Many software development organizations today are so overloaded with quality problems that they are no longer coping with their business of developing software. They display all the classic symptoms of overloaded organizations—lack of problem awareness, lack of self-awareness, plus characteristic behavior patterns and feelings. Management may not recognize the relationship between this overload and quality problems stemming from larger, more complex systems. If not, their actions tend to be counterproductive. In order to cure or prevent such a crisis, management needs to understand the system dynamics of quality.
Symptoms of Overload Due to Poor Quality
In our consulting work, we are often called upon to rescue software development operations that have somehow gotten out of control. The organization seems to have slipped into a constant state of crisis, but management cannot seem to pin the symptoms down to one central cause. Quite often, that central cause turns out to be overload due to lack of software quality, and lack of software quality due to overload.
Our first job as consultants is to study symptoms. We classify symptoms of overload into four general categories—lack of problem awareness, lack of self-awareness, plus characteristic patterns of behavior and feelings. Before we describe the dynamics underlying these symptoms, lets look at some of them as they my be manifest in a typical, composite organization, which we shall call the XYZ corporation.
Lack of Problem Awareness
All organizations have problems, but the overloaded organization doesn't have time to define those problems, and thus has little chance of solving them:
1. Nobody knows what's really happening to them.
2. Many people are not even aware that there is a system-wide problem.
3. Some people realize that there is a problem, but think it is confined to their operation.
4. Some people realize that there is a problem, but think it is confined to somebody else's operation.
5. Quality means meeting specifications. An organization that is experiencing serious quality problems may ignore those problems by a strategy of changing specifications to fit what they actually happen to produce. They can then believe that they are "meeting specifications." They may minimize parts of the specification, saying that it's not really important that they be done just that way. Carried to an extreme, this attitude leads to ignoring certain parts of the specification altogether. Where they can't be ignored, they are often simply
6. Another way of dealing with the overload is to ignore quality problems that arise, rather than handling them on the spot, or at least recording them so others will handle them. This attitude is symptomatic of an organization that needs a top-to-bottom retraining in quality.
Lack of Self-Awareness
Even when an organization is submerged in problems, it can recover if the people in the organization are able to step back and get a look at themselves, In the chronically overloaded organization, people no longer have the means to do this. They are ignorant of their condition, and they have crippled their means of removing their ignorance:
7. Worse than not knowing what is going on is thinking you know, when you don't, and acting on it. Many managers at XYZ believe they have a grip on what's going on, but are too overloaded to actually check. When the reality is investigated, these managers often turn out to be wrongs For instance, when quizzed about testing methods used by their employees, most managers seriously overestimate the quality of testing, when compared with the programmers' and testers' reports.
8. In XYZ) as in all overloaded organizations, communication within and across levels is unreliable and slow. Requests for one kind of information produce something else, or nothing at all. In attempting to speed up the work, people fail to take time to listen to one another, to write things down, or to follow through on requested actions.
9. Many individuals at XYZ are trying to reduce their overload by isolating themselves from their co-workers, either physically or emotionally. Some managers have encouraged their workers to take this approach, instructing them to solve problems by themselves, so as not to bother other people.
10. Perhaps the most dangerous overload reaction we observed was the tendency of people at XYZ to cut themselves off from any source of information that might make them aware of how bad the overload really is. The instant reaction to any new piece of information is to deny it, saying there are no facts to substantiate it. But no facts can be produced because the management has studiously avoided building or maintaining information systems that could contradict their claims that "we.just know what's going on." They don't know, they don't know they don't know, and they don't want to know they don't know. They're simply too busy.
Typical Behavior Patterns
In order to recognize overload, managers don't have to read people's minds. They can simply observe certain characteristic things they do:
11 . The first clear fact that demonstrates overload is the poor quality of the products being developed. Although it's possible to deny this poor quality when no measurements are made of the quality of work in progress, products already delivered have shown this poor quality in an undeniable way.
12. All over the organization, people are trying to save time by short-circuiting those procedures that do exist. 'This tactic may occasionally work in a normal organization faced with a short-term crisis, but in XYZ, it has been going on for so long it has become part of standard operating procedure.
13. Most people are juggling many things at one time, and thus adding coordination time to their overload. In the absence of clear directives on what must be done first, people are free to make their own choices. Since they are generally unaware of the overall goals of the organization, they tend to suboptimize, choosing whatever looks good to them at the moment.
14. In order to get some feeling of accomplishment, when people have a choice of tasks to do, they tend to choose the easiest task first, so as to "do something." This decision process gives a short-term feeling of relief, but in the long term results in an accumulation of harder and harder problems.
15. Another way an individual can relieve overload is by passing problems to other people. As a result, problems don't get solved, they merely circulate. Some have been circulating for many months.
16. Perhaps the easiest way to recognize an overloaded organization is by noticing how frequently you hear People say, in effect, that they recognize that the way they're working is wrong, but they "have no time to do it right." This seems almost to be the motto of the XYZ organization.
If you wait for measurable results of overload, it may be too late. But its possible to recognize an overloaded organization through various expressions of peoples' feelings:
17. An easy way to recognize an overloaded organization is by the general atmosphere in the workplace. In many areas at XYZ there was no enthusiasm, no commitment, and no intensity. People were going through the motions of working, with no hope of really accomplishing their tasks.
18. Another internal symptom of overload is the number of times people expressed the wish that somehow the problem would just go away. Maybe the big customer will cancel the contract. Maybe the management will Just slip the schedules by a year. Maybe the sales force will stop taking more orders. Maybe the company will fail and be purchased by a larger company.
19. One common way of wishing the problem would go away is to choose a scapegoat, who is the personified source of all the difficulties, and then wish that this person would get transferred, get fired, get sick, or quit. At XYZ, there are at least ten different scapegoats—some of whom have long gone, although the problems still remain.
20. Perhaps the ultimate emotional reaction to overload is the intense desire to run away. When there are easy alternatives for employees, overload is followed by people leaving the organization, which only increases the overload. The most perceptive ones usually leave first. When there are few attractive opportunities outside, as at XYZ, then people "run away" on the job. They fantasize about other jobs, other places, other activities, though they don't act on their fantasies. Their bodies remain, but their hearts do not.
The Software Dynamics of Overload
There are a number of reasons for the overload situation at organizations like XYZ, but underlying everything is the quality problem, which in turn arises from the changing size and complexity of the work. This means that simple-minded solutions like adding large numbers of people will merely make the problems worse. In order for management to create a manageable organization, they will have to understand the dynamics of quality. In particular, they will have to understand how quality deteriorates, and how it has deteriorated in their organization over the years. The XYZ company makes an excellent case study.
The quality deterioration at XYZ has been a gradual effect that has crept up unnoticed as the size and complexity of systems has increased. The major management mistake has been lack of awareness of software dynamics, and the need for measurement if such creeping deterioration is to be prevented.
The quality deterioration experienced at XYZ is quite a common phenomenon in the software industry today, because management seems to make the same mistakes everywhere—they assume that the processes that would produce quality small systems will also produce quality large systems. But the difficulty of producing quality systems is exponentially related to system size and complexity, so old solutions quickly become inadequate. These dynamics have been studied by a number of software researchers, but it is not necessary to go fully into them here. A few examples will suffice to illustrate specifically what has been happening at XYZ and the kind of actions that are needed to reverse the situation.
NOTE: The remaining two-thirds of this article describes these dynamics and corrective actions, and can be found as a new chapter in the book,
The book also details a number of the most common and distressing management problems, along with dozens of positive responses available to competent managers.