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The Need for Quality

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The first thing that we need to consider, in any organization, is that quality is the most important thing. The quality of your work defines you. Whoever you are, whatever you do, I can find the same products and services cheaper somewhere else. But your quality is your signature.

Developing and delivering high quality products and services means that you are doing things correctly from the beginning. As a consequence, you are reducing the need for additional services, from verification to warranty.

Reducing the need for continuous verification and validation, fixing, tuning and correcting your products before they are finalized will have an enormous impact on the cost of your products and the time to market. This may appear self-evident, yet I see an enormous amount of organizations who believe that it is better to build quick and cheap, fix it later. Management of these organizations believe that it is a good policy to save every penny during the initial creation and delivery of products and services, and accept the cost (financial, work hours and reputation) of fixing things when they go wrong - even though it is easy to demonstrate that the correction cost is several orders of magnitude larger than the cost of doing it correctly. This attitude is based on the idea that if we can deliver it cheaper without performing appropriate quality-related activities, the product might (miraculously) not be defective, or the customer might never notice the issues. We used to say that a happy customer will tell someone, while an unhappy customer will tell ten people; today, in an electronic world, where information crosses the globe at the speed of electricity, the unhappy customer is now sharing the news with a global community of social networks within seconds. Happy customers still only tell one person because it is not in our culture to share congratulations as widely as complaints.

Other costs which are disappearing thanks to high-quality products, include hotline, support lines, maintenance teams, release management and others. One non-negligible cost which disappears, but is rarely considered or documented, is the cost of taking productive people away from their production tasks to answer questions related to customer complaints.

Of course, quality is not an easy thing to achieve. First, you need to define what is quality. Quality for one organization is not the same as for another. Personally, if I want to buy a car, I am looking for a vehicle which will get me from A to B with minimum cost and problems, and allow me to transport the kind of things I usually transport. This definition of quality will rule out products such as Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini (too expensive), but it also excludes a number of tiny electric cars (no space for luggage)... If you want to create quality, you need to define it in your own terms, there is no common definition, there is no wrong definition: quality can be defined in terms of price, speed, defects or many other options.

The next step you need to consider is the level of quality you want to achieve, I may cover this in detail in a later post, but for now, I will say you need to define quality as world-class quality. In a world in which frontiers and distances are being rapidly removed, in a shrinking world, you need to deliver quality which is sufficient to remove any reason for your existing customers to go seek something better or cheaper elsewhere. World-class quality does not mean in this context that you are better than anyone else in the world, but that your customers and prospects will find you are good enough to not seek better elsewhere. Anything less than world-class quality is unacceptable.

Finally, you need to remember that quality is made by people. While technology, tools, processes, procedures and documentation may help in some way, it is only the people who really actively make the quality which represents you. If your people do not believe in your company, they will let you down. If your people are stressed or de-motivated, they will not deliver the quality you may desire. For a long time, I have been opposed to the concept of "human resources". I do not understand why you should downgrade your staffing to be little more than an expendable resource. If, for reasons I do not fully understand, you do not like the old-fashioned (but explicit) terms "personnel" or "staffing", then I would recommend you use the more appropriate term, recognizing your people for what they really are and call them "human assets".

The Necessity of Quality

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Context

We are living in a world economy and need to start understanding the need to work accordingly. The Western world continues to despair as the economy moves to countries like Brazil, India and China, but remain focused in working the way things were a century ago.

Recently the government in the UK has stated that we need to place more emphasis on teaching young people how to write computer code. This is absurd as the cost of living, and the corresponding wages will never allow this generation to produce computer code efficiently or economically. At the same time, most of the Western governments are attempting to relaunch the global economy by encouraging people to take out the loans that created the problems in the first place. This was compounded when the British Prime Minister refused to back the European attempt at resolving the debt issue because it could hurt the bankers who were largely responsible for the crisis.

It is time to wake up and acknowledge that the world has seriously changed. If India and China can produce cheap labour, good for them, let's use their cheap labour. This does not mean that we are surrendering our jobs, but that we need to reconsider the unique differentiating factors.

Currently the work being done in the countries classified as "emerging economies" is cheap; it is not original, it is not creative, it is not of high-quality. The German economy is leading Europe, largely because they have been continuously and consistently producing original designs and high-quality products, wherever the manufacturing was performed - products from companies like BMW, Siemens and Bosch are recognized as value for money.

In a global economy, we need to think in global terms. We need to start focusing on delivering high quality designs and products, and we need to do this systematically, predictably and consistently. Then, we can use the economical labour force that is available to make the products to exacting standards. This requires a number of changes in attitude at every level.

Education

The education system needs to change to fit the new world. We can find the data, the dates, the facts, the information very easily in this world, so we need to start focusing on teaching children to think and to understand rather than to recite by rote pointless bits of information.

My first point is that children should learn about foreign cultures very early. The best way to understand foreigners is to be able to understand their language as the language forms the way of thinking. So, I believe that in this century, we need to accept the fact that every child should learn to speak three languages before the age of ten. This is a time when they can learn languages fairly easily and efficiently. Also, I do not believe that they should focus on learning the "easy" languages spoken by our closest neighbours, but should focus on learning languages like Chinese and Arabic, which will open their minds to some fundamental differences in though processes and cultures.Next, they should learn to work out the things that will really benefit them in their lives. I believe that we should be teaching activities such as project management and risk management to all teenagers. This will help them in thinking through things, help them identify the consequences to choices and decisions made, help them identify the critical dependencies in their activities and sequence things most effectively to achieve valid results.

Finally, and contrary to most education policies, I would stress the importance of the arts. Teaching young people to understand and appreciate different types of art (painting, architecture, music, ballet, sculpture) will help open their minds to the creative process, encouraging them to make decisions and choices that will widen their outlook on the world. This is in opposition to the system today, in which young people are taught to follow instructions and study only the minimum they need to pass their exams and tests.

The Service Industry

More and more we are living in a world that is run by what is called the "Service Industry". This includes all the people who are not producing tangible, storable products but are delivering something different. This includes the banking industry as well as consultants (as myself).

The Service Industry needs to refocus and determine what exactly we are providing to our customers. I deliver a service, which means that I need to bear in mind at all times what the benefit of my work is to my customers. Also, banks are not there to make money, they are there to service their customers and need to understand what are the services their customers needs or require and work accordingly.

This is a change from the current attitude, which sees a lot of service providers believing in themselves as being key to the future of society. Banks are rewarding people who make money for banks. Consultants are selling solutions that do not fit the problem. In general, we are all seeking to make work for ourselves, regardless of the cost. This is the attitude which has led to the excessive levels of inflation and price rises since the early twentieth century. It is time to realize that we can no longer bank on continued growth for ever, there comes a time when every balloon must burst.

Subcontracting,

As the global market has unified, we have seen increasing need to subcontract and allow other people to do some of the work. It is perfectly normal today for a car to be designed in one country, manufactured on a different continent with pieces from all over the world and finally assembled in a completely different place. This is acceptable if you are considering that the work being done by these people will directly reflect on your results and capabilities.

Choosing a supplier simply because they have cheaper labour costs than your local labour is a guaranteed failure. It is necessary to be able to make sure that the supplier with whom you are working will deliver better quality (to be defined) than you would be able to deliver internally (unless the only quality you are seeking to deliver is "cheap to manufacture"). This is the focus of standards such as "CMMI for Acquisition", the poor brother in the CMMI chain. This model remains largely under-used because few organizations see it as a good short-term marketing advantage. While the other CMMI constellations are seen as manner in which customers may be impressed by a supplier having a "level", few are seeking to truly understand how their suppliers are ensuring the quality of subcontractors. And yet, this is probably more critical today than the development processes found in the classical CMMI for Development.

Conclusion

As long as we don't focus on quality, we are doomed to losing our market, our skills and our values to people who can produce similar products cheaper. This is largely a recent phenomenon which appears to have flourished in the twentieth century when the short-term cheap credit became the focus of the de-industrialized world. The urgency of the change cannot be underestimated.

The Challenge of Being Challenged

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When I was working in a software development team, I created a tax calculation system which allowed taxes to be calculated wherever the buyer and suppliers were located. It worked in local sales and in international sales, calculated whatever taxes were required and produced correct data for reporting in all the countries involved. My colleagues were surprised when I presented them the proposal and asked them to shoot it down in every way possible. They started off - as is often the case - by being polite and say nice, friendly, comforting words. But, that was not what I wanted: I told them I wanted them to destroy my ideas as much as possible. It seemed logical and practical to me that I would want any possible failure or issue with my concepts and ideas to be identified and corrected before more time and money was invested developing of the product.

Somehow, this is not the general consensus. It would appear that most people, when they ask for feedback are only looking for support, affirmation and encouragement rather than useful feedback. This is the reason that in most engineering organizations, the incredibly useful practice of peer reviews is not being implemented systematically. It is well known (measured and demonstrated) that structured peer reviews are the cheapest and most efficient way to significantly improve the quality of a product or service, yet, when the time comes, it appears that most engineers would rather not have their colleagues find fault with their work. I recently posted an item on estimating ("slow-stimating") in which I mention that I would expect any estimate to be systematically challenged by management, sales, engineering and other concerned parties. This should not be done in the traditional way of trying to reduce the cost and the time by cutting random elements from budget or schedule under the (incorrect) idea that the customer will be more happy if we are over optimistic. On the contrary, I urge you to challenge the estimates by trying to find what was forgotten, what was too optimistic, what risks were forgotten, what resource availability was not verified... this will allow you to get a better idea of the real cost of the work to be done; understanding the cost will allow you to create a strategy in which the best usage can be made of available resources. The goal is to understand your risks before you get into the contract rather and guarantee a level of completeness which avoid over-run, failure and penalties as much as possible.

The same is true of management decisions. Surrounding yourself with "yes-men" who will agree and encourage and support whatever decision you make will only allow you to fail more spectacularly. When you fail, all your faithful supporters will remind you that this was your decision and you are the guilty party; they are ready to agree with your successor. Having a team in which everyone agrees with your bad ideas is not proof that you are a leader: they are not following you into battle, they are letting you go into the mine-field first; you are not the leader, you are the sacrifice.

Being challenged is not fun. Putting out your ideas and have someone come and tell you that this is wrong, will never work, is a stupid idea is not something we enjoy. But, if you believe in that the success of your organization, of your company, of your future career is more important than your short-term pride issues, you will look forward to being challenged constructively. The systematic challenge should be built into every decision process, every investment, every development.

You have heard the old statement that only people who do not do anything are never wrong; I will add that if you don't want to be challenged, you should not do anything - because whatever you do, whatever you say, can be improved, misunderstood, done in a different way. You will be challenged, your ideas will be proved wrong. Do you want to be challenged before you make a fool of yourself or after? Do you want to be challenged in a constructive way, to your face, so that you can improve, or would you rather let people criticize you behind your back?

Slow-stimating

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One of my main concerns in most organizations I get to visit is the concept that people are being rushed into producing bad quality products, which can be fixed later. This is compounded by the constant complaint that "we don't have enough resources". My glib answer to that complaint is usually to state that "you have enough resources, the problem is that you have too much work". This is not just a glib comment, it really is based in the concept that there comes a time when you need to be able to say "no" to your customers. A hotel has to stop renting out rooms when all the rooms are gone, a restaurant has to turn away customers when all the tables are taken, a baker has to stop selling when all the bread is gone, yet engineering and service organizations continue to seek to sell more time, when all the work-hours are already taken.

The consequences of the current pressure put on organizations and workers are first of all that people do not have the time to do work correctly. We live in a society where fast and cheap have replaced the notion of quality. We believe that it is a good thing to be able to throw away and buy a new product when something breaks rather than going through the trouble of repairing it; it can be very difficult for most people to find someone who can repair a clock today. For larger engineering work, management appears to never be able to free up people to do the work correctly, but is always able to find them when the customer complains about the bad quality. This is a self-defeating approach to engineering, which increases costs, time to market, stress while reducing customer satisfaction and job satisfaction.

Some of the reasons for this approach to business is the lack of management of the estimating and planning activities. It all starts when a potential customer requests a quote for a job: we have four weeks to respond, no rush, the request remains lying in the wrong person's in-box for three weeks, then is rushed through without having time to make a proper estimate of the real work required. If the people doing the work have the opportunity and time to make a valid, detailed estimate of the amount of effort required and the probable duration of the project, management will frequently feel entitled to cut the estimate by 10% in order to ensure that the contract is signed, sales will feel they need to cut another 20% because "engineers always over-estimate everything".

When the work is finally attributed, team members are required to work on three, four, five or more different projects at the same time, based on the understanding that if you start early, you will finish earlier. However, the legend of multitasking is a long living fallacy. If you want to multitask, you need to take on tasks that occupy completely different sections of your mind, like listening to music while you work, or chewing gum while walking. The evidence is there to prove that if you do four similar (intellectual) tasks - like project management - one after the other, you will finish all four in less time than if you try to do them at the same time, continuously jumping from one to the other.Naturally, telling people that they should take all the time they need to do a good job can lead to a whole new set of commercial issues -- but, that is the solution we need to consider if we want to solve a whole series of quality related issues. This is not a fact just in your industry, it is the foundation of a growing movement in all areas to redefine the quality as a key component in our lives and our happiness, while speed only leads to stress and all kinds of new issues (look up the "Slow Movement").

One of the key solutions in solving this conundrum is found in the estimating and planning activities, activities which are often downgraded in favour of more "productive" activities. If you want to reach your destination at the right time and you don't want the stress of rushing to get there, you need to leave on time, with a good understanding of how long it will take to get there. The same is true for any work: if you understand where you are going, what you need to do in order to get there and start on time, you will reach it successfully.

And so, we encourage "slow-stimating", or taking the time to estimate and plan correctly before doing the work. There is no real success coming out of rushing the estimating and planning activity, there is no improvement when the estimates are cut down to make them unrealistic.

You need to encourage the people who are doing the work to estimate what needs to be done, how the tasks are inter-related and what is the effort required before trying to put together a plan. Then, I encourage management to challenge these estimates, not so as to increase pressure and reduce delays, but quite the contrary: challenge them to identify what they have missed, what are the risks, the dependencies, what could possibly go wrong... What you really want to identify at the start of a task is how long this might take (the upper limit) rather than trying to identify how long this could take (the lower limit). Once that has been identified, we can then start implementing a strategy to see how the amount of work can be organized to see what can be done in parallel, how we can start mitigating the risks from the beginning, whether we can perform more efficiently with an original investment in training, tooling, process improvement...

Check the estimates:

  • Did they build a reasonably detailed work breakdown structure (WBS) in which the tasks are identified with an appropriate amount of detail, including the necessary preparation, planning, verification and validation, corrective actions, etc?
  • Are the estimates based on wishful thinking or can you identify and approve the data, the measurements, the experience which proves that they are realistic? Many project managers believe at the start that "this time things will work correctly" even though experience proves it never goes as smoothly as you plan...• Has an appropriate effort been focused on identifying, analysing, understanding and planning for risks? Things will go wrong, usually someone already knows what will/might go wrong and you need to make sure that people have been consulted.
  • Have the staffing and skills been considered in a realistic manner? Do you truly believe that you are likely to have those people available as and when they are needed or are they going to be busy on other projects? I am frequently astonished at organizations who bid or start work without considering that their staff will not be available over various festive and holiday seasons...

In conclusion, I would like to see projects started up on a realistic basis, with an understanding of what is likely to happen. Pressuring people to do more work faster, does not help quality or productivity. The only ones who benefit from the classical approach of selling more for less are the salespeople who are being rewarded based on signatures brought in and not on products delivered (and stress counselors).

Reviving CMMI

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Part 1 (19 May 2013)

Recently it seems I am regularly being contacted by (or informed about) people and organizations trying to revive CMMI*. The market appears to be shrinking for the professionals in the process improvement world; at least, the market is not growing as fast as the number of professionals being certified to teach it or use it for official appraisals. Add to that, all the "experts" and other consultants who have set up shop without having official training or recognition and you get into a lose-lose situation. And so, various groups appear to be talking about making CMMI faster, leaner, easier, cheaper, more secure. They are offering different approaches and ideas, some of them very good. My first concern is that the model is easier and cheaper to implement, it will have to be stripped of a lot of its more advanced requirements, and the benefits thereof. But the model is not being used as efficiently - or as frequently as it should.

One of the most difficult choice people need to make regarding a loved one is the decision that maybe it is time to "pull the plug", to stop trying to keep alive a dying parent. As a CMMI instructor, appraiser and consultant, it pains to suggest this, but maybe the time has come to pull the plug on CMMI.

About thirty years ago, the US Department of Defense required that all their software suppliers should be "Maturity Level 3"; but they have now stopped because they noticed no significant improvement in the quality or reliability of the products and services they were purchasing! Companies all over the world have been applying CMMI and nothing has not noticeably improved!

I believe that it is an excellent product and, through its various transformations from maturity questionnaire to software-CMM to CMMI v.1.3, the product has generally got stronger. There are a few things I would have done differently, but overall, the product got stronger and better.

However, it is not delivering the expected results and, notwithstanding the strong focus on measurement, there are still no clear statistical data on the benefits. Yet, it works. I know: I have seen it.

Maybe this is the time to accept that there is a fundamental issue with the model and an in-depth review of what it is supposed to be is necessary. As I see it, there is a big weakness in the tool as it tries to be two different things.

If it is to be a measurement tool, used for appraisals and measuring the aptitude of potential suppliers, then the appraisal methodology needs to be simplified - an ISO audit typically lasts a couple of days; why can't we do it as efficiently? On the other hand, if it is to be used as a process or performance improvement tool, then it should be completed and extended with implementation suggestions.

As long as we don't know what the purpose of the model is, we will be stuck with this hybrid version, neither here nor there, not this or that, trying to be staged and continuous.

Currently, the value of the model for efficiency and continuous quality improvement is undermined by the vast majority of users who are only interested in getting a maturity level. They are doing the minimum required to get the level. As soon as the lead appraiser leaves the organization, they stop doing the tasks that were just recognized. The result is that we see organizations all over the world who have fooled an appraiser into giving them an undeserved rating - thereby demonstrating that apparent high-maturity organizations continue to deliver bad quality, late. The natural conclusion is that the model is a waste of time and money.

At the same time, more consultants and appraisers are continuing to be produced, with little experience in the real world. The pressures of the market, of the people trying to game the results, makes it very difficult for these young consultants to have any sense of solid ethics.

Now, it is time to let go and do a postmortem, identify what went wrong. Then, we can lay the CMMI to rest and create something which works more efficiently - maybe CMMI 2.0?

(*CMMI is the Capability Maturity Model Integration, licensed by the CMMI Institute. It is a process model used to measure the maturity of an organization with regard to their processes and work practices. CMMI is a registered trademark of the Carnegie Mellon University, based in Pittsburgh, PA)

Part 2 (23 May 2013)

It seems that my previous post called "Reviving CMMI" generated quite a lot of reactions. Some people seem to understand that I was suggesting to let the old girl die, some encourage the idea, others were horrified at this attempted matricide. A few reacted supportively or critically without giving enough information for me to know what they thought I had said.

So, I decided to clarify my feelings on the subject. I am a process improvement consultant, I have been living off CMMI for many years and would not recommend cutting off the hand that feeds me without careful consideration.

  1. CMMI cannot be considered as fit for purpose
    This is largely because the owners of the model, the user community and the market do not agree on its purpose. The CMMI Institute (following on in the footsteps of the SEI) places a large emphasis on appraisals and maturity levels, publishing numbers of appraisals, time to reach a level, number of maturity levels per country and per industry - in fact all the measurements and data produced are directly measurements of the appraisal results. But, at the same time, we are presenting CMMI as a tool for process and productivity improvement rather than a certification diploma.
    Without a clear understanding of the purpose, it is not possible to design something fit for purpose.
  2. As a Tool for Improvement
    As a tool for productivity improvement, the model does not contain enough information to facilitate a seriously useful and helpful implementation. There are hidden relationships between process areas and practices which are not easily identified or understood.Personally, I try to use the model as an efficiency and quality improvement tool; I need to spend an excessive amount of time clarifying the cause and effect relationships within the structure of the model. I also need to explain in detail how to understand the purpose and meaning of things within a business context. The standard training does not explain the evolution from maturity level 2 to 3 and beyond. There is a vague statement that it is not recommended to skip levels, but no clear rationale clarifying what are the risks and consequences. The relationship between specific and generic practices is not sufficiently clear in the model or the training. These are vital facts if you want to use the model for your business. If the model is to be focused on improving quality and productivity, it needs to include more information on how to apply it successfully.
  3. As an Appraisal Mode
    An ISO audit takes a couple of days, a CMMI appraisal can take a couple of weeks. Why? A number of "certified lead appraisers" do not appear to understand the purpose of the model. There was a recent case of an organization which was required, according to their appraiser, to have a separate policy document for each CMMI process area, clearly stating the name and structure of the PA - this is not the goal of the model, but people with no experience of the "real" world are being authorized to appraise successful organizations; they are frequently focused on respecting the comma of the law without understanding.
    The current appraisal method spends a lot of time trying to find evidence of practices, but could be a lot more focused on the impact and results of successful implementation of recognized and accepted best practices.

Moving forward

As I stated, I believe it is time to perform an in-depth lessons-learned analysis to find out what went wrong and how to correct the product, making it into something that will have the impact which was promised.

This must start with an understanding of the purpose of the beast. If we are talking about a tool for process improvement, we need an approach to educating of practitioners and users, which focuses a lot more on the practical side of change management and improvement. We need more information regarding the implementation of the practices. Potentially, this may mean that the core model gets completed with a series of "recipe books" for different industries or contexts. I would like to see the model completed with clear business related impact and influence statements, clarifying why things need to be done to save those who are implementing the letter of the law from their own stupidity.

I would like to see CMMI separated and organized so as to distinguish the improvement potential from the appraisal requirements. I am not sure if both can survive with the same name, but trust that the SCAMPI appraisal methodology can be adapted to other models and standards and be recognized in its own right. The appraisal methodology needs to focus a lot more on the business and cultural aspects of the model, stopping lead appraisers seeking to burden businesses with bureaucracy because a sub-practice says that is the way it should be.CMMI should be perceived as a pragmatic approach to assist organizations increasing job satisfaction and customer satisfaction. And we should be able to demonstrate that from the beginning. The appraisal method should focus on measuring the results, not the practices.

Part 3 (03 June 2013)

Third item on this topic, I know. Some people believe that I spend too much time complaining without proposing a solution, so here is my proposal: measurement and analysis should be expected from the start.

Many times, when I have asked for evidence of the implementation of measurement and analysis, I have been provided with evidence of project monitoring and control. Measuring that your project tasks are progressing, that you are respecting delays and budgets is not part of MA, it is part of WMC/PMC. It should not be difficult to include in either the model or the appraisal methodology a better set of examples of how MA should be applied, and place this as a requirement in the appraisal process. Currently, the appraisal method focuses on the practices; during the training, we say that the goals are what is important and are required, the practices are only "expected". However, during the appraisal, we focus on measuring the practices rather than the goals. We assume that if all the practices are in place, then the goal must be satisfied, if one practice is missing, then the goal is not satisfied. And even if we did, I cannot help but notice that the goals (and the purpose) statement all focus on activities, on tasks, on practices, and not on results.

Let's require business measurements and demonstrations of results for each goal. CMMI is (supposedly) there to help achieve business productivity results and not just to do a series of tasks to get a certificate we can hang up behind the reception desk. Why do you do "Requirements Management"? Show me results. Show me that the number of issues related to unidentified change requests has diminished; show me the reduction in unexpected requirements appearing during the V&V stage; show me data that show how the time to find a deviation from customer requirements in your project plans and other work products has gone down, because you have implemented a successful "two way traceability". Show me measurements that demonstrate the impact on the quality of your products and services, on customer satisfaction. If you cannot show me that, you have not implemented a useful approach to requirements management. Of course, people will argue that you cannot measure improvements at maturity level 2, you can only really have useful measurements at maturity level 4. But that is not true. You do not need control charts or five years of history to show a trend. Because if you did, no one would manage to satisfy the expectation for a quality trends in the PPQA process area at maturity level 2 - or maybe you have just skipped over that passage and focused on having a static checklist? If you implement a practice, whether from the CMMI or elsewhere, it is because you expect to see a change one that practice is performed; if you expect to see a change, there is something which can be measured.This is not a complicated addition to the model, it is only a clarification of the real purpose behind each one of the goals. A change in the appraisal process of this magnitude would ensure that people understand that CMMI actually has a benefit, and it would allow us (finally) to have some decent metrics as to the value of the approach.

I don't know if anyone will read this or pay attention, but I am glad I got it off my chest. Hopefully, my next post will be about something else. Maybe I will develop a business based appraisal system of my own, but if I am not supported by the community at large, no one will use it and I will waste my time: it is so much easier to do what the model says without thinking.

and you might get a certificate to hang up, a logo to put on your website...

Learning to be Stupid

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I was recently requested to comment on an article about "Functional Stupidity". This paper presents the concept of stupidity as being something that has positive and negative outcomes within an organization, and gives rise to "stupidity management" seeking to repress doubt and challenging questions within an organization.

This is not a new concept. It has been promoted for centuries by organizations such as the Roman Catholic church. I do not want to alienate the Catholics who may be reading this, but concepts such as papal infallibility are promotions of blind obedience, what the authors here call stupidity management. Challenging the authority of the Holy See gave raise to all kinds of "interventions" (from excommunication to the inquisition); it took centuries for Rome to finally accept that Galileo was right... A few years ago, a company with which I was working hired an enthusiastic young man for their change management team. I told his manager to make the best of him before he gets morally killed off by the corporate powers. One year later, he was doing his nine-to-five like everyone else.

The authors of the article tend to confuse the matter first by defining "leaders" in terms of their "followers". Apparently, followers are people who trust their "leader" to have all the answers, to be trusted implicitly and to be obeyed in all times. This is the definition of leader which is used in North Korea and, in previous times was used by people such as Mao Zedong and Stalin. If that is what is understood by leader, God preserve me of followers. For me a leader is someone who inspires you to think and to challenge the status-quo. The leader should inspire trust, but not faith.

Three key aspects define what the authors call functional stupidity:

  1. Lack of reflexivity, or the unwillingness to question claims and norms. This characteristic is the foundation stone of all bureaucracy.
  2. Lack of justification, or the absence of reasons or explanations behind decisions. This is akin to the mother telling the 4 year-old "because I say so". In an era when most organizations advertise the intelligence of their staffing, and happily use terms like knowledge management and business intelligence, the lack of willingness to provide reasoning to the staff is a unacceptable.
  3. Lack of substantive reasoning, or the focus on the task at hand without clear understanding of the context or purpose. In the UK, the term "jobsworth" defines this attitude of "doing what I am told, leaving at 5:30".

Functional stupidity is encouraged by management by repeatedly "shooting the messenger". This includes refusing to respond to a question, blaming people for daring to question a management decision or identifying risks which management had not noticed previously. The benefits of functional stupidity include "certainty", "organization focus" and even "team spirit" - in fact the benefits the authors present are basically the same as those you would get from any other religion. They even allow for the negative aspect of "dissonance" in which team members are expected to hold contradictory ideas as true without questioning: what management says and what management does. George Orwell in his novel 1984 called this "doublethink".
There is no contradiction, because there is faith.

Unfortunately any organization considering this approach seriously is doomed to failure in the twenty-first century. We are living in a world in which everything is changing at an increasing rate and it is required for all participants that they are willing to continuously challenge the way things are done in order to fit into a given direction. Serious leaders need to learn to encourage bad news and risks. However, in order to do so, the leadership needs to have a clear objective and purpose, they need to explain and motivate people into understanding and accepting their vision through education and listening.

I hope that the ambition of the authors of this article was to warn organization against this approach, but frequently that does not come through, it appears at times that they believe this is a valid management technique. The organization in the 21st century needs to be customer focused, place service delivery first and trust the staff to know how to perform this efficiently. If (as I have seen many times), management does not trust their staff with the data regarding success and failures, if management does not trust their staff to do the right thing with the right information, it is because that management team has hired the wrong people and they know it. Many managers have tried to hire people who were less capable then themselves in order to strengthen their own authority - this does not work. The future lies in educating people and encouraging them to think for themselves. More of my thoughts on this topic can be found in my "Prezi" presentation FP2.

Joke

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A Japanese company and an American company decided to have a canoe race on the Missouri River. Both teams practised long and hard to reach their peak performance before the race.

On the big day, the Japanese won by a mile.

The Americans, very discouraged and depressed, decided to investigate the reason for the crushing defeat. A management team made up of senior management was formed to investigate and recommend appropriate action. Their conclusion was the Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the American team had 8 people steering and 1 person rowing.

So American management hired a consulting company and paid them a large amount of money for a second opinion. They advised that too many people were steering the boat, while not enough people were rowing. To prevent another loss to the Japanese, the rowing team's management structure was totally reorganized to 4 steering supervisors, 3 area steering superintendents and 1 assistant superintendent steering manager. They also implemented a new performance system that would give the 1 person rowing the boat greater incentive to work harder. It was called the ' Rowing Team Quality First Program’, with meetings, dinners and free pens for the rower. There was discussion of getting new paddles, canoes and other equipment, extra vacation days for practices and bonuses.

The next year the Japanese won by two miles.

Humiliated, the American management laid off the rower for poor performance, halted development of a new canoe, sold the paddles, and cancelled all capital investments for new equipment.

The money saved was distributed to the Senior Executives as bonuses and the next year's racing team was outsourced to India.

Free to Work

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When you interviewed for the job, the manager made sure you were a "team player". You have to work in a team, you need to make sure you put the team first, not your own needs.

When you interviewed for the job, the manager made sure you had initiative, you do not need to be continuously micro-managed, followed, told what to do every step of the way. You need to be able to make your own decisions and choices, organize yourself.

When you interviewed for the job, the manager made sure that you were trustworthy, honest, that you would report your progress truthfully and correctly. You need to be able to take control of things, do your work and not try to just make them believe that you have done more.

Now you have the job.

You are being told precisely what to do and how, you are given manuals and procedures and forms and templates and processes you need to follow as written down.

You are being continuously monitored and measured, filling in time sheets which are reviewed and audited and controlled and approved.

You are getting no feedback regarding what has been done with all these data or what management thinks of your work. At the beginning you had to wait 6 months to get a review, now it's once a year. The review is largely vacuous, your manager has desperately tried to find something positive and something negative to say -- the chosen comments appear to relate to the past two weeks exclusively and the items raised are largely insignificant details.

What happened?

When you interviewed the candidates, you made sure you could hire someone who would fit into the team, who would be an asset to the organizational culture. When you interviewed the candidates, you made sure you could hire someone who was enthusiastic and energetic, who would have ideas and get things moving. When you interviewed the candidates, you made sure that you could hire someone who could think, take initiative, who would not sit around waiting for management to give detailed instructions every step of the way.

Yet, the person you hired was a pain in the neck, always criticizing the way we have always done things, continuously telling everyone that "where I used to work, we..." The person you hired resented providing the data which we need in order to report progress to the board.

The person you hired no longer accepts responsibility, but hides behind "the team" or "the process" every time something goes wrong, yet tries to take credit for the decisions you made.

The person you hired works from 9 to 5 and always has an excuse not to be available for overtime.

What happened?We play a farce in the work place in which managers hire people whom they believe (?) they can trust, but they never demonstrate that trust. The lack of trust managers show towards the people they hire naturally generates a lack of trust of employees toward their management.

The role of management is to provide the means and the support their staff needs in order to perform the work for which they were hired. Managers who do not trust their staff members obviously do not trust their own capacity to hire competent people. Managers need to focus on the people, not on the tools, budgets and reports. Their role is to provide the professionals in their team the resources, training, support, and anything else they might need to do their work. They need to trust the professionals to select the most appropriate approach within the context of the given framework and limitations. Micro-managing them will only serve to de-motivate and reduce performance, both in terms of productivity and quality.

Management is hiring good people, giving them the means and allowing them to do that for which they were hired.

The rest is interfering.

Estimating

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Estimating in any development or engineering environment is always a challenge. Whatever you do, it always end up with a guess.

You have a good system in place; one of your experts can estimate how long things will take and you are delivering on time, customers and management are happy. Then you get a process improvement / standard / model expert / appraiser / auditor come in and you are told that you need to establish a PBS and a WBS, document your assumptions, estimate the size and the complexity and the skills, document all of this and use a well documented model / procedure / methodology / tool to translate that into the estimate your expert made originally.

What is the added value? What is the benefit? Surely the model is wrong to require so much additional work for no value. It is obvious that this was developed for bureaucratic organizations (CMMI for the US Department of Defense, Prince2 for the British government...).

Or you have misunderstood the model.

The purpose of standards and models is generally twofold:

  1. Guarantee: can I as a customer know that you have satisfied the minimum requirements to guarantee the level of quality I should be entitled to expect?
  2. Lessons learnt: do you have enough traces of what was done in order to identify how to repeat success and avoid the same mistakes next time?

If you are good at estimating, the model / standard should allow you to demonstrate why you know that the estimates are correct, and it should help you identify how to share the secret knowledge of your expert to allow others to estimate just as effectively.

Many times, I have been told that estimates are based on "experience", which I translate as meaning memory. First, you need to acknowledge that most of us are better at remembering nice things rather than the bad or realistic (remember how it always snowed at Christmas and it never rained in summer when you were a child?). I also like to point out that the people with the most experience are the ones whose memory tends to start failing. But, I am told, we have our best people do the estimating... You know how to recognize the best people in your organization? They are those who find it easiest to find a job elsewhere.

The other issue with your estimates is the difficulty in identifying the over-estimates. I estimate a job will take 100 days, I say it will take 200 days, management / customer argue and I get "negotiated" down to 175 days. I then deliver the result after 150 days: earlier than scheduled and under budget - everyone is happy, but can you say I estimated correctly? I underestimated by one third!If you estimate correctly, whether you use models and historical data or not, you should acknowledge that, in the end, your estimate is going to be wrong, except incidentally. Estimating and forecasting is predicting the future and even a crystal ball will not help you for that (not a reference to the tool of that name, which has the potential to help effectively).

If you estimate correctly, you should not be afraid to measure, in detail, the actual time and effort required to do the work against your estimates. This need not be difficult, it can be done efficiently with a pen and paper. Going back over your estimates, you should find about 50% of over-estimates and 50% under-estimates. Also, you should find less than 5% to be more than 95% off.

Many organizations I visit tell me that they cannot estimate the detailed work of their managers but work with a statistical model which may state that project management is x% of the project effort (worse case) or that it is broken down into standard fractions of estimating, planning, reporting, meeting... (less bad). The idea that they should then monitor the detail of their work is abhorrent and reinforces the concept that we cannot plan because we don't know what managers do all day. If they are not willing to measure the time they take over a variety of tasks, we shall never know how efficient they are or how to help them. Time and effort can effectively be measured using paper and pen, entered into a spreadsheet later. It is only when you are comfortable with these measurements that you will be able to identify what the real problems are and focus an improvement programme on helping your staff and customers in real terms; and, when all is said and done, your main purpose should be to identify how you can learn lessons so as to continuously improve. The models and standards are not asking for bureaucracy, they are asking for enough traces of what was done and why so that lessons can be learned and shared. Documentation is not bureaucracy, it is communication.

Employment for Peace

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I recently got to attend an IT conference in Cluj-Napoca. This is a medium-sized town in the North of Romania. Romania is one of the poorest countries in the European Union and Cluj is far from the capital city. While it is not impossible, access to Cluj is not always easy, at least not as easy as Munich or Amsterdam -- or Bucharest. Yet, we had nearly 400 participants at this conference. These were largely young, dynamic, hard-working people, who were passionate enough about their work and the future of their industry to be willing to sit through very varied levels of presentations (as with all conferences).

This got me thinking about how we, in the wealthy West, treat other nations. Romania is seen, as are Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and others, as stealing our jobs and undermining our economy. I believe that this is a profoundly unjust attitude. We are obsessed with economic growth, which has led us into the financially disastrous situation in which we find the world today. Financial journalists and politicians are examining GDP numbers continuously to see if, at the end of any given quarter, we are in recession or not. In fact, the economy has been flat for several years and the "recession" (double-dip, triple-dip) is entirely based on whether the numbers have gone down by a fraction of a percentage point on the last day of the quarter. If they have gone up by micrometre on the last day, then all is well and we are in recovery. Of course, this is all nonsense and we are in the grips of a much more disastrous situation, which we are happy to ignore because of our obsession with the bottom line.

There is a rapidly expanding economy, which will grow even faster in the coming years. These "new" economies are not going to maintain their market share by being the cheapest, they are soon going to show they can develop their own products rather than just work to order; they are going to change from cheap to high-quality, like Japan did fifty years ago (when I was a child, the words "made in Japan" meant it would break within a week; Toyota, Sony and the others have changed that significantly).

In a few years, Pakistan will have established itself as a peaceful democratic economy and will look back at history. When they need to decide to whom they should show their allegiance, with whom they should side in case of global differences, they will have to choose between Russia (who invaded them), the Taliban (who oppressed them), Europe and the US (who send guns and soldiers) or China (who invested heavily in building infrastructure, factories, roads, etc). The answer seems relatively obvious.

We live in a global village, there is no reason not to buy something at the other side of the world, particularly when that something is knowledge or computer software, which can be transmitted at the speed of electricity. Investing in the developing countries, former communist countries, or poorer nations in Asia and in Africa, should become a global priority. We do not need to send charity, we need to send jobs. In a world in which we are more and more dependent on service and knowledge industries and not heavy industries, we could open research and development centres in distant countries, this would require (of course) building some infrastructure, satellite dishes for communication, schools to train up the people -- yet the result would probably still be cheaper than using our over-universityized, self-satisfied Western graduates. In addition, we would create a friendly relationship within these areas helping us maintain a respectable level of quality and productivity. But more importantly, we would provide education. The data show that countries with higher levels of education have lower birth-rates, lower child mortality rates, but also, a higher probability of living in peace. Peace and prosperity appear to be even more directly related to the level of education of women. Within the engineering world, there is no reason for women not to have the same level of education and employment as men -- at the conference in Cluj, we had approximately a 40%-60% split!

Reaching out with our service industry, investing in Lybia, in Nigeria, in Pakistan, in Azerbaijan and in all those other countries should be a priority for the wealthy Western world. The economic potential of countries like Romania should not be a surprise and should not be limited to the lucky few. With some intelligent investment, we should be able to give the world a job, a meal and the option to sleep peacefully at night. Given the opportunity, they are ready, willing and able.

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