Monday, March 20, 2006

Ensuring quality

Queen Quality and the Demon of Risk is a parable born out of exasperation and frustration.

It tells the story of William, a carpenter entrusted with a great commission by the Queen. He is to make a chair. Not just any chair. "It must be a great chair, the very finest you can create, and free from all imperfection." This he understands, for he is a great craftsman. Then, without hesitation or deviation, she adds, "We must ensure quality".

It is not recorded what William thought when he heard this. Perhaps in the innocence of his craft, he only thought it strange. Perhaps he had no idea what such a statement portends.

He soon found out. It heralded the Project Initiation Document; it foretold the Risk Assessment Spreadsheet; it evoked the Performance Appraisal Overview. It meant he made a crap chair.

It is very easy to laugh at the anal terminology that covers the crying need to make people promise (really, really!!) to do a good job. Yet, it is not hard to see why it must be continually renewed and, however outlandishly, re-stated. It's simply because none of us any more are Williams, none of us are craftsman. Nor would any of us want to be. The craftsman of the parable has dedicated his life to that work; it's all he knows. We couldn't spend 20 minutes with William without having to stifle a yawn or four - he wouldn't know much else. More, he wouldn't have experienced much else. Do you think he's been to France, let alone Asia? Has he skied, won a trophy, hiked for the fun of it and come home soaking? No. His life has been dictated by necessity. Now, no-one can say that it's not a good life; it's just that 99% of us would not be willing to live it, however nice it is to read about.

The upshot of this is that William, narrow as his experience of the world may be, is far more independent that most of us, takes far more responsibility for his work (who can he blame?), doesn't need anyone to talk about quality - he does quality. He depends on it to live. Which of us is like that? Which of us in the vast chain of links that we work in cannot make the excuse of the weakness in the link two down, or four up? In fact, the product failed more than likely, not because of a weakness here or there, but one spread out among all. Because all of us can walk away.

That's why they have processes. To make something half-decent. We work under the new necessity of process to make something half-decent. The real skill is finding some satisfaction in it.

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