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Pat O'Toole's Dos and Don'ts of Process Improvement: DO Establish the Alignment Principle

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You know the "faster, better or cheaper" routine. You can have two, but not all three. The "Alignment Principle" requires you to take this concept a step farther. You need to tell senior management, "faster, better, or cheaper – pick ONE."
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Project managers often tell their customers, "Faster, better, or cheaper – pick two". What they mean, of course, is that if the customer demands a high quality product in the shortest amount of time, they reserve the right to tell her how much it will cost. Conversely, if the customer prefers a low cost product in the shortest amount of time, it may have quality problems (typically referred to as "undocumented features"). The point is that the solution space can be constrained in only two of the three dimensions – there must be at least one independent variable.

As an SEPG member, the "Alignment Principle" requires you to take this concept a step farther. You need to tell senior management, "faster, better, or cheaper – pick ONE." Since senior management has funding and firing authority over the SEPG, however, you may want to ask something like:

  • "What is the business imperative in our marketplace?"

  • "What gives us a competitive edge in the minds of our customers?"

  • "Why do our potential customers keep buying our competitor's products?"

But if all else fails, be prepared to lay your job on the line and shout, "Look, faster, better, or cheaper – pick ONE!"

It seems fairly obvious that if your firm manufactures pace makers, "quality" is the attribute to be maximized. When your major metric is the "plop factor", you quickly conclude that you will sacrifice a bit of schedule and cost to reduce the number of field reported defects – especially those reported by the relatives of your former customers.

But what about your company? How would your senior management answer if the question were posed to them? The response to this question is the single most important piece of planning data for the process improvement program, as it is the foundation of the Alignment Principle. Don't second guess senior management's answer – get it from the horse's mouth, write it down, and get them to sign it! (If, when asked to sign, they say, "Nay," turn the horse around and ask again!)

Suppose senior management has just informed you that quality, as defined by field reported defects, is the single most important competitive dimension in the minds of your customers. So now it's time to craft the Alignment Principle: "Achieve an annual, sustainable X% reduction in field reported defects without degrading current levels of cost, schedule, and functional variance."

Now you know what it means when you say that the SEPG is going to help the projects achieve greater success – and the projects now know what's most important to senior management. When the SEPG pilots a new process element and demonstrates a measurable reduction of defects, the projects will be beating down your door to get in on the act! Okay, that's a bit much, but at least you're all finally rowing the boat in the same direction – you are aligned!

What if senior management tells you that the dimension in which you need to excel is time to market? Your heart sinks as your mind echoes the project managers' complaints about process getting in the way and slowing them down. Now what do you do? Stay tuned for the next installment, "Do: Take Time Getting Faster".

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