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Pat O'Toole's Dos and Don'ts of Process Improvement: DO Exercise Restraint With Alphabet Soup

As people attempt to improve their bodies as a New Year's resolution, software development organizations attempt quality improvement with a round of acronyms (CMM, TQM,...). Discover a solution to this quagmire of letters and initiatives.
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#11: DO Exercise Restraint With Alphabet Soup

In many parts of the country, the winter months provide inhospitable conditions for running outdoors, so the majority of runners begrudgingly rely on treadmills to rack up miles. Being a consultant who spends 90% of his time traveling on business, most of my treadmill miles are accumulated in hotel exercise rooms. Typically these facilities are sparsely equipped, have inadequate air conditioning, and provide a television that always seems to be stuck on the Home Shopping Network. The only good news is that you usually have the room to yourself – except when the "January Effect" kicks in.

At the beginning of each new year, hotel exercise rooms enjoy renewed popularity. Wearing their brand new Gortex running suits, the New Year's resolution crowd tries to look buff as they plod along on MY treadmills while reading their newspapers. The only part of this ritual that I truly enjoy is when the programmed cool-down period starts and the treadmill actually speeds up. Two weeks later, the January Effect ends as abruptly as it started, and I once again have ample treadmill access.

Many software development organizations exhibit January Effect behaviors in their quality improvement initiatives, although they're more aptly named "Quality Infatuation Cycles," or QUICs. Last year they tried TQM, but that didn't work; two years ago QFD turned out to be a big disappointment; and some even remember the failed attempt to implement Quality Circles several years back – what a joke that was! This year, they'll try "doing CMM" and after seeing how flawed that is, they'll try the Empowerment Initiative for Enabling Improvement in Organizations – or the EIEIO approach.

And how do organizational personnel respond to QUIC cures? A few exhibit passionate advocacy – they are the "Don QUICotes" of the current quality crusade. Most others elect to sit on the sidelines and enjoy the infatuation while it lasts. Just as I am amused when the treadmill speeds up during the cool-down period, they derive perverse pleasure from watching spring romance inevitably turn to summer boredom. Finally, a vocal minority relish in the pleasure of superior ITYS wisdom (I Told You So). Most organizations have tried so many QUIC cures that personnel are sick of acronym alphabet soup.

As a youth, I loved alphabet soup with a passion - not only was it good to eat, but it was fun to play with. I liked eating alphabet soup so much that I kept eating more and more of it, sometimes twice and three times a day. Then one day, as I raised the spoon to my mouth, I found myself nauseated by the smell, and I've never eaten alphabet soup again. Just as I lost my passion for alphabet soup through overdose, groups on the QUIC path to improvement eventually give up on all the quality B.S. ("Bullets of Silver").

Whether starting a quality initiative or an exercise program, the secrets to early success are realistic expectations, gradual buildup of capability, and perseverance. Don't overstuff everybody with the nutritional promises of alphabet soup, but prepare them for a few false starts, a few setbacks, and even a few injuries along the way. Runners have the motto, "No pain, no gain," reflecting the realization that even minor improvement takes hard work. If an organization is not going to exhibit stick-to-itiveness, they may be well advised not to even start down the improvement path. Rather than raising, then dashing the hopes of the afflicted, those contemplating yet another QUIC solution may be better off following the anti-runners' motto, "No pain - no pain!"

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