Does Quality Matter?

The Best Fun I Ever Had

It was the best fun I ever had in my life. In the winter of 79 I worked on an island in the Hong Kong archipelago. I was a control systems engineer in a chemical processing plant. I wrote assembler language programs to control reaction kinetics.
What an adventure.
Control strategies, expressed in assembler, playing out organic chemistry. It was sort of primal. And so where the tools.
You remembered the bootstrap and keyed it in at the front panel. It sort of had a rhythm like playing a piano.
I was limited on core memory so I wrote code that modified itself.
Ah ... I wouldn't do that again.
But all in all it was a rookie engineers dream. At the keyboard, pressing GO on control tasks and expanding your peripheral vision to take in 30 indicators at once. You really had to pay attention. Fast moving temperatures meant something bad was about to happen.
They called us wizards and looked upon what we did as a black art.
For me at least, quality management hadn’t been invented yet.
It didn’t matter I was motivated for zero defects – by FEAR.

Worst Case Scenario

The worst case scenario for that type of reactor was a setup. The reactants go solid and all the reactor is good for is burying under the ground. And next to it they bury the engineer responsible. Having a desk next to a blast wall kept me focussed too.
Outside the plant, Vietnamese boat people started arriving in large numbers. I guess they were just looking for a better future.
Inside the plant I was making sure that my engineering career would have one.
I was being very careful.

Is Software Development Still a Black Art?

Now that was 30 years ago but I think we're still debating this question. Is software development still a black art , or no. And if you’re developing software based systems, is just being careful, enough? Or is quality so important that you need a formal quality management structure to make sure it’s delivered? In other words: does quality matter - that much?
I can tell you that fear isn’t a sustainable motivator for getting things right. Being fearful all day just burns you out. Later on in my career I joined larger projects where design processes were established and peer review was possible. Responsibility for success was shared. Life became less scary.
After that I worked on very large projects WITH formal quality management. I even became a Quality Manager.

What is Quality?

And what have I learned in the past 30 years?
Well to begin with, every business can generate a return on investment in quality, simply because it costs less to prevent an error than it does to fix it - especially if it fails in service.

I also learned that quality isn't just the absence of defects; it's the failure free solution to a customer's problem. Technical excellence isn't enough, we need to develop deeper insights into what people perceive as quality. I've also concluded that smart companies aren't created solely by hiring smart people. Companies don't just generate ideas, they build, market, sell, compete and achieve this by coordinating the efforts of a diverse cohort of talent. And the most successful are the ones where the smart people are the cast - but the system is the star.
As both a business owner and a line manager my passion for quality has arisen purely out of self interest.
I've won business against corporate giants of world renown - yet my company is small.
I've seen people who thought they were ordinary achieve extraordinary things.
I've seen companies emerge from loss making chaos to find profitability in order.
All by taking the small steps that arise from one big idea.

My Software Quality Workshop

My workshop on developing quality management systems is an intense and, I hope, insightful conversation on how this idea applies to software and electronic systems. In the workshop I illustrate quality improvement techniques with real-world case studies. Participants also bring along quality problems that are a continuing source of learning. So if you're creating or looking to improve a quality management system or if you're just looking for ideas.
Come join us.

About this talk

The quality management discipline is recognised as an essential part of any business by some and viewed as an unnecessary overhead by others. Systems engineer Les Chambers chronicles his journey from quality agnostic to believer while developing safety critical control systems in chemical processing reactors.

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