Defining and measuring project quality

Using a standardized methodology to define project quality ensures deliverables fit customer specifications and receive high customer satisfaction when managing projects.


Figure 1: Quality issues must be addressed during all phases of a project from the start through final customer turn-over. Courtesy: Huffman EngineeringUsing a standardized methodology to define project quality ensures deliverables are fit for their intended purpose with high customer satisfaction.

Quality is often described in vague terms that are difficult, if not impossible, to make quantitative measurements. Quality is apparent to the customer, especially when lacking, but what exactly is quality? Quality may have different meanings to various project stakeholders, and it's important to figure out what that meaning is for each.

The idea of quality, on the surface, is abstract, ambiguous and difficult to define and measure. Measuring and managing quality in the context of project-based work further complicates matters as individual projects are often unique making it difficult to develop a set of criteria to measure against.

Project quality relies on identification of the customers and of their requirements. At the early phases of a project, requirements might be vague and unmeasurable. As the project progresses, requirements must be refined into specifications that are measurable. The definition of quality as it relates to the project should be determined up front and well-defined with customer input so that at the end of the project the customers perceive the deliverables as being high quality.

Defining quality

To manage project quality, it is imperative to understand what quality is and how it relates to the project. Joseph M. Juran, widely-held to be the father of quality, defined quality as "fitness for use" which was later revised to "fitness for purpose" in the 6th edition of "Juran's Quality Handbook." Juran also emphasized two components of quality that are critical to managing it: features that meet customer needs and freedom from failures.

In the context of project quality, it is important to meet the customer's needs while not "gold plating" the deliverables with expensive features that add little or no value to the customer. The Project Management Institute defines quality as "the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills requirements." While it is important not to gold plate the deliverables, it is also important not to simply meet the bare minimum of requirements as specified in the project contract. Kenneth Rose, author of "Project Quality Management: Why, What and How," describes a simple set of statements related to project specifications:

  • If you don't meet the specifications, you are in breach.
  • If you want to complete the current contract, meet the contract specifications.
  • If you want to win the next contract, meet or exceed the customer's expectations.

Exceeding the minimum requirements is important so the customer is satisfied. However, this must be done in a way that exceeding the project requirements adds value to the customer and not adding features that won't benefit them. 

Quality assurance versus quality control

Quality assurance and quality control are terms that are often used interchangeably but have different meanings. Quality assurance focuses on the process and preventing defects before they occur. Quality control focuses on the products and identifying  and correcting defects after they have been produced.

Another way to compare the two is that quality assurance is performed by people that need to understand the quality of a product but are external to the production. Quality control is performed by those responsible for producing the product.

Understanding the customers of a project is very important when trying to define quality as it relates to a project. The most obvious customer of a project is the person or organization that is paying the bills. However, this is often not the only customer.

Customers can include multiple organizations and multiple people within each of those organizations. The client commissioning the project is often different from the end user for the project. Regulatory bodies are also customers as applicable requirements that apply to the project have to be met. Some customers may be difficult to identify for a project as some may not be readily apparent or may not appear to later on in the project.

The cost of project quality

Quality is often misunderstood as an additional cost to the project, which is incorrect. When quality is integral to the project from the beginning, the time required to maintain quality is covered by the savings produced.

For quality to produce savings, it is important that it is included in the project from the beginning. If quality is ignored during a project, the defects will be discovered at the end of the project by the customer. (See Figure 1). Letting defects exist to this point are not only very costly to correct, but can cause extreme damage to reputation.

Often, quality is thought of as a process that occurs at the end of a project prior to shipping or turning over a product. Discovering defects during the testing /inspection phase is better than letting the customer find them, however, this still results in costly rework to correct the defects.

Identifying and correcting defects during the implementation phase of the project is an improvement, but may result in some degree of rework. Ideally, quality plans are created upfront during the specification/design phase of the project. At this phase of the project, correcting potential defects produces the least amount of additional cost and rework.

For quality, there is a rule known as the 1:10:100 rule that explains this concept: what costs $1 to correct in the specification and design phase would cost $10 to correct in the implementation phase and $100 to correct in the testing and inspection phase. During the project's customer turnover phase, the cost of a dissatisfied customer or damaged reputation is impossible to measure. 

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