “degree”, suggests that any measure of quality should be quantitative – i.e. there should be a number associated with it; or, if not a number, at least a qualitative measure of quantity (high, medium, low, for example). PRINCE2 also insists on measurability through its notion of customer quality expectations and acceptance criteria, the former being high level, qualitative specifications and the latter quantitative, testable quality criteria. Although PMBOK does not formalise customer quality expectations, both methodologies insist on measurable quality criteria being defined as early in the game as possible. Basically these should be aimed at answering the question: how will end-users know they’ve got what they asked for?
Any project management methodology (including informal or homegrown ones!) must include processes that deal with quality. As might be expected, both PMBOK and PRINCE2 accord great importance to it. Quality Management is one of the nine knowledge areas in PMBOK. Further, PMBOK explicitly acknowledges that project quality is affected by balancing the three fundamental variables of scope, time and cost. In PRINCE2 quality is built in to a project up-front: right from start up (pre-initiation) through to initiation, product delivery and close. However, despite superficial differences in their approaches, both PMBOK and PRINCE2 treat quality in much the same way. Both emphasise the need to plan for quality at the outset (quality planning), put processes in place to ensure quality (quality assurance) and finally test for it when the deliverables (products in PRINCEspeak) are completed (quality control / quality review).
Regardless of your persuasion – or even if you’re a methodology agnost like me – quality is something you have to worry about on your projects. Project managers, unlike Pirsig, cannot afford to leave quality undefined. So, if your end-users’ eyes glaze over when they are asked about their quality expectations, understand it’s only because they don’t know what you mean; quality means different things to different people. Instead, ask them how they’ll know what is good and what is not good, and be sure to pay very close attention to what they say in reply.