Businessperson checks star-levels of quality culture while holding a tablet
iStock/Sakorn Sukkasemsakorn

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Software is indispensable for modern business, and software quality has become an issue that determines the survival of a company—any company. But where does quality come from?

Quality culture.

Engineers have long debated quality culture. After all, there are many contours—some tied to just testing, some to the organization, some to strategy.

But before diving into the debate of how to achieve and maintain quality, it’s important to understand what “quality” means in the first place.

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QC2QC: The True Test of Quality

The term “quality” is ambiguous and full of meaning–use it carefully. Even among engineers (with the exception of those who have studied total quality management, or TQM), few consider what it truly means. Many quality engineers use the word indiscriminately, thinking that all they need to do to improve quality is test a product.

However, I have long believed that quality is not limited to the durability of or customer satisfaction with the final product. It’s critical that we also look at the quality of the people and organizations that make the software.

This is how I came up with the concept “QC2QC”: quality control to quality culture.

Quality Control

Quality control has been a factor in development since the Industrial Revolution, particularly nineteenth-century England. It involves testing products against a set of fairly universal standards to find defects based on statistics.

But for a quality control plan to work, the business environment must be stable, and manufacturing operations manual. This is how Japanese manufacturing companies have controlled quality to provide many of the best products.

However, this is an age of VUCA—historically, the global business environment has rarely been more unstable. More and more companies are having to conceive their products and quality standards from scratch. That requires quality culture.

Quality Culture

Quality culture is how quality is talked about within an organization—what Ronald Cummings-John and Owais Peer, authors of Leading Quality, refer to as the “quality narrative.”

Quality-related discussions, when recognized as a part of culture, can have a huge impact on many aspects of business. They can even guide decision-making.

In many startups developing apps (typically a minimum viable product, or MVP), the product is released as fast as possible—quality comes later. On the other hand, in large projects (typically scaled projects), priority goes to software quality and maintainability. In each of these scenarios, there is a different quality culture that evolves as the organizational strategy and product matures.

Strategy: Creating Value Inside Your Company

Have you ever wondered why certain companies are more successful than others? The answer is strategy: internal processes that control costs, allocate resources, and create value. This course from GLOBIS Unlimited can give you the tools you need for that strategic edge.

Quality culture defines the approach to quality control in a company. Even if they don’t realize it, all companies have a quality culture—even if it’s poor or unconsciously maintained.

To grow your organization’s quality culture so it’s suitable for your organization and products, the first step is to depict your quality culture.

How Quality Culture Fits into Organizational Culture

Quality culture follows organizational culture.

Consider a company that leaves software testing to vendors and focuses only on manufacturing and selling the product. In such an organization, the business would focus on coming up with great features, developing sales channels, etc. The employees are likely to be product development and sales professionals.

How much do employees in such an organization care about quality? The answer depends on the quality culture of the organization—not the business model.

In a strong quality culture, employees will take the lead in software testing, look for defects, and work to prevent recurrence. They’ll be highly focused on iteration and improvement. In a weaker quality culture, on the other hand, all anyone wants to do is fix the defects that are reported.

To modify quality culture, you need to modify organizational culture, too. That comes down to organizational strategy.

Infographic showing how quality culture fits into organizational culture
©GLOBIS

Why Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Culture and strategy are interdependent. That’s why most organizations also try to foster a culture that corresponds to strategy.

Consider a typical contract software developer with a steady stream of work from large corporations. It might seem like hard skills are the most important criteria for engineers in such a company. In fact, software development outsourcing companies typically think like this and hire engineers who are not in the habit of thinking for themselves. (This is very common in Japan, and one of the greatest weaknesses of the Japanese outsourcing business.)

However, a smart organizational strategy prioritizes alignment with company goals and missions first. Such a team of employees creates an organizational culture with great stability, no matter the industry.

Peter F. Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As management, it’s easy to get so focused on strategy that we forget about culture. But Drucker pointed out that if you neglect culture building, then strategy is nothing more than a figment of your imagination.

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Infographic showing the connections between organizational culture and quality culture, as well as organizational strategy and quality strategy
©GLOBIS

Contours of Quality Culture

The link between quality culture and organizational strategy is not to be ignored. In light of this, there are three things company leaders should keep in mind:

1. Organizational culture defines quality culture.

As mentioned, no matter how much you improve your quality culture, it will never overtake your organizational culture.

2. Organizational strategy sets the limits and scope for quality culture.

This is a challenge that highly motivated quality engineers often struggle with. They try to make their quality culture better, but they can’t go as far as they want—the limits of the organizational strategy stop them. Thus, understanding the organizational strategy is absolutely necessary.

3. Development of a quality strategy is the key.

A quality engineer who can plan the right strategy has the potential to transform the organization. Becoming such an engineer requires training—such as an MBA—to instill the processes of strategy development and the skills to drive it forward.

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Engineers and Leadership in the QC2QC Age

Modern business is very complex, and there’s a lot of room for engineers to contribute—especially when it comes to quality. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

On the engineer side, there are several big-picture aspects to consider when it comes to fostering a quality culture. In particular, organizational culture and organizational strategy can feel like barriers if you don’t understand how they fit into quality. That’s why business education can come in very handy.

On the leadership side, it’s important to understand that quality is no longer something only engineers and developers need to think about. Just as engineers can put in an effort to study MBA topics, business leaders can learn a lot about quality mindset from studying technology.

In the end, both sides should learn to understand the other’s priorities and motivations. Don’t try to control quality first—you have to cultivate the proper quality culture together. Only then can organizations achieve their own quality for employee and user satisfaction.

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