Inspection is a Tool for Improvement, Not a Whip
Deming’s third point urges practitioners to design quality into processes, using inspection as an information-gathering tool to do so. In project management, the processes and systems make up a methodology. Does your organization have a consistent methodology, or does everyone run projects their own way?
Inspecting project performance through the lens of continuous improvement facilitates applying lessons learned to a consistent and ever-improving methodology. This can not be done effectively unless there is a consistent system of managing projects in the first place.
Because projects are inherently unique, the specifics of how they are managed may require modification on an individual basis. If a consistent methodology is used as the basis however, deviations can be reviewed and further enhance the methodology by documenting best practices for specific categories of projects. The “deviations” can be developed into subject-specific best practices within the common framework. Furthermore, various components of the methodology should be a guideline, whereas critical planning processes should be standardized as much as possible to facilitate the formation of sound theories and best practices. For example, the methods of estimation should be consistent, while some aspects of management style should be left up to individual project managers.
Too often, inspection on projects is used as (or believed to be) a method of blaming project managers when their projects are behind, or applauding them when the projects are ahead of schedule. They should be neither. A performance report indicating a significant discrepancy in the planned time, cost, or quality should be viewed as an opportunity to go back to the planning process and figure out why it was so inaccurate. If the project manager followed the planning processes outlined in the methodology, this is new information with which to enhance those planning processes. If the issue appears to be execution, find out if the project manager is abiding by the guidelines set forth in the methodology, or if they are ignoring them. Compliance can be a people problem, but Deming would argue that over 90% of the problems in any situation can be traced back to flaws in the system, not the people.
When appraising the performance of project managers who work within a consistent methodology, performance to plan should not be such a large factor. Instead, the (1) ongoing contributions to improving the methodology and (2) compliance and success of execution should be considered. Not using the methodology can lead to poor performance, but it is better to measure the cause, instead of the result. To me, this is a key distinction in the Management by Objectives philosophy of people management versus Deming’s view on how performance should be evaluated. Think on the incentives in the MBO versus Deming management philosophies.
In MBO, a project manager may be enticed to add so many schedules and cost padding that they are always the hero when they come in under budget and ahead of schedule. They can negotiate out many beneficial features and other quality elements of the final product, and then if they add a few back in because of all the extra time and money, they win again. This factors into why many projects only meet most of the customer needs, not all of them. In my opinion, this is what makes project sponsors slash schedules and budgets: .they know what is going on. The project managers add even more fluff because they know it will be cut down, and the vicious cycle continues. Where is the incentive for continuous improvement? The focus is clearly misdirected.
If one were to apply Deming’s philosophy to project management, much of the struggle from above is avoided. The focus shifts to creating and continually improving a consistent system from which project managers plan and execute projects. The addition of arbitrary amounts of fluff time and cost by project managers is not possible if there is a specific, universal method for making estimates. Contingency reserve is still there, but in a consistent manner based on what makes sense for the organization.
Project managers are encouraged to embrace and improve the methodology. Rewards and recognition result from actions that truly enhance the entire organization’s ability to provide quality to the customer. Regular reviews of lessons learned and other input from project managers can be used to enhance the methodology, one small step at a time. Statistical measures across multiple projects such as standard deviation from plan and EVM metrics can provide useful insights into opportunities for improvement.
Performance excellence does not happen overnight, and it does not happen to an organization as the result of a few great individuals acting in silos. Performance excellence occurs over years of embracing a consistent set of systems and processes that everyone seeks to continually improve.
Project management is about dealing with uncertainty. The point is to eliminate as much of it as possible through careful planning, and deal with the inevitable unknown-unknowns appropriately. Deming’s third point when applied to project management eliminates much of the uncertainty in projects by using an invariant framework which can be continually improved.
References and Resources
Managing for Quality and Performance Excellence
Deming and Goldratt
Out of the Crisis
The Deming Management Method
The New Economics
Four Days with Dr. Deming
Deming Route to Quality and Productivity
Deming The Way We Knew Him
About the author
Josh Nankivel is a Project Planning & Controls Control Account Manager and contractor for the ground system of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, a joint project between the USGS and NASA. His academic background includes a BS in Project Management, summa cum laude. He can be found writing and contributing in many places within the project management community, and his primary project management website is located at pmstudent.com.