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13 July 2007

5 challenges in delivering quality for projects

When you work on projects you are in the service industry.

For the most part you deal in intangibles. This makes it more difficult to manage people's perceptions of the quality of your work.

If you were selling used cars people would be able to assess the quality of the vehicles in the lot or on a test drive. With a project, especially an I.T. or business process project, it is difficult to know what the quality of the work being done until it is completed, and even then; sometimes not for many months.

In the past I have written about the RATER framework for managing service quality. Today I present an extension to that view. Academics Ritsema and Broekuis* list 5 challenges in delivering quality to clients in service industries.
  • The limited opportunities to delivery tangibles to clients
  • The uniqueness of each service
  • Measuring quality in quantitative way
  • Limited opportunities for standardisation
  • The provision of technically good work
As a project worker you should be aware of them and take active steps to manage these challenges. I'll take a few minutes to expand each of these points with examples relevant to project work.

1. Tangibles
I have written about tangibles before in the RATER articles. The bottom line is that you should make sure people get physical things that help them esteem the work you and your team do. Real estate agents use glossy brochures. Advertising agencies give out media packs. This is your chance to be creative.

2. Uniqueness
Your project is unique and your client will have a hard time assessing the work you do against a comparable piece. Larger corporations often have frameworks and measurements to monitor projects with, but at the end of the day, how often do they implement data warehouses, or offshore a back office department?

You can help by defining the comparisons. If your team have experience on similar projects you can get them to tell their stories and use them as baselines for comparison. If not you can research case studies, and failing those options there are always the consultants who have a broad range of industry experience they can share for a price.)

3. Measuring quality in quantitative way
Sometimes it is a leap to transport qualitative things to hard numbers, but at the end of the day you can usually do it; it just takes planning. The Six Sigma framework for example requires the project team to make sure they can measure the problem before they apply a solution. The RATER approach also provides a model for measuring quality in a systematic and quantitative way.

If the numbers aren’t apparent maybe you need to undertake a piece of work to capture them. At the very least surveys of customers, key stakeholders or process participants, can be used. Then, at the end of (or after) the project you can measure again and see the improvement.

4. Standardisation
In the planning phase of the project consider your opportunities to standardise your work packages. You can also consider calling in experts for particular parcels of work. Your project may only need to test software development once, but if you call in a specialist to manage and execute software testing you are on the way to higher quality (and lower risk) work.

5. Doing/getting good work
Many studies of project performance come up with the same recommendation; make sure you have a skilled, proficient and trained team.

Sometimes it’s tough to fill a team quickly with the right people. Every experienced and successful project worker I have spoken to agrees: Wait for the right people and don’t hire the wrong ones. You can read more about recruiting here.

Bottom line: Make sure your team is a good one and that they are up to the job.

* Source: HP Ritsema and M Broekuis "Problem of quality management in professional service"International Journal of Quality and Reliability" Vol 9 no 7 1999 pp23-26