Is there a problem with project quality? Let’s use a “canary” for early warning.

In general the quality of products is vastly better than in the 1970s – they do their job well , are reasonably reliable and tend to last, rather than not working at all, or breaking quickly, or just rusting away (in the case of cars). This is less true for projects, and my personal experiences make me concerned that today business leadership takes quality for granted, and in the continuing drive to cut costs and improve efficiency, has turned the tide against good quality by cutting investment in it.

To test this we need a “canary” (miners used this sensitive creature as an early warning of toxic gas) for projects to see whether a decline in quality focus is really happening, and what its consequences are.

I suggest we use the air transport industry for this, where quality and safety are tightly coupled, so is high-profile, transparent and familiar to nearly everyone.

This NOT an aviation-bashing article – air transport is still a  high-performing industry.  I want to use its experiences as a warning to the rest of us.

The Boeing 737 Max crashes seem to result from quality failures in Boeing design and test processes – it would appear that the system design that kept pilots from having to requalify for the Max version wasn’t fit for purpose (i.e. safe) and the training didn’t meet the requirements (i.e. for safety).

Sadly, that isn’t Boeing’s only major problem. It’s reported that:

  • Their 787 production line in South Carolina has attracted considerable criticism about manufacturing quality, with airlines complaining due to the high level of defects
  • The US Air Force’s KC 46 Pegasus tanker transport was first accepted  18 months after the first 18 aircraft were planned to be delivered, due to quality issues with the wiring and refuelling system, the key new parts in this 767 conversion
  • In recent structural tests, a 777X cargo door blew out from the fuselage, probably delaying the programme further (after engine-related delays)

It’s not just Boeing that are facing quality challenges. Rolls-Royce has suffered from chronic problems with its Trent 1000 engine family where innovative components haven’t met durability requirements, grounding many 787s and resulting in at least one serious in-flight failure.

Recently, Emirates’ President was highly critical about the lack of reliability of products it was receiving from Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and General Electric. As reliability is a requirement, this implies an industry-wide quality issue. All of these problems are taking $100 millions to resolve, and are potentially disastrous commercially.

There is always a tension between time, cost and quality in projects, but I suggest that the growth of monetarism has driven Executive focus onto cost without appreciating that the investment in quality up front is vital to delivering on time and budget. Good quality minimises redesign, rework and delays, with their attendant costs.

As our canary, the aviation industry, seems to warn us all, cost-cutting on quality results in delays, cost escalation and, potentially, fatalities.

I wish the aviation industry every success in recovering from these issues, and suggest they look at quality first.

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