Quality— You Can’t Paint It On

Feb 16, 2004

I can’t tell you how many business planning meetings I have sat in on in large firms where someone comes up with the novel idea of checking all project deliverables before they go out. It’s always something that everyone at the table agrees with— “We need to get our jobs done sooner so we can provide them with the necessary QA/QC.” Solemn statements will be made about engineering, architectural, or scientific ethics, heads will nod, and a lick and a promise will be made to do better in the coming year because, “We just can’t go on like this.” Then, after the meeting, everyone goes back to doing things just the way they did before. Why is this? Because nothing has changed! Why isn’t there any time? Why are there errors to catch in the first place? The problem is YOU CANNOT PAINT QUALITY ON. It has to be built in to the project in the first place. Client demands will always be there. You will never have enough time to catch every error. Some managers will never take this step. Some managers will take it, but mistakes will still be missed. You have to take a different approach, one that provides a reasonable chance of actually improving quality, instead of nodding in agreement like a Dale Earnhardt Jr. bobble-head doll on the package tray of a Monte Carlo SS. Here’s what it takes to really improve quality in an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm: The right people. The longer a firm has been around, the greater the chance it has a lot of the wrong people. People who haven’t grown along with the firm. People who feel alienated and let down by a firm that didn’t deliver on their career expectations. People who never should have been hired in the first place, but the founder delegated the hiring chore to unprepared underlings. People who have simply stayed around too long and need to be replaced. A/E and environmental firms have the wrong people for two primary reasons: 1) we don’t confront non-performance or unacceptable performance early in an employee’s employment with the firm and we don’t get rid of those people to open a slot for someone else, and 2) we don’t spend enough time and money on recruiting. It’s an afterthought. The right organization structure. It’s more motherhood-and-apple-pie to say PMs are responsible for quality and then make them deliver a job with people who don’t work for them on a permanent basis. The PM cannot offer any rewards nor dole out any punishments. He or she cannot hire and fire. They are saddled with whomever the department or office managers “give” them to do the job. Just doesn’t work! The right measures. You want PMs to be responsible for quality, but where are the measures? Are PMs rated on how much rework their jobs require? Does every client get a chance to rate the firm after the project is done? Where is this information and who sees it? If the information isn’t there, then there are NO measures of quality that mean anything and no one will truly feel accountable for quality. The right IT system. If there is no way to share standards, share templates, have master specs, and do all the other things that a firm needs to do to solve problems once and for all and move on, you might as well face up to the fact that you are building shoes one pair at a time. You may get good quality on a job, and then again, you may not. You have to be able to solve a problem once so it doesn’t come again. You have to be able to share lessons learned. You have to be able to change standards and then enable everyone to use the standard. Firms that don’t even have shared project files and wide area networks, yet have multiple offices and work groups, simply cannot deliver consistent quality. Specialization by market and project type. The best way to have quality is to get people working on the same types of projects for the same types of clients repeatedly. Sure, many of your employees will object to this. They’d like to be doing something different every day. Who wouldn’t? But that’s not what our clients are paying us for! Clients don’t want the same mistakes to be made over and over. They want a consulting firm that is learning and then giving them the benefit of those lessons. That’s how we add value to their project. This only comes from specialization. Firms that are trying to do everything for everyone in a particular geographic “market” cannot provide the same quality as a firm that serves a specific client type or client over and over. So how do you stack up on quality? Are you blindly following the path of conventional wisdom, motherhood-and-apple-pie, and the other large-firm lemmings that are surely headed off the cliff, or are you thinking about this problem differently? Let me know. Originally published 2/16/2004

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