An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

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Ben Franklin was a an American founding father, inventor, diplomat, and philosopher. He also wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac which contained information for farmers and timeless adages. When it comes to project management, two quotes come to mind:

“An ounce of prevention is work a pound of cure”
“A stitch in time saves nine.”

These chestnuts provide project managers with invaluable guidance when it comes to planning and managing quality. “An ounce of prevention” warns that it is better to avoid problems than deal with their consequences. “A stitch in time” reminds us that early corrective action reduces future rework.

Too often, we fail to fully consider the trade-offs between speed, quality, cost, and risk. These sayings remind us of the importance of being thoughtful in our planning—specifically, how we consider the value ofquality.

Being thoughtful does not equate to more time or effort. We generally spend sufficient time planning and executing quality. However, quality is often disjointed and not considered as an end-to-end process. We can achieve better outcomes by being more strategic in our thinking and effective in our execution.
Context of Quality Strategy
The first step is assessing and understanding the project’s quality constraints. All projects are executed within their own context. Enterprise environmental and project specific factors define the quality parameters.

Once, I met a Commander in the Royal Air Force who was responsible for the avionics in the Harrier fighter planes. His project operated in a completely different context than mine. His mistakes could be deadly—a plane could be lost, and a pilot injured. By comparison, mistakes on my projects were insignificant.

Some of the enterprise environmental factors to consider, include:
• Risk Tolerance. Industries, companies, and classes of projects have different risk profiles and tolerances. Medical device manufacturing and aerospace companies have a lower risk appetite that a gaming company. Core business application should be more carefully controlled than internal application with a limited number of users. Risk tolerance helps set the overall quality parameters.
• Ease of Recoverability. Understanding the potential sources of product or project failure will include a discussion about recoverability; including: how quickly can a problem be detected, addressed, and remediated. These factors affect level of precaution and planning. When recovery is easy, less effort may be expended on prevention.
• Project Constraints—Time and Cost. The project duration and budget have a major impact on quality planning. Short and low-cost projects simply do not have the capacity to absorb significant efforts. Also, the payback calculations may be very different.

Assessing these factors establish clear quality expectations and parameters for the project, that are documented in the project management plan and the acceptance criteria. Establishing quality goals early ensures alignment of plans, levels of effort, and expectations throughout the team.
Quality Control and Quality Management
Quality management encompasses both the quality of the product as well as the process to create it. Formally, these domains are known as:
• Quality control. Ensuring that our product, service or result meet with the requirements and specifications as defined by the requirements; and
• Quality management. Ensuring the processes and execution are complainant with the defined guidelines.

Industries and project types sometimes emphasize one domain over the other. This bias is often based on precedence and experience.

Construction and pharmaceutical manufacturing focus on process adherence. Construction sites proudly display the number of days since the last injury. Poor work habits create dangerous situations that can cause serious injury. Pharmaceutical companies carefully follow regimented processes to develop and test the safety and efficacy of new drugs.

Organizations where strong process controls are ether required often have good quality controls as well. For example, municipalities require multiple inspections of construction site. The rule of thumb is that before anything is covered, it needs to be inspected.

Quality management is based on Franklin’s premise that a “stitch in time saves nine.” If we have a quality process and prevent a problem or catch it early, the cost of rework is lower. In all industries, the cost of fixing a problem increases the further from the source.

A homebuilder told me the story of a house where the bathtub drain was not connected to a discharge pipe. The problem was found when he homeowners took their first bath and had a flood in the dining room. In this case, multiple opportunities to inspect the plumbing were missed and the cost of fixing the problem far exceeded the cost of doing the job right.

In software development, the emphasis tends to be on the quality of the product. Multiple tests and levels of testing are executed to identify bugs and defects before the software is released into production. Even though the Capabilities Maturity Model (CMMI) is designed to foster process maturity, its adoption is limited with only a few thousand companies being certified.

My experience is that despite significant effort dedicated to software testing, we are not generally effective or efficient. There are multiple points of potential failure along this value chain, such as:
• Requirements and expectations are not clearly documented or are documented after development has begun;
• Organizational cultures where getting things done quickly is valued over getting them done correctly;
• Poor test planning where there is not an overall strategy, or a clear differentiation about what should be tested in each phase or cycle;
• “Happy path” testing where adverse conditions are not considered; and
• Lack of systematic test planning and execution.

These conditions would be alleviated if we heeded Franklin. Thoughtful planning, coordination, and a shifting of traditional attitudes would put the focus on prevention over production. In other words, defects would be identified and remediated close to the source. Test driven development (TDD) methodologies and practices address many of these gaps.
Cost of Quality
The cost of quality includes three components; the cost of:
• planning testing and inspection efforts,
• executing testing, and
• the cost of poor quality or rework.

Many companies fail to appreciate the balance and trade-off between planning and the other two cost elements. History abounds with examples of companies that miscalculated the cost of poor quality which is an example of not planning thoughtfully.

In the 1970s, Ford Pintos caught on fire and explode following a rear end collision. The cost of remedying the problem was $11 per car. Takata dominated the automotive airbag market. The company produced airbags from 2002 to 2015 that could explode and injure or kill passengers. Over 35 million vehicles were recalled. And, the company went bankrupt.

Equifax’s security breach that exposed over 140 million customers personal information was preventable. The company failed to apply an available software patch.

Capers Jones has conducted invaluable research on the cost of poor quality when it comes to software development. He found that the cost of remediation a problem increases exponentially the further away from the source.

Considering the cost of poor quality at the outset of the project can compel the critical, strategic conversation about how good is “good enough”? When having these critical conversations, its important to look at the “big picture.” Ford and Takata made poor decisions when calculating their cost-benefit analysis. “An ounce of prevention” can influence life and death decisions and have implications far beyond the scope of the project.

© 2018, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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