25 March 2008

Take quality off the critical path

By Andrew Clifford

To manage quality for the long term, you need a system quality management process that takes quality management off the critical path of business change projects.

In IT, we consider quality very broadly. We consider software quality, such as modularisation and commenting. We consider operational quality, such as conforming to operational standards and resilience. We consider risk management quality, such as security and disaster recovery. We consider technical quality, such as technology viability and scalability. Taken together, these system qualities have a huge impact on the cost and risk of delivering IT change and IT services.

When new systems are created, it is relatively easy to create a quality solution. It is much harder to maintain the quality of the solution throughout its life.

Quality degrades. It tends to degrade every time we change a system. It degrades even when we do not touch the system, as changes to other systems, to technology, to regulations, to security threats, cumulatively undermine the qualities of the system.

We try to maintain the quality of systems when we change them, but this is difficult. It is almost impossible to make a business case for quality improvements, and there is never any time. Inevitably the quality issues that have grown up in the system are not fixed.

We understand this better in other industries. Imagine you went to the garage to have parking sensors fitted to your car. You would want the garage to do a quality job of fitting the parking sensors, but you would not expect them to spend your time and money on checking the brake pads at the same time.

You need to do something similar in IT. Instead of managing ongoing system quality as an add-on to the business change process, you need to manage it as a process in it its own right. With a car, you manage ongoing quality with periodic inspections and services, and, here in the UK, an annual MOT test to check that the car is legal. You need to do something similar with system quality. You need periodic assessments to look for general decline, and to check that the systems are compliant with the ever-changing landscape of regulation and policy. You need a system quality management process, as well as a business change process.

This is really important for justification. You would justify parking sensors because by the increased capability they give - easier parking, and a reduced risk of damage. But disk pads, and other quality issues, can not be justified by obviously increased capability. They maintain the performance of the car, increase its useful life, reduce risks, help it run smoothly, avoid future problems, maintain its value. You can not be sure that each aspect of a regular service is strictly necessary, but you know, overall, that it is valuable to have one. The justification for ongoing quality management is different from the justification for business change.

Even though it is critical, system quality does not sit happily on the critical path. It needs its own process and its own justification. You have to have a separate system quality management process.