A few years ago I had a conversation with Niels Malotaux, who spends a lot of time promoting the idea of “zero defects”. I was asking how he achieved this, and he said something like, “I just tell my teams they mustn’t produce any defects.” I was utterly baffled by this, and I couldn’t think of much else to say to explore it. I think I might have said, “And that actually works, does it?” to which he said, “Yes.” That definitely ended the conversation.
This didn’t make sense to me. Just telling people to not make mistakes seems like an implausible way to eliminate them. Surely if that worked everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they?
So when I saw him again a few weeks ago, rather than repeating the same fruitless conversation, I downloaded and read one of his papers—paper #3, “Optimizing the Contribution of Testing to Project Success” [pdf]. In that paper Niels is very specific, and I had the opportunity to re-read sections carefully.
In summary, Niels does tell his teams that he won’t accept any defects. But he backs it up with actions. If testing demonstrates there are defects then he doesn’t let them add any more features or expand the product until the defects are removed and continued testing reveals no more. This is can be pretty brutal for the team, but eventually they realise he’s serious and work out actions that allow them to develop the product in a zero-defect manner.
There are a couple of additional important aspects to this which make it work. First, he can do this. As with all significant changes in working practices, any impacted stakeholders need to support these kinds of actions. And so the team is given the time and space to learn. Second, when they ask for help, Niels has some useful techniques to help the team achieve the goal. I have worked in an environment where the team’s boss told them what he wanted without giving them any support; when they asked for help and didn’t get it morale took a nosedive (and they didn’t produce what he wanted).
There are some lessons here about zero defects. But there’s a greater lesson, too, about achieving something through saying it. It’s not just by saying it, but saying it is a critical first step; then to insist on it, and showing you mean it, makes people take notice and ask seriously about how they can achieve it; having a strategy to achieve it is the next critical step to making it a reality.