Quality first



FIRST IT WAS TOTAL QUALITY MANAGEMENT. Now, Six Sigma is generating the buzz in quality circles. However, it may not be the be-all, end-all. Of the 156 business-technology executives surveyed by Optimize magazine, only 38 percent said their companies employ Six Sigma. The big question is whether it focuses too much attention on process rather than people, who can make a true difference in improving project management quality.

Lynn Crawford, DBA, of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, and Jeanne Dorle, Ph.D., PMP, of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., USA, tackle the quality issue.

Overall, how are companies approaching quality?

Dr. Crawford: The whole concept of quality has become very blurred. It's being given different names and annexed into other areas. As it moves into IT, organizational change and things of that sort, what constitutes quality? It's not just the quality of the end-product. Often, the way in which you have delivered is just as important as what has been delivered—sometimes it's more important.

In a way, good project management in an organization is, in itself, a quality management process.

Dr. Dorle: If you integrate quality into your organization and you build quality-assurance activities, quality is everyone's responsibility. As organizations grow more complex, there are a lot of incentives for looking at quality.

I couldn't agree more with Lynn that it's called all kinds of different things. That's probably a good thing, because it needs to be part and parcel of the way a company operates—and not a unit or a saying on the building as you walk in.

When it comes to quality, what's more important: people or process?

Dr. Crawford: You can survive not having process, but it puts a lot more pressure on the individual. When you have the process, the people make the difference every time, because the way in which the processes are used comes back to them.

points of view

Lynn Crawford, DBA, is a professor of project management at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, and ESC Lille Graduate School of Management in Lille, France. She also is managing director of Human Systems Asia Pacific Pty Ltd., Sydney.

Jeanne Dorle, Ph.D., PMP, is director of the project management graduate program and assistant professor of management and international business at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, N.C., USA. She also serves as chair-elect of PMI's Quality in Project Management Specific Interest Group and as the University of Québec's Fulbright Research Chair in Project Management, Montréal, Québec, Canada.


People skills make the difference between poor, average and superior quality. You need people skills to get the commitment from team members and to follow through on the process. You need the process skills for the quality-assurance aspect.

Dr. Dorle: It's fine to have good people skills, but then you need the discipline to make sure you have scheduled quality-assurance activities into your process and that you are collecting data. That requires process skills.

One of the things quality and people skills share is they're both difficult to measure. Project managers have suffered because we tend to focus on those things that can be easily measured—schedule, budget and so on. I am deeply concerned. We must figure out a way to measure quality and the specific behaviors associated with effective people skills and start trying to prepare people. Until we can develop better measurements, it's going to be very hard—other than at the gut level—to know how well we're performing these skills.

Can Six Sigma help companies with quality?

Dr. Crawford: That's a really interesting question because I see Six Sigma coming up in programs for improving project management within organizations. One company I work with has project managers, business analysts and Six Sigma black belts included within a project management job family. They're all applying these skills in different tasks of the project process.

Dr. Dorle: One concern I have is a commitment to Six Sigma is often seen as a commitment to quality, which, of course, it may well be. But it focuses even more attention on the process side of the equation. You need to be cautious about assuming it's going to make a substantial improvement in your project outcome, because I don't think the kind of people and facilitation skills needed to effectively lead a team are emphasized in Six Sigma. So much of it comes out of a manufacturing environment.

Companies now are looking at how they can ensure their Six Sigma experts understand their project management processes and vice versa. What Lynn was describing sounds like an effective way to make sure you bring multiple resources to a project, but I'm afraid we're focusing on those things that are most easily measured. It's still an extremely rare sight for an organization to emphasize the quality of the collaboration on a team and the effectiveness of an employee in terms of serving on teams.

If we took a Six Sigma approach to it, we would be building quality-assurance activities into our collaborative process throughout the project life cycle. That's what we can anticipate seeing in the future—assuming companies believe people skills are essential to successful projects. And if it's essential, then we darn well better figure out how to describe it, define it, measure it and train it. We're not there yet.

Is improving quality an ongoing effort or a onetime focus on process?

Dr. Crawford: It's not so much improving, because a lot of organizations put the effort into that. What you have to do is maintain the improvement that you have achieved. One of the real dangers is that organizations put resources into it for a period of time and then they say, “OK, we are terrific at this now.” Then they move on to something else. That happens to project management capabilities in organizations, and it can happen to quality.

Successful organizations have one or more people committed full-time to managing mentoring and coaching within the organization. Very few organizations see the value of that, however. They see it as overhead, and it's hard to get that commitment.

Dr. Dorle: It's a long-term commitment characterized by incremental change. You can't buy a solution and spend two or three years on it and then be done with it. You're never done.

The message that executives should give—and really support—is an ongoing commitment to sustaining quality. Employees need to be systematically coached and exposed to good practices.

We can buy Microsoft Project Server and develop project portfolios and don't get me wrong, I'm all for that. But it's like buying Word—it doesn't turn us into Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. Software and sending people off to training is often done with the best of intentions, but organizations assume it's going to solve their problem. We need to make sure we have as strong a commitment to developing and nurturing people skills as we do with concrete skills like scheduling, resource management and budget management.

Do you think an organization can improve quality without being effective in either people or process?

Dr. Crawford: I don't think they can do it if they're not effective in people skills. A project manager can manage the quality on a project with just process skills—but only on a very well-defined, well-contained project isolated from external influence and stakeholder engagement.

Dr. Dorle: You can't do everything yourself as a project manager. How you work with people is a very important skill, and it's getting more complex all the time. For example, many people who are effective when everyone is in the same building have tremendous difficulty creating the collaborative environment needed in a virtual setting.

The more complex the work, the more important the people skills are. Unless we start recognizing that, we are only going to get worse at completing complex global projects successfully.

How can a company determine if the problem is with its people or its process?

Dr. Crawford: In benchmarking project management practices within organizations, we look at both the approach that the organization uses and the way in which it's deployed. The real trick is that very rarely do the approach and the deployment match. Deployment regularly lags approach—except, interestingly enough, in the area of human resources where often the processes are lacking.

Some project managers have good people skills and operate very well in the absence of methodologies. One example is rewards and performance appraisals of team members. Most organizations are fairly poor in those areas. But very often an individual project manager will devise ways of dealing with that, because they consider it important.

Dr. Dorle: Let's say leadership can agree on the competencies that they want their project managers to have—at least people can get some understanding of what skills are really valued. Now, part of the problem is not everybody is capable of meeting the requirements for the way that work needs to be done. Yes, we can train these skills, but I don't think you can take someone out of a specific kind of job environment and turn them into someone who can manage projects on three continents. That's a difficult thing for a company to wrestle with. After you go in and measure, how do you ensure the core competencies of your resource pool match where you want to be organizationally?

If the organization is struggling with people, what's the best course of action?

Dr. Crawford: Certainly mentoring, coaching and work placement opportunities. A good academic program is effective, because it requires time. I would make a strong distinction between training and education. I hate training courses. They're so easy. You can measure training, though. If your organization is really bad at scheduling, you send people off to courses. You say our measure is: We sent X number of people this year for training. But do you know whether there has been any improvement? Training is short-term. I don't expect to see much reflection coming out of that.

People's way of seeing the world has to be challenged for them to be willing to change. Mentoring, coaching and the challenge of a good post-graduate course over a couple of years can do that.

Dr. Dorle: Coaching and mentoring is the most successful in really changing the way people manage projects. Sometimes it's the low-tech stuff, sitting down next to the person and helping them work through issues, brainstorming with them about how to handle difficult interpersonal situations and just being available. That's coaching in a way that's safe for people to use. To some extent, it's not necessarily tied to your chain of command.

On the flip side, how should companies respond if the problem is process?

Dr. Crawford: That's much more readily dealt with. The first thing is they need to have good processes in place, so there's the organizational aspect. Then companies need to ensure people have the skills, and this is where you can use training. If you put a methodology in place, be sure that you train people to use it. These kinds of process and technical skills are easily learned and therefore appropriate for training.

Dr. Dorle: I would just add one thing: Hold them accountable.

Dr. Crawford: That's where I think governance comes in, making sure that the methodology or processes are actually used. Ideally, the reward systems will reflect that commitment, so everything is systemic. Of course, the way and effectiveness in which it's done is going to still be dependent on people. PM




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