Deming's 14 Points and Quality Project Leadership

Quality Management | By J. Alex Sherrer | Read time minutes

Wooden sign in a field reading quality and leadership

Quality is misunderstood by many who think of it only as it relates to the final deliverable, but a quality product is itself achieved only through quality processes focused on efficiency, innovation, and continual improvement, and these require a quality management culture not only in our projects, but within our organisations. In chapter two of his 1986 book, Out of the Crisis, Edward Deming presented 14 principles that he believed could make industry more competitive by increasing quality.

Organisational improvements can begin with anyone. While it's true that our professional domain as project managers is bounded by the project life cycle, our influence is often much greater than that, and quality management is one of those areas where skilled project managers are best suited to be instrumental change agents - first in the culture of their projects, and second, in the culture of their departments and organisations. As project managers, if we follow Deming's principles, we can create project environments where quality thrives, not only benefiting our customers and projects, but perhaps serving as a tipping point for effecting a quality management change within our organisations.

1. Create Constancy of Purpose Towards Improvement

Deming is telling management to stop reacting and plan better for the long-term.

For project managers: What has been traditionally thought of as long-term planning is no longer achievable. Business changes too rapidly, and detailed, up-front plans take too long to produce and are always outdated by the time they're committed to paper.

Yet projects must have a plan that establishes activities, milestones, and priorities, so what we should strive for in our projects is thorough planning based on iterative, rolling-wave, or Agile approaches. Thorough planning uses detailed planning for the short-term with a longer-term view emphasising constant reviews, re-planning, and risk management, especially for opportunities that can be exploited. This results in a project plan that can adapt quickly to abrupt business and deliverable changes without throwing the project into chaos.

2. Adopt the new Philosophy

Deming is telling management to stop being hypocritical, awaken itself to the challenge, and become leaders.

For project managers: People will always see through anyone who says one thing, but whose actions are entirely different. Lasting, energising change starts first with us, and only then will it spread outward and excite others into action.

As managers, our core values can't just be expressed through our words, but they must be evident in all our actions with our teams and coworkers. It takes time, but as our message and attitude spread to an ever-broadening base of people, a domino effect takes place and the members themselves become believers and evangelists in quality management themselves.

3. Cease Dependency on Inspection

Deming is reminding management that the need for inspection will decrease if quality problems are prevented in the first place.

For project managers: We all know that prevention is better than inspection, so our project management and execution processes need continual improvement methods built into them to reduce quality problems.

But inspection goes beyond its purely quality connotations. Are we propagating a management style based on inspection? If our team has a tendency to run everything first past us for approval then we may be, and that isn't good for us, the team, or the project.

Our responsibility as a project manager isn't to be the funnel through which everyone seeks approval. If that's what is happening then the project will stagnate and become inflexible. Instead, let's make sure we create a project culture where the team has the skills, information, and experience it needs to make every-day, rapid decisions on its own.

4. End the Practice of Awarding Business on the Basis of Price Tags

Deming's purpose behind this point was to eliminate variations in the manufacturing process by having too many suppliers of component goods.

For project managers: Price alone should rarely be the determining factor because most procurement needs go beyond simple commodities. When a project is likely to involve frequent changes, we need vendors who can adapt or offer their own new ideas for responding to those changes, and that isn't likely to happen when cut-rate suppliers are chosen.

This principle also holds true in our role as the vendor for internal or external customers. We are not just collectors of requirements - we need to be engaged with the customer and stakeholders, understanding their business objectives in order for us to provide the deliverable that best meets their changing needs.

5. Improve Constantly and Forever

Deming is reminding industry leaders that they have to constantly strive to reduce variation, which leads to quality problems.

For project managers: Continuous improvement is a core philosophy of the PMBOK, but it isn't like a switch that gets turned on or off. It's a mindset that is nurtured by the right environment. Members of the team need skills, information, and knowledge beyond their core subjects of expertise, and we should encourage experimentation and reward mistakes made in the search for innovation, which means we need to eliminate blame and ingrain the lessons-learned process in every part of the project.

Large-scale improvements and innovative approaches often come from "amateurs" and not specialists because amateurs are driven by their interest in the subject and less wedded to preconceived notions and ideas. Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, says, "I'll take a passionate amateur over a bored professional any day."

6. Institute Training on the Job

On-the-job training increases efficiency and results in job outputs with fewer errors.

For project managers: Continuous improvement extends beyond just processes. It applies to the hard and soft skills, experiences, and knowledge of the entire project team. Professional development, coaching, and mentoring should be encouraged, acknowledged, and rewarded.

Training doesn't have to be expensive, and it doesn't have to be formalised. Some of the best training experiences involve group-led efforts that also serve as team building exercises, such as Webinars, vendor demonstrations, and specific discussions on best practices.

7. Institute Leadership

Deming wants management to be leaders not merely supervisors.

For project managers: The problem on most projects is not a lack of management but a lack of leadership. Leadership is more about people skills than about project management skills. Few projects have sponsors that view themselves as the leader on the project, and if the leadership charge is not picked up by the project manager then the project is not likely to be successful. A leader translates the project's vision into actions that excite, inspire, and motivate the project team, and he or she is able to instil a perception that the project isn't just creating a deliverable; it's accomplishing something phenomenal for the customer.

8. Drive out Fear

Deming tells us that management by fear or punishment is detrimental because it inhibits questions and ideas from the workforce.

For project managers: Fear stifles two cornerstones of quality - innovation and continual improvement. A fearful team isn't going to generate new ideas and it's going to hide its mistakes, leading to a poor lessons learned process. Deming's point goes beyond what most of us associate with fear. Fear is also that little voice all of us hear that suppresses us from speaking up or sharing ideas – fear of failing, fear of sounding silly, fear of making a mistake, fear of missing a deadline, fear of stepping on another's toes, and so on. Yet these fears are just as detrimental to quality as fear of punishment.

It's a lack of trust between team members and in the project's leadership that drives these fears. If we improve trust, team members will be more willing to share their ideas and question existing processes.

9. Break Down Barriers Between Staff Areas

Deming wants everyone to realise that each person is a customer of someone and that everybody is a supplier to somebody.

For project managers: Silos and a rigid hierarchy are dangerous not only to the project, but to the organisation. Innovation and continual improvement come about by somebody seeing a connection that is not inherently obvious, and connections can't be discovered when one is stuck behind artificial barriers.

We can help break those barriers by exposing people to diverse situations outside their normal environment and comfort zones. Though there is a short-term productivity loss when people work outside their specialty, there is a longer-term gain for the project and organisation. This strategy helps build a larger pool of "generalists" in many subjects, and new experiences are a powerful motivator for many people. This approach also improves opportunities for innovative approaches and is a risk management strategy should key personnel leave the project.

10. Eliminate Slogans, Exhortations, and Targets for the Work Force

Slogans imply the problem is with the employees, but the real problem is with the process.

For project managers: The first point we have to accept is that we are responsible for problems within the project, whatever those issues might be. It isn't the team's fault, the customer's fault, or the organisation's fault – it's our fault.

The root causes of most project problems are deficiencies in communication, scope, requirements, activity definitions, project planning and re-planning, risk management, and stakeholder involvement. All of these are within our professional domain even if we aren't the ones personally performing them. It's our responsibility to make sure the project processes are performed effectively to a level appropriate for the project.

11. Eliminate Management by Objectives

Setting production targets only encourages people to meet those targets through whatever means necessary, which causes poor quality.

For project managers: On the surface this principle probably sounds like heresy to most of us – how can a project be managed if targets aren't set? Well, it can't, but that wasn't Deming's point. He's talking about short-sighted versus thorough planning. Setting targets in response to a problem without first understanding and addressing the root causes in the processes will only lead to more quality problems.

Milestones are the predominant targets for projects, and they need to be challenging to motivate the team, but they have to be achievable and flexible. Yet flexibility is one of the most common scheduling failures a project manager makes, especially on projects that are very iterative and involve rolling wave planning.

As these projects progress, milestones have to be continually reassessed, and this often means that the original dates get pushed. Too many of us perceive these readjustments as "missing our target" because we're too married to dates that were only best-guesses or top-down estimates set early in project planning. We also should be careful to present milestone dates to stakeholders as estimates and help them understand the iterative nature of these kinds of projects - as the project is better understood and the work needed becomes clearer, milestone dates may change.

12. Remove Barriers to Pride of Workmanship

Deming tells us that nobody feels good about producing shoddy work. When management creates an environment that fosters poor quality, employees are frustrated.

For project managers: Recognising the team and individuals for their contributions and achievements helps instil pride of workmanship. Everyone on the project team should feel that his or her work is recognised and valuable to the project's success. Sincere appreciation is one of the easiest and cheapest yet most effective motivating agents we can use. Even "failures" and mistakes are achievements as long as there were valuable lessons learned.

13. Institute Education and Self-Improvement

Deming wants everyone, managers and the workforce, to pursue training, education, and self-improvement.

For project managers: Ongoing professional development is expected of certified project managers, but we should also expect and encourage it among our team and coworkers. Nearly every profession has its own certification and continuing education requirements, and our team members will appreciate it if we have a general understanding of their profession's requirements, recognise them for certification efforts, and help them with opportunities for meeting those requirements.

14. The Transformation is Everyone's Job

Deming says that everyone is involved in the fixing the processes.

For project managers: This one is easy if we've done everything else right because all the other principles will result in quality management culture where everyone is involved in continual improvement and innovation. Having experienced first-hand a quality management experience, the people on our team will in turn spread those ideas to other project teams.

J. Alex Sherrer has been in the information technology field for more than 20 years as a manager, portfolio and project manager, business analyst, software developer, technical writer and trainer. He's passionate about reading, learning, and writing and he enjoys discussing innovation, continuous improvement, organisational theories and technology topics with others.


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