Lean and Agile Practices Have Their Roots in the Quality Revolution


In her Personality Matters series, Leslie Sachs examines the personalities and people issues that are found in technology groups from cross-functional, high-performance teams to dysfunctional matrix organizations.

Reading and reflecting upon lean and agile this month I realized that technology professionals do not realize how many of these practices are actually from the quality revolution that was led by luminaries including Shewart, Juran, Crosby and Deming. The Poppendiecks have certainly done a great job not only with sharing their lean practices, but also reminding us that process improvement has been successfully implemented in many settings long before it was applied to software development. Join me as we take a quick look back at where the journey to quality began!

What happened to the American car industry?

Despite the stir in the media – I still drive my trusty Toyota which long ago outlived the GM car (which I had only for a few years) purchased new from the dealer. My personal experience has been that Japanese made cars are far superior in terms of quality and value. If I were to buy another car tomorrow, I would not even consider an American made car because of my own personal experience as a longtime car owner and consumer. In every other way I proudly buy American whenever possible, but there is no denying the difference in quality – the current hoopla not withstanding. How did we get to this point? Was it the Japanese and their strong work ethic or the fault of the American lawyers who fought for the “rights” of the unions to not produce quality products? Actually, the success of the Japanese car industry was do in no small part to the work of W. Edwards Deming.

Out of the Crisis
I grew up in the household of a quality engineer who believed strongly in both the American work ethic and the importance of creating quality in everything that we do. W. Edwards Deming wrote a classic book that described his 14 points for achieving quality along with cautioning about the 7 deadly diseases. Much of these lessons may be heard in today’s Agile and Lean approaches. Let’s take a fast paced look at what Deming had to say and why it is still relevant today.

Drive Out Fear

In personality we know that fear can cripple the human mind. When human beings are fearful they sometimes achieve great results, but they also frequently make very bad and costly mistakes. Fear can be a great motivator, but often at very great price. One very common scenario in software development involves development managers who skillfully maneuver the expectations of the internal customer. Agile development has done a great job of pointing out the dangers of committing to requirements that are not well understood – often because the manager is afraid to admit that he does not fully understand the requirements. Deming was right – we need to drive out fear. Deming was not the only luminary of this time.

The fathers and grandfathers of Quality
Walter Shewhart - The Grandfather of Total Quality Management, Joseph Juran, Phillip Crosby and his view that Quality is Free were all leaders of the quality movement. W. Edwards Deming was certainly in good company as he promoted his view of how to achieve quality. What were some of the other points that Deming recommended?

Staying the Course

Deming’s 14 points actually started with a strong view that the work of quality needed to be done with a constancy of purpose meaning that we all need to make the long term commitment to achieving quality including awakening the challenge of achieving quality, learning and taking on leadership for change. Deming also pointed out that we cannot just test in quality – it needs to be built in from the beginning. In today’s software world it is extremely wasteful (the antithesis of Lean) to simply rely upon the QA testing phase to find bugs. Instead we need to build in quality from the beginning.

Quality is free but don’t get cheap on us
Deming also pointed out that we should not rely upon going with the cheapest price. Most of all we need to focus on improving constantly and permanently. Very often companies fail to recognize the value of training and also leadership. These are both essential investments that should be given top priority, but frequently are not give their proper value.

Breaking down barriers

Deming had the strong view that we need to break down barriers between departments and work completely as a team. Having just slogans and false targets do not help achieve success. Work standards including management by objectives often do not achieve their desired results and may actually result in undesirable outcomes. I have known of situations where managers made poor choices for the firm because their own objectives had to be met in order for them to collect the bonus that they had worked hard to receive. We need to break down barriers that rob professionals from pride in their work and the associated creativity that comes from a sincere desire to do excellent work.

Successful Companies

Successful companies come from focusing on education and self improvement. Organizations need to know that it is everyone’s job to accomplish the transformation. As you read the other articles in this issue, along with the many excellent texts on Agile and Lean, I believe that you will hear the echo of Deming’s words in many of the Agile and Lean practices. A wise man once said that in order for you to know where you are going, you must know from where you have come. The legacy of the Quality Management movement is indeed impressive and I hope that you will take the time to learn more as well as work hard to participate in the transformation to quality!

For this article, I used the excellent book written by W. Edwards Deming entitle Out of the Crisis published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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