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Quality Doesn’t Matter (until it does)

When you dictate the scope, resources, and date, your team has no choice but to deliver sub-par quality.

Have you heard the metaphor of the three-legged stool? Quality sits on the legs of scope, resources, and time. If you reduce any of these, you have a wobbly seat. There are four aspects of any project: scope, resources, time, and quality. They're all connected.

  • Scope is the work to be done

  • Resources are typically the people and funding to do the work

  • Time is the window of delivery

  • Quality is a measure of the results—often measured in terms of defects but more critical to customer success and customer satisfaction.

If you require a certain feature set and have a limited number of resources—that is, both scope and resources are “fixed”—then the variables are time and quality. Either your team will do a good job and deliver it whenever it’s done, or they'll deliver it on the specified date with questionable quality.

The most common failure in managing products is the attempt to demand more of the team than is possible. We dictate the scope and date—and the team knows the scope and date are impossible given their available resources—so they have no choice but to deliver sub-par quality. For example, there’s a big swim meet at the neighborhood pool this weekend, and I don’t want people parking in my yard. I have limited money, and only myself and my neighbor to do the work. Time and resources are fixed. Therefore, scope and quality are the variables. What can I accomplish in this short time frame? Obviously, I cannot build a brick-and-mortar fence—that would take weeks. However, my neighbor and I can put up some traffic cones with yellow tape and perhaps some “No Parking” signs made with cardboard and markers—this solves the problem with adequate quality for the time constraint.

An example I used recently to explain agile to a novice is mowing the yard. My wife asked me to mow the yard because her mother is coming to visit. (Crud!) "When will she be here?" I asked. "In two hours." (Double-crud). I cannot mow the entire yard in two hours. However, I can mow the FRONT yard. After all, she won't see the backyard as she walks from the driveway to the front door. This popular planning technique is called “time boxing” — where you do a limited amount of quality work within a short timeframe with a dedicated team. For example, in the context of a website, we spend time getting the site set up with a single page. Is everybody still happy? Do you like the look and feel? Do you like the navigation? Okay, let’s build an About Us page. Still OK? Good, now let’s add a product page, then another page, and so on and so on. We keep iterating until the work to be done is completed or until a critical date is reached. In this case, resources and quality are fixed; date and scope are variable. By the way, for most organizations, resources are fixed. Adding people to a project usually slows down the team, at least in the short term, as the new person has to get caught up with the plan and the requirements, plus all the institutional knowledge the team has acquired.

Quality matters perhaps even more for services. Friendly. Knowledgeable. On-time. The fastest way to lose me as a customer is to show up late without calling. I don't care if you're late; I care if you don't tell me. Your people are the key element of your product and its perceived quality.

Quality doesn’t matter. Until it does. But then it’s too late.


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