Project Quality Management is one of the ten Knowledge Areas of the PMBOK® Guide. Quality is also a theme in PRINCE2®.
In Project Management, quality is a multifaceted concept. Do you really have a quality product if the product is delivered too late, or if it becomes hugely expensive? Does it still count as quality if the product conforms to the specification, but the client is dissatisfied? What is quality, actually?
The example below explains the basis for our chosen definition of quality, which we give later in the article.
Background and brief
In the beginning of the online Project Management Concepts course, participants learn that the Exam has a time limit. They are told that the format of the Exam questions will be the same as in the six Test Series: multiple choice, inline choices, true/false, and one-word typed answers. (Such questions allow the online Learning Management System to mark the questions automatically, giving an immediate result.)
The course (but not the Exam) includes some free-text writing activities too. Inter alia, we ask participants to create imaginary Exam questions based on what they’re learning. They do this every day for at least six weeks, as part of their daily study routine. This exercise is intended to foster knowledge of the subject, instead of mere recall of the study material.
End product and subproducts
For the purpose of this discussion, we view a person’s participation in the course as a project. The end product (or deliverable) is a person who has mastered the knowledge of certain Project Management concepts, and acquired certain behaviours needed for further study in Project Management. The imaginary Exam questions are some of the subproducts which must be delivered along the way.
The usual thinking on quality
Before we get to our definition of quality, let’s take a look at some of the typical thinking around this topic.
Luxurious or durable
Some people think of quality in terms of the way that the term is used when marketing consumer goods. A quality product is one that is perceived to be more durable or more luxurious.
Unfortunately, this definition of quality doesn’t help us much in creating “quality questions”.
Satisfies the customer
People who have been involved in arguments over quality in projects sometimes define quality as “whatever makes the customer happy”.
Now, although we (the course providers) are not exactly the “customer” in this case, we are indeed the adjudicators of the imaginary questions. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard for a course participant to imagine what our personal tastes may be!
Conforms to specifications
Other people say that a quality product is one that conforms to a specification.
Here too, the course participant has a problem: the instructions don’t say how long the questions should be, whether spelling counts, and so on. Without a spec, how can you be expected to conform?
A different way of looking at quality
Now let’s look at the brief from another perspective. We will use some of the clues we have so far and derive their implications, expressed as requirements.
The Exam has a time limit.
- There isn’t time to look up anything new. Questions must be based on content which participants were asked to study in advance.
- Questions must be written in a way that allows them to be read easily, so spelling, grammar and style are important bcos not evr1 undrstnds yr txting.
The course is designed for mastery.
- The questions must test the participant’s knowledge beyond mere recall. Therefore, the answers should not be too obvious from the questions.
The format of the questions must allow for automatic marking.
- The questions must witten in a way that accommodates this (such as multiple choice, or true/false).
All these requirements lead us to a simple definition of quality based on the work of Joseph M. Juran: Quality means fitness for purpose.
Note: Dr. Juran’s definition of quality was fitness for use. His successors at the Juran Institute later changed it to fitness for purpose, so that it can be more easily applied to both products and services.
Refining our understanding of quality
If we work with this definition of quality, it doesn’t mean that we should do away with the idea of satisfying customers or conforming to a standard. In fact, it puts these aspects of quality into their proper perspective.
Let’s test this:
Is a quality product necessarily a long-lasting/durable product?
It depends on when and where you intend to use it. Some paper plates can be wiped and re-used. Others are designed to be thrown away after their first use, because the user doesn’t want to be bothered with the cleaning and storing. A one-use-only plate would be of better quality (more fit for its purpose) if it is cheap and very biodegradable. Of course, it must also be able to perform the basic functions of a plate!
Based on our new definition, the answer to this question is no.
Is a quality product necessarily one that satisfies the customer?
Customers are not always good at distinguishing their wants from their needs. It’s unfair to sell someone something which they say they want, when you know it won’t be fit for their purpose. For example, a customer may request large, stately paving slabs for her driveway. She may not realise that large slabs are more likely to crack when driven over than, for example, interlocking paving bricks. The question is, when would you rather deflate the customer’s quality dream: in the beginning, when you explain why big slabs aren’t fit for use, or a year down the line, when the elegant slabs you installed have cracked?
This question also raises the importance of interconnectedness. Managing quality is not independent from managing stakeholders, communications and risk. If we consider this interconnectedness, “Is a quality product necessarily one that satisfies the customer?” is perhaps not the best question. Many arguments about quality could be prevented if the parties formally agree on the definition of quality at the start of the project.
Is a quality product necessarily one which conforms to the specifications?
Because conformance to specifications is typically a contractual obligation, we need to take care to adhere to them. Specifications provide accurate measures for verifying whether the product is fit for its purpose, and fit for use.
Our definition of quality allows us to question them, though.
During an Intensive Weekend Workshop in Johannesburg, a project manager shared this story. They were building a multistorey building, and the engineer had specified a fancy, expensive kind of lift for all the lift zones. The project manager felt that he could save the client money by installing cheaper lifts. So, with the client’s permission, he asked the engineer whether it would be OK to change the specification. At first, the engineer was irritated by being second-guessed. The project manager then pointed out that according to the requirement, the lifts only had to carry 6-8 people at a time. As long as they could safely do that, anything else would be a waste of money. The engineer conceded that this was true, and so the specification was formally changed, so that cheaper lifts could be used instead.
Suppliers sometimes use this kind of overspecification to drive up fees in a project, which is one reason why the role of the specifier and that of supplier are often separated in projects. Underspecification can lead to problems too. Sometimes the project owner’s own technical experts don’t understand the considertations well enough to take sensible decisions. This can make it difficult for the supplier who is trying to deliver a decent product and service.
The question should not really be, “Is a quality product necessarily one which conforms to the specifications?”, but rather, “What should the specification be to ensure that this product will be fit for purpose?”
The management of product quality cannot be sensibly undertaken in isolation of other considerations, such as cost, time, and stakeholder relationships. If we agree to define quality as “fitness for purpose”, we have a basis for mitigating many disagreements between customers, suppliers and the project management team.