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The role of quality in the management of projects

Flett, Peter and Bowers, John (2001) The role of quality in the management of projects. PhD thesis, The University of Stirling.

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Quality is often claimed as the 3rd dimension of any project: the success of a project depends on the management of time, cost and quality. However, quality is a much more elusive substance and its management can be problematic. This thesis examines some of the models proposed for managing quality in projects and considers their relevance via a number of case studies. The present study aims to provide a foundation from which a methodology for the management of quality in projects can be evolved. The general definition of “quality” is still discussed and its interpretation in the specific area of project management is open to debate. In this thesis it has been found useful to consider three levels of quality management in the project environment, broadly equivalent to those usually accepted in operations management: quality control, quality assurance and total quality management. Various methods of quality control have been employed in projects for many years. The emphasis of the present study is on the project management equivalents of quality assurance and total quality management and to examine whether they fulfil the true need. A major element of successful quality management is the establishing of constructive methods of feedback. Feedback is also often claimed to be a vital ingredient of successful project management: learning from past successes, and failures. A conduit to provide feedback is often problematic due to the very nature of projects and their finite lifespan. Mainstream thinking believes that standard quality systems employed in the production and operation environment can be incorporated effectively in project management thus increasing operational consistency and reducing the risk of activity or project failure. However, is the model of quality embedded in these systems relevant to projects with their characteristics of uniqueness and long time scales? Initial debate assumed that existing quality management systems would be of benefit in projects, which exhibited a lower level of uniqueness and were closer to an operations management perspective. A literature review followed to gauge the level of importance attached to quality systems and its role in the project process. This determined that there was a need to investigate what existing quality systems, contributed in a purely project environment and what impact they had on improving project success especially in regard to the uniqueness of the projects and to the size of the project organization involved. In addition, the impact an industry-standard quality system had on project organizations compared to project organizations that did not possesses any formal system. To compare and contrast the conventional approach to quality in projects, the complementary areas of systems thinking and system dynamics were explored. Examining an alternative field to quality management was beneficial in providing a different perspective on how systems can be modelled evaluated and applied to real-world applications. This part of the research contributed significantly to the formation of the ideas and opinions on the way in which the concept of quality should be promoted in project management. In particular, the identification of mental models and the use of graphical representations to describe, illustrate and model the tangible and intangible entities found in most types of system. The use of a case study methodology was seen as the most valid way of attaining a holistic view of the complete project process and exploring the salient issues surrounding quality and projects. The fieldwork carried out to facilitate this goal, comprised of a restricted number of in-depth case studies, which encapsulated complete projects. An essential part of this process was the use of participant observation and in part action research, as these approaches increased the access to the available qualitative data whilst being mutually beneficial to the research and to the organisations involved. The scope of the case studies carried out was governed by a number of constraints: • The availability of suitable projects. • The timespan of the available projects matching that of the research, consequently the projects studied are on a relatively small scale. • The organizations in which the action research process could be a valid exchange of services. • The reluctance of organizations in certain industries to allow access to data on projects in particular activities that had led to project failure. The alternative models and techniques offered by systems thinking and system dynamics were explored to see if they could deliver more insights into the diverse aspects of project quality and how feedback in systems can be effectively represented. From the four case studies carried out, it is evident that there is a need for a fundamental revision on how quality is both defined and measured in project management. There is a need for greater emphasis on the acquisition and retention of knowledge by project organizations including the ability to disperse that knowledge by a practical and useful medium. Existing quality management systems still exhibit their origins, which do not take into account the uniqueness and instability of the project environment. In practice, the demand for registration to an industry-recognised quality standard appears to discriminate against the smaller project organization. The impact on the larger organizations is no less significant due to the creation of ‘underground’ parallel working practices, which are a significant waste of resources. The veneer of compliance to a global standard does not help the project organization learn or accumulate knowledge. In conclusion, this thesis proposes that project management needs an alternative methodology to provide a more practical method of project feedback, to enhance the ability of future projects. This thesis puts forward a foundation for this methodology based upon the valuable attributes of the models identified during the research in addition to the value of the case studies compiled. The aim for the implementation of a practical quality system has to be based on a reappraisal of what its purpose is. Therefore, it is proposed that the objective of any system would be to capture knowledge, store and redistribute that knowledge in a manner that makes a positive contribution to future project success. Emphasis is placed on increasing success by the acquisition of knowledge, in contrast to the traditional quality concepts of decreasing risk by the control of activities. In essence a shift from existing mechanistic systems towards more neurocybernetic systems. The increasing capabilities of communication and information technologies make the practicalities of creating this type of system perfectly feasible.