May 24, 2006

Carefully capitalized

Over at nanopolitan, Abi linked to this article by Matthew Stewart, a strong jab at management theory and teaching. Because it says, far more succinctly, stuff I've often thought, I urge you to go read it.

Reminded me of my brush with ISO 9000 some years ago, do see below.


Ever noticed how many organizations display ISO 9000 certificates? I found one recently in a hospital I've been to innumerable times. Not that I noticed anything fundamentally different about the place now that the sign is up, unless you count the existence of the sign itself.

It's something of a bandwagon, ISO 9000. And I'm hardly one to let bandwagons pass me by. So I once decided to find out something about it. It's an elusive creature, I discovered. When Baroness Orczy asked: "Is he in Heaven? Is he in Hell? That damned elusive Pimpernel!", she might well have been talking about ISO 9000, except that it doesn't rhyme too well.

Me, I have a passing interest in software. So I signed up for something that was advertised as -- and I quote here -- "an important seminar on ISO 9000 for computer software". It was to be conducted by -- I'm still quoting -- "an expert in this field" from a major European country that I will not identify except to tell you that its name begins with "Ger" and ends with "any".

Inspired by these quotes, I trooped eagerly into the seminar. It quickly became apparent that my eagerness was entirely misplaced.

A day and a half and many hundreds of slides and handouts later, our "expert" himself told us: "I can't tell you anything about ISO 9000 for software because I don't know anything about it." This was not a voluntary declaration, you understand; he was asked whether this was really a seminar about ISO 9000. (Full disclosure: By me).

Every slide he showed us had boxes and arrows and graphs and words such as "traceability", whatever that means. But if ever there has been as large a collection of boxes and arrows and pretty pictures that said as little as these did, I'd like to know about it.

There were graphs plotting the "probability density for success" against "attainment level"; others told us that software projects are somewhere on something called a "Quality Surface" (Carefully Capitalized). One slide had four identical -- I'm talking same-to-same identical -- graphs titled "complexity", "centrality", "diffusion" and "embedding". Our expert did not tell us what this meant, if anything at all.

But he did tell us about the "Capability Maturity Model" (Carefully Capitalized), which ranks your company in one of five maturity levels.

Level 1 is "Initial", in which you are "ad hoc" and "chaotic". Up from there is "Repeatable", where "the process is person-dependent but it is managed", thank you very much. At the top of the heap is Level 5, "Optimising", where "the process includes feedback". Your goal, said our expert, should be to make it to the rarified air of Level 5. Of course, our expert is -- and other competing experts are -- eager to visit you and rank your company, or your project. As one of them -- according to still another slide -- did, with 168 projects in the US and 196 in Japan.

And what would you guess were the Capability Maturity Levels of all these projects in these technologically advanced countries? Mostly Level 5 ("Optimising"), or maybe Level 4?

Wrong! As yet another slide told us, 86% of the US projects and 95% of the Japanese ones were mired in the muck of Level 1 ("ad hoc and chaotic", let me remind you). We're talking about the US, the country that still produces an overwhelming proportion of the software in use today. Innovative, useful software.

And it's all done in an ad hoc, chaotic fashion. Get used to it.

"Software is still on a low maturity level", said our expert, explaining these results. I don't know about you, but another explanation occurred to me. These experts and their close kin, consultants, charge huge fees to tell you your company is doing everything it possibly can wrong -- "ad hoc and chaotic", I believe it's called. But when you start correcting those wrongs, they quickly discover a new set of models. According to which, another visit and another fat fee informs you, you are still stuck on the bottom rung. You never get off that bottom rung, but the consultant collects his fee each time. Nice.

Then there were vague non sequiturs such as that ISO 9000 "has no value if not embedded in a Quality Philosophy." This Carefully Capitalized Quality Philosophy is "Total Quality Management" or TQM, one more then-fashionable buzzword, also Carefully Capitalized. TQM itself, said still another slide, is "not precisely defined", and "a safer understanding [of TQM] is coming along with the ISO 9000 series standards".

Got it? ISO 9000 is part of TQM, but TQM can only be understood via ISO 9000. Sure. Yossarian, come home to momma!

Baroness Orczy would have sympathized with us slide-watchers. We could see ISO 9000 here and there. We were told that it was not this or not that. Most confusing of all, it was defined in terms of things that were themselves to be defined by ISO 9000 ... but what was ISO 9000?

That, sadly, remained unclear.

But the expert from that country beginning with "Ger" got his fee.


km said...

Dilip, you forgot Poka Yoke, JIT, black-belt and Kaizen. No soup for you till you know the definitions of each of those terms!

phucker said...

Nice try, but you fail it. The CMM certifications were basically one more barrier to entry for non-American US firms.

Tell me this - how easy is it to get a decent job without a bachelor's degree? But considering the glut of bachelor's degrees out there and the average quality of one, what is its worth? Nothing. But nobody will look at you without one.

BTW, just so you know, the top Indian companies are CMM Level 5, but they all know it means nothing. But if they weren't, their customers wouldn't look at them, because as shocking as you might find this, people in the land of "Innovative, Useful" software and elsewhere have biases, especially against brown people and in an ideal world people would be judged by the quality of work they have actually done, not some silly little letters atached to their name. But it isn't an ideal world, as you yourself informed us in your last post...Besides - "what use does one have for merit anyway?". Actually, maybe there should be some reservation for Indian software companies in the Western world. After all, Indians have been oppressed and discriminated against for centuries, and how else will we bring them up to the same level as the Rich West? Quotas anyone?

And it is a fact that the work done in America is ad-hoc and crap, and this is why the Indian software industry is succeeding, because we have much, much better processes in place, for a much cheaper price. And further,

We're talking about the US, the country that still produces an overwhelming proportion of the software in use today. Innovative, useful software.

No. That innovative and useful software is produced in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Mohali, but sold with a USA tag.

The next time you open Adobe Acrobat reader 7 (if you know what that is, with your passing interest in software), go to Help, then go to About Adobe Reader 7.0, then click on Credits. 75% of the names in that list work in NOIDA.

Dilip D'Souza said...

km, if you can believe it, I had never heard of "Poka Yoke" until I saw your comment! What a delightful name. I just googled it to find 213000 responses! I'm out of touch, I know I am. Tell me, is it as empty and banal as TQM and CMM and the like.

TTG, Adobe? What's that? Do you mean "Abode"? Or perhaps "Abodh", and if so what's he got to do with anything? Has been training Acrobats? Why does he need Help?

I think it was the last time you turned up here that I responded that "you may just have lost something." That still stands.

Anonymous said...

I was once trained to be an ISO 9001 auditor. Never collected the certificate cuz I was too busy with my Six Sigma training.
Dont remember anything about either, but i remember thinking that these certifications could be slightly helpful as far as making things process driven go. Implementation is another story. You are pretty bang on about the consultants and their fees, but there I have worked in companies that have benefited, in certain areas, by implementing these certifications well.

- Zap

shrik said...

Hmmm...I wouldn't know about all software companies specifically, even though I work in a CMM Level 3 one, myself. But all this quality hoohaa is, to paraphrase Steve Ballmer, about paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.

The amount of hoops I have to jump through in a Level 3 place is astounding. I can barely imagine (with a shudder, I might add) the situation for Level 5s.

Incidentally, the private engineering college I studied in was ISO certified. It received this certification when I was nearing the end of my 2nd year.

The only difference was that my lecturers had to do more paperwork.

phucker said...

How very sad....

Dilip D'Souza said...

TTG, I get it. You mean that place where we find someone to wash clothes, right?

Anirudh said...

Management is the biggest April Fools joke played on people. Okay, remove that April.

Pseudogiri with lots of money.

Anonymous said...

i was pretty satisfied with what bschool education gave me. and about 99 % of my batch would say so. all of us might have different reasons though.
I will not elaborate since you are wondering about mgmt science itself here, not mgmt education.

- Zap

Anonymous said...

Tarun, in other words, he has no fuckin clue what you wrote so he cant respond. Please break it into simple words, throw in some sympathy for Gujju mozzies, and bash the BJP, and he will understand.

Wild Reeds said...

Interesting how recently lots of hotels, in order to reach up to "international standards" removed water sprays from loos in Indian five star hotels and replaced them with paper. Recently a case was filed in court saying tissue was dirty and unhygienic and a blind aping of a disgusting western habit. So much for :standards: :-0

Shashikant said...

As per my very superficial understanding, ISO 9000 means "Write what you are going to do, do it, write what you have done. If you did what you had planned, you are ISO 9000 compliant." Simplistic, but this is the epitome of it. ISO 9000 is not about quality of work. Experts, correct me.

CMM is better suited for software. Which companies need this label? The ones in software services industry. Not the product companies like Microsft, Oracle. BTW, when did you attend this seminar? India has bunch of CMM 5 companies for more than 5-6 years.

And yes, that expert was right when he said software development is (still) chaotic and ad hoc.

km said...

The storm in the QC teacup breweth.

Shasikant is right about ISO-9000. It merely means that one has "documented, repeatable processes" and it is adopted to "certify adherence to defined company processes". (Level 3 on CMM corresponds approximately to ISO-9000.) It makes NO mention of *targeted quality* anywhere.

In the context of professional services (which is about 99.99% of India's so-called software industry), it is a bit of a joke, albeit a joke in whose absence there would - arguably - be greater chaos and more missed deadlines.

(And no, CMM certifications were NOT EVER a barrier to entry into the US. About 100% of IT departments in the USA were not even aware of CMM till Indian IT shops started advertising it on their brochures. And even today it invokes nothing more than mild curiosity in most customers.)

Anonymous said...

folks a delightful debate.

here is one - i got almost bashed by my quality chief, a good friend who helped my orgn get the ISO.

ISO seeks consistency - in many ways - like our friend said write what you are going to do etc., etc.

Consistency as the bard says is the quality of an ass :-)

On a serious note, documentation is a challenge the world over. Especially countries with oral traditions. It's easy if you ask me, do not ask me for a document. What with the kind of attrition that we talk about, it makes sense to document.

While there is a possibility of applying any quality system in a pedantic way, the quality system is not be blamed. The problem with many is that they blindly copy.

If you can let the head on the shoulders work, you can figure out if the system is over burdening or enabling?


Tanuj said...

what on earth is a non-sequitur?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Tanuj, this is a non-sequitur.

Anirudh: Pseudogirl with lots of money.

Who is this pseudo girl and why does she have lots of money and why do you mention her here?

I don't know about April Fool jokes. I think MBA people do learn some serious skills, including dealing with people (as opposed to solving abstract problems), which is a hard, hard thing.

Nevertheless, at the risk of annoying my MBA-type friends -- a few here, and truly fine people they are -- I have to say one thing. I've been wary of management education since the time I encountered, in a management text I had to study, this statement (as nearly verbatim as I can recall): Efforts to communicate with someone not listening will fail.

Since then, it's been something of a pastime of mine to look for empty jargon like this. ISO 9000 is full of it. A couple of examples here. (That document I mention there has another paragraph that told suppliers and purchasers that in establishing their "roles, responsibilities and obligations", they should
take into account "schedule including off hour and weekends". Thank you very much).

Stewart has some other examples.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Zap, I'm all for processes to be streamlined. But I don't believe that itself stimulates any truly creative output. I worked in software firms for 20+ years. When I look back, the best work came from the sharp guys (EG, you reading this?) who were given free reign to design and implement stuff as they wished. They just went at it and produced worthwhile results. I think that productivity and talent would have been stifled had they been subject to passing CMM certificates and the like. I would not like to see them subject to that stuff, ever.

Shrik, it is all about paperwork. That gets me. I want to draw a distinction here between that paperwork and documenting -- or commenting -- your code. Again, the truly brilliant codesmiths I've worked with were also diligent about commenting their code as they developed it, making sure that whoever took it over later would not have to puzzle over what it meant.

Wild R, that's an excellent story! Any pointers to where I can find out more?

Shashikant, you're right on target: it's not the product companies, but the services firms that will "need" (if they really do, which I'm not convinced) CMM and the like. You're also right, it has been some years since I attended this seminar, certainly more than 5-6. I've spent much of the intervening years mourning the spread of ISO 9000 everywhere I look!

Much software development is indeed, as you say, ad hoc and chaotic. The point I realize I didn't make strongly enough in this article is this: I think that character of software development should be celebrated, not mourned. (This is what I'm getting at in the first para of this comment).

km, thanks for saying what I wanted to about CMM certifications.

PseudoGirl said...

You calling me a non-sequitur? Hmph!

tqmcintl said...

i enjoyed the article Dilip

i linked u on my site