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.

Fitness for purpose and meeting the requirements: prerequisites for project success

Where has the last year gone? For me it’s been spent publishing a book on the need to re-balance the “iron triangle” in favour of quality i.e. getting things right to boost project success, and developing courses in that for Sellafield’s Project Academy and UCL.

The book illustrates the principles with real case studies, both personal experiences and public domain.

I recently watched a documentary, just 1 year after the tragic event,  on the collapse of the “Morandi” bridge in Genoa, killing 43 and injuring others. This is a case study I would have used in the book had it not been finalised then.

As with so many disasters, a number of quality failures conspired to result in death and destruction:

  1. The design was not fit for purpose – the design had a single point of failure; if one of the stays failed, the bridge would fail. By encasing the stay cables in concrete to “protect against” corrosion, it made visual inspection of corrosion impossible too.
  2. The build did not meet requirements – the steel stay cables were supposed to be completely embedded in highly alkaline grout that would prevent corrosion, but there were voids in the grout that left steel cables exposed to air and water, leading to corrosion.
  3. Maintenance did not meet the requirements – only two of the 3 pylons supporting the bridge were repaired, when corrosion in them was discovered to be dangerously advanced. The third was considered to be non-urgent due to the state of corrosion being under-estimated – the corrosion measuring techniques were inaccurate and not fit for purpose. This was the pylon that collapsed.

Getting things right is a prerequisite for project success; using completion on time and budget as primary KPIs for project success drives skimping and corner-cutting. These lead to rework, delays and subsequent failures, sometimes with tragic results.

Skimping on getting it right doesn’t save time and definitely doesn’t save money!

Leadership plus good management?

I’ve recently been working with two groups from the same organisation, and there was a huge contrast between them. One group was outspoken, enjoyed active learning and working in groups, the other group was almost silent, expected to sit and listen, and resented the “wasted time” of working on exercises in groups.

This was a surprise to me – I had expected to work with both groups in the same way, but it simply didn’t play out that way.

This led to a lot of soul searching – what was the critical difference between the groups, and why did the difference result in such different responses?

The conclusion I arrived at was that the first group was primarily composed of leaders, in a wide range from very junior to very senior; they were prepared to voice their concerns and make the most of the situation when it wasn’t what they expected. The second group, though in management roles, were more operational, mature and, apparently, less willing to make the most of things. Expecting a dull workshop, that is what they wanted; they were unwilling to engage in something more interesting and productive.

This highlighted a lesson I have learned throughout my career – leadership is a characteristic that is not strongly correlated to seniority.  There are many middle and even senior managers that lack leadership drivers and motivations. Conversely, there are many young, energetic people that are active leaders.

Management is a skill that usually improves with experience, but the same is not necessarily true of leadership, which demand energy and stamina. The best business leaders are also good managers, because they need to deliver results through others, but they have the energy and stamina to create the vision and inspire their team through the rough patches.

When an organisation engages in major change, it faces many challenges, both foreseen and unforeseen, and dealing with these requires skilled management, but it needs more. Leadership, with clear vision and the energy and discipline to address the issues that arise and “keep the wheels on the wagon”, is essential through the project/programme.

Leadership is more than pointing at the map and sending off the wagon train – it’s scouting, riding shot-gun and fighting off the bandits to make sure it gets there.

A lot of change initiatives fail because the executive “leadership” start it off then lose interest, moving onto the next idea, leaving managers to deal with the problems without the leadership that is essential for success. Fewer ideas, fewer initiatives and sustained leadership  transform the success rate of business projects.

Coping with disruption!

Took another look at this post as I’m working with innovative products. Disruption isn’t just in IT – new legislation and changing political environments are putting massive evolutionary pressure onto businesses. The thoughts below are still good, just more general that when originally written!

We live in an age of disruption, where new IT-driven models of commerce are ripping the heart out of the High Street, and transforming whole markets. What makes this possible is the rapid development of new IT solutions, linked to businesses that are adapting to the new technology; they are ready to deliver value.

Many of these disruptive organisations are new, though – starting from scratch, with the business built around a new, technology-driven business model.

Are existing businesses like dinosaurs, doomed to extinction as this comet of disruptive technology hits their world?

Some have already died out, and others will follow, but it’s a big world, and those organisations willing to evolve quickly can still prosper, I believe, if they address business change in an integrated way.

I was recently asked to help the University of Cumbria develop a new project management course for a major client, and in doing so I reread a lot of published wisdom on project management, illustrating it with case studies from my own experience.

The mismatch between the published wisdom (around which that client operates) and my experience of successful projects, is in business readiness to create value from the project. This is CORE to success, not a bolt-on at the end, I have found.

The published project management bodies of knowledge mention business engagement in the right places; it’s the emphasis that is wrong, as they are largely derived from major engineering activities. In the world of business change, the short timescales and return demanded on investment put business readiness at the heart of all successful change, and quite quickly, corporate survival.

Solicitors, accountants – take a look at estate agents!