The year 2010 was marred by significant quality issues globally. Who could forget the Toyota recall of over eight million vehicles worldwide? Akio Toyoda’s statement, "we will improve the inspection process and respond faster to customers," summarizes the challenge well. Even a great automaker like Toyota cannot afford to overlook processes and performance improvements.
Information Technology (IT) has had innumerous catastrophes in the past. The CHAOS Report continues to highlight the alarming percentage of IT projects being shelved. Most organizations have a group or a task force that drives performance improvements; however, judging by the CHAOS Report, few have great success. Globally, IT setups continue to rely on testing to find most defects.
It is important that outsourcing organizations seek value from investments in service provider led improvement initiatives. Most sourcing organizations look for usage of a certain methodology by vendors. But, in spite of the best methodologies like Six Sigma, Lean, 8D and so on, high failure rates continue to haunt the industry. Asking the wrong questions results in the wrong answers. This article lists key questions that sourcing organizations need to ask to determine whether improvements from service providers are sustainable and able to deliver actual value.
Is there agility in driving improvements?
I recently spoke with a professional playing the role of a change agent. He was part of a vendor project management group responsible for improving project performance. He described how difficult it was to define a set of measures, get buy-in from multiple stakeholders, track performance over months, and make subsequent improvements.
The entire cycle resulted in a 30-percent improvement of defect rates, but ended up taking a whopping one and a half years! The main challenge seemed to be sustaining stakeholder interest. Ironically, even after a 30-percent improvement, the group did not meet overall expectations and most of the team resigned.
Process improvement initiatives with shorter improvement cycles are far more successful. For example, bringing one key improvement in a short cycle and measuring its progress would have resulted in six to ten cycles in one and a half years resulting in more significant improvements. Success breeds success! Goals should drive any improvement program. Results need to be seen, preferably every month or at the very least every three months. Extended improvement initiatives have multiple cycles of re-scoping and re-planning that jeopardize stakeholder commitment. Always ask, "Are your improvement initiatives agile?"
Do improvements mean something to business teams?
I once reviewed a project with good in-process performance statistics; however, user feedback was dismal. All initiatives should start with a clear idea of user and stakeholder requirements. During a recent improvement review, my co-reviewer asked, "Can you present the results of your project to the business group, emphasizing its value?" Processes often get added and modified without a clear view of their eventual impact. Improvement initiatives should show specific and meaningful relevance to stakeholders. Which leads to the next question, "Are business user perspectives driving improvements?"
Are the right people involved at the right stage?
Methodologies and data guide initiatives, but people drive them and get results. Initiatives go through at least four phases: the problem understanding phase, solution definition phase, solution development, and deployment/institutionalization. The problem understanding phase is critical and business users of the service/product need to be involved. Solution definition requires innovation and out of box thinking. Involving users or operational folks typically brings incremental and mediocre solutions. Henry Ford once said, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said faster horses and not cars."
Many improvement initiatives fail to deliver because of below par solutions. Understanding and correctly solving problems is half the battle and requires the right people. Solution definition requires thinkers and subject matter experts who can envision a large change and translate it into short-term results. Which leads to the next question, "Do you have the right change management team?"
Do your improvements fundamentally improve the engineering/execution capability?
Before prescribing treatment, a doctor inquires about your symptoms. Based on your responses and test results, doctors prescribe medicine to treat the issue and hopefully promote prevention.
The root of a problem in IT setups can primarily be traced to a few key stages; namely requirements, design and code. Looking into data and solutions should improve the capability of people along with the processes and tools used. Sounds simple, but it needs long-term thinking, broken down into short-term improvement cycles. While enhancing a portfolio of applications recently, we increased defect detection to over 80-percent by the time unit testing was finished. To achieve this, upstream engineering phases like requirements analysis and impact analysis were focused and improved over two to three improvement cycles. This improved predictability and significantly reduced rework across the board. Improving fundamental engineering processes definitely pays in the end. So always ask, "What fundamental engineering capability does the change initiative improve?"
Is there governance?
When a project manager or senior professional is interviewed, most people look at their ability to challenge and improve the status quo. Performance of IT setups does not generally improve unless there are goals, periodic measures and oversight. If the top person doesn’t breathe excellence, improvements seldom come on their own. So never forget to ask about governance.
These five questions and perspectives give a means to deep-dive into your improvement program. I have never seen an improvement initiative with long-term thinking and clearly defined short-term goals that struggled with commitment and delivering results. Experts say that 60-percent of all IT process improvement initiatives fail to deliver. I believe candidly answering these questions will significantly improve the predictability and maturity of IT delivery.
Mosesraj heads Quality practice at Collabera. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.