Archive for November, 2012

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Appraising for Improvement

November 25, 2012

With CMMI, we use an appraisal approach called SCAMPI, which stands for Standard Cmmi Appraisal Method for Process Improvement – these two last words seem to cause some level of confusion as many appear to believe that the appraisal method is for model conformity rather than process improvement.

When analysing the work practices and processes in an organisation, I tend to look at whether the business needs and objectives are respected and whether the staff members are demonstrating a level of maturity in seeking to satisfy them. I am not looking for a bureaucratic compulsion to document everything and I am not seeking proof that every subpractice of the model has been done according to the letter of the model. Regularly, I come across people who refer to the CMMI book as “the Bible” which never fails to upset me: if you believe in the Bible (or any other religious text), then it is without flaw; if you do not believe, then it is just a bunch of old fairy tales – in both cases most people have an opinion without having ever read it for themselves. All these attitudes are wrong when considering a model like CMMI: it is not just fairy tales, it is not infallible, it requires reading and understanding.

I used the word maturity. I mean this in the common sense of the word and not in any secret technical sense: the word means being able, through experience, to understand your own skills, aptitudes and limitations, and – more importantly – continuously seeking to understand how to improve on them. This is a critical concept for using a model like the CMMI correctly – after all one of the two Ms stands for Maturity.

And so, we come to the challenge of the appraisal: what is sufficient, what is not? If an organization has created detailed specifications, management has published a coherent policy, a specialist has been hired, training has been given, tools have been installed for a given practice (say configuration audits), but the practice has only been performed once, two weeks before the appraisal – should this practice be rejected because it is not yet institutionalized? On the other hand, as I have seen frequently, someone has copied the list of practices from the model and put the word “policy” on the top, every practice in the standard is being performed and carefully documented according to CMMI terminology, but without understanding and very obviously working to the concept of the minimum acceptable according to the letter of the model – should they be rewarded for practices which are most likely to be abandoned within days of the appraisal being completed?

When performing an appraisal, I am interested in seeing the business impact of well implemented, understood and controlled practices. Put in place measurements that demonstrate the business value of the practices; add to that an objective evaluation of the quality of the practice. Don’t do what the model or standard asks, but do what brings value to your customers and employees, use the standard to check if there are any good ideas out there which you should think about, not as a set of rules to follow.

For me, a successful appraisal is one that educates the organization and brings them useful results which will help them improve customer and staff satisfaction. Using an appraisal in order to get a rubber stamp or a framed certificate is a waste of time and money. You may get the possibility of bidding on a contract through it, but the continued lack of quality improvement means you will not keep the customer or gain new ones for long. On the other hand, using the appraisal for process improvement – as the SCAMPI name suggests – you might not get the short-term certificate you hoped, but you will improve the quality and reputation of the business in the long term.

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Understanding quality

November 15, 2012

When coming into an organisation for the first time, I am always surprised at the lack of understanding of the concept of quality. Of course, management talk about quality and the need for quality. But, when I ask for a definition of quality, they do not really know, or — worse? — they state banalities like “fit for purpose” without really understanding what that means. If I bring up the topic of measurement, they will typically tell me that they measure time-to-market and budget; but maintain (because they believe that is what I want to hear?) that quality always comes first. To make things worse, they implement a “quality assurance” group, based on something they have read and not quite understood, which does not consider assuring quality, but controlling compliance to some standard. Naturally, respect of standards, in particular industry related standards such as those in place in the financial, security or transport industries. But the respect of standards and the certificates hanging behind the receptionist’s desk are not guarantees of quality.

Understanding quality is the most critical aspect of your job, whatever it is. Quality is what differentiates your products and services from the others. If your sole focus – as reflected by measurements is quick and cheap, you will lose the battle: there will always be someone cheaper than you.

Quality involves understanding the expectations of your customers and the aspirations of those who are not yet your customers. Quality involves the right mix of innovation and tradition. Quality requires commitment and leadership. Quality means understanding your own skills and limitations, and when to call on external skills to assist you in overcoming a particular issue or hurdle and when to make sure you do it on your own.

Quality starts with the people doing the work: they need to understand your vision of quality which needs to be communicated in a clear and memorable manner, then reinforced through every action, every standard, rule, process, principle or communication. Measurement follows; once you have a clear and clearly communicated vision of quality, measurements can be easily identified and implemented throughout the organisation.

Then your quality will be reflected in the attitude of all team members and, more noticeably, in their level of job satisfaction. Few people are satisfied when they are encouraged to rush their work, even less are interested in filling out forms and following bureaucratic standards. But, knowing that someone out there is, consciously or not, appreciating your work…

Once the team members have job satisfaction, we will be able to build up trust, that precious commodity which is so lacking in many management-staff relationships. Trust means that team member meet their commitments, they do not need a lot of paper work telling them what to do, when and how, reporting what they have done, etc. You know that they will do as they agreed, they will show up on time and they will go to their management if they feel they are not able to perform as expected.

But, first, they need to believe in your vision of quality.

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The Sweet Smell of Success

November 9, 2012

It is so rewarding when one gets the opportunity to encounter real maturity and growth. When I first visited this company a little over two years ago, it was a typical organization, seeking to have a CMMI “certification” in order to be able to advertise their success. They had made the usual mistakes, taking short-cuts in the wrong places, trying to force through an approach that did not really correspond to the company’s culture or their business objectives.

Today, I am faced with a company that is well on its way to a successful maturity level 4. Engineers are telling me how useful quality assurance is, people at every level of the organization can explain how an intelligent use of measurements has made them more productive, has increased the quality of the products and services they deliver to their customers. Staff are pleased with the way things have progressed, particularly over the past year. The expansion of the company has been facilitated by this improvement, as they have learned that rather than using CMMI to attract customers, it is more interesting to use quality to keep them.

Measurements and trends of cost of quality and numbers of defects are progressing beautifully. Of course, all is not perfect, but progress is accelerating in all aspects. They are demonstrating how an international organization can combine a successful, flexible and cost efficient approach through a combination of Agile, CMMI and Prince2.

Over the past few years, I  have given them some training, I have tried – as is my wont – to educate rather than to instruct them – and so, I feel I can take some pride in this beautiful success story, but they did it. They understood the principles, they changed the culture, they used training and well placed measurement. They understood that the principles behind models and standards are focused on communication, learning and sharing – and not (as many would have you believe) on bureaucracy and pointless paperwork.

I am proud of this company, and I am willing to grab my little bit of responsibility in their success. But, more than anything, I need to say: congratulations, ISDC! Keep it up.