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Friday, September 26, 2014

Agile: The End of that Oldtime Project Management? Again? Nope. Again.

     Remember TQM?
     I do. Total Quality Management rose 20 years ago and fell a short time later. It was considered by some in the project management field, at the beginning, as the state-of-the-art successor to our ancient craft.
     TQM was the new wonder. Project Management, as we knew it, was out.
     I didn’t see it that way. I pegged TQM as embroidery on the working jeans of project management – a nice enhancement, but you still had to have the jeans.
     TQM was a perfectly respectable system, initially devised to improve management of quality in manufacturing processes. W. Edwards Deming developed the modern form in Japan after World War II, where he went as a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program helped Japan recover from the devastation of the war.

     Deming expanded the concept. He had all these ideas about how to organize people and processes more efficiently to produce volumes of quality products.
     U.S. manufacturers had no interest whatsoever in changing what they were doing, though. They were making plenty of bucks the good old way – the conventional, sloppy, expensive way then in vogue, especially in automaking. It was working
     The Japanese, on the other hand, were extremely needy. They had gained a deserved reputation as junk producers, having flooded the world’s markets with cheap, shoddy products.
     They were hurting, and they welcomed this idea man, Deming, with open arms. Within a decade or two, TQM, other innovations and hard work made Japan the second-richest economy in the world . . . for a while. Look what they did to the American auto industry.  
     Some people were saying the 21st century would be the Japanese Century. We’d all be speaking Japanese by now.

     Well, various factors intervened, and Japan never became that dominant. One reason was the reality that Japan did not – does not – have the vast economic capacity of the United States.
     Another was that its innovation in manufacturing was nowhere nearly matched in other fields, by the thinking of leading bankers and politicians. They were too cautious to buy in, so the country slipped badly, and only now is managing to rise much from several decades of economic stagnation.
     But the Deming influence was a terrific boost for the country back when, and one of Japan’s highest honors is an award named for him.
     Deming returned to the United States on a tidal wave of acclaim, gave speeches, wrote books. So did a lot of other people. TQM spread into every area of human activity – or at least was widely seen as the answer to any and all effective group functioning.
     At the time, I was presenting a little two-day project management workshop through the adult program of a small university. My course was chugging along nicely until, suddenly, there was a problem getting enough enrollment to keep it going.
     The administrators had added a TQM course to the curriculum, and enthusiastic crowds were pouring out of its classroom next to the trickle of folks from mine.
     And that wasn’t all. Big training outfits made bundles by selling brief TQM workshops to affluent clients.
     In New England, one landed a $300,000+ contract to present a one-day TQM seminar to employees of a state government. Forget the fact that experts were saying it would take seven years of training and experience to fully convert any organization – to say nothing of a state government – into real TQM performance.
     The results were predictable: Nonexistent. There weren’t any appreciable benefits, except for the enrichment of a slew of alert opportunists.
     Forgive me, but I applied to get a piece of that state training action. Gotta eat, and things were a little lean at the project management lunch counter. I’m kind of clean, though, because I didn’t get the gig.

     Now a lot of drums are beating for the Agile methodology, and some of them don’t have it right at all. Brings back memories.
     Important point: Agile is NOT Total Quality Management. More specifically, the legitimate argument in favor of Agile has no resemblance to the shiny, cure-all TQM miracle some people were promoting back then.
     I don’t’ know very much yet about Agile, but it looks like a meaningful, legitimate advance. It fits very usefully into the implementation phase of certain kinds of innovation projects, especially in the information technology field. It significantly improves, but does not replace, the essential core practices of project management as we know it.
     TQM, as a matter of fact, did not totally disappear. It was incorporated into the quality management practices we use today, improving how ongoing operations are measured and tightened for quality.
     That’s where TQM belongs. It never was a stand-alone methodology, and that’s why it subsided so thoroughly from the one-time high prominence.
     In a roughly similar way, the acceptance of Agile is endangered by the hype we’re getting from some of its enthusiasts. Agile cannot, all by itself, do what project management does. It isn’t meant to.
     Agile is an excellent execution form when a project calls for creative invention amid great complexity and uncertainty – and the situation is suitable for frequent small-scale deliverables. The teams produce identifiable results in brief spurts of intense activity.
     The end user, and everyone else, sees what has been produced in each iteration, and is heard in the preparation for the next. Each iteration is built somewhat on the brand-new results from its predecessor. There is plentiful communication and full participation.
     Who can quarrel with all that? I don’t.

     In us-vs.-them scenario, though, there is a tendency to describe the currently conventional project management method as fully locked into initial assumptions and intentions.
     The methodology – called “waterfall” – is incorrectly seen as rigid and unresponsive, grinding along the predetermined route and ignoring variances and unforeseen circumstances.
     The customer finds out at the end, in this perception, what he/she is getting. A very not-good thing.
     What is described that way is bad management, not waterfall management. No competent project manager would direct such an operation, regardless of the method.   
     Effective project management always has included and enforced frequent consultation among the key stakeholders, with modifications resulting when necessary.
     Even if the initial discussions ‘way back at the beginning were complete and the decisions mutually accepted, any project manager knows how frequent – and sometimes sweeping – the changes can be as you decide your way through the complexities and uncertainties of a good-sized project.
     I will be learning more about Agile, and I expect to gain additional insights into its value in tuning up the standard. Project management has never stood still in the 30 years I've known it, and it’s whirring quite nicely in the current environment.

     So, welcome to the project management family, Agile. You’re not the heir – because no one has passed from the scene – but we’re all going to do so much better because you’re one of us now.

1 comment:

  1. Hi , I am pondering over attending any PMP prep course / PMP classes to get PMP credentials. What are your thoughts? Would that be worth the money spent professionally?

    ReplyDelete