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Striving for quality has real payoffs

By Al Kuebler
April 20, 2010 11:19 AM ET

Computerworld - Do you think that your life as an IT manager is stressful and intense? Try applying for a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (NQA) and you'll know what real stress and intensity are.

That's a serious suggestion, though: Try applying for one. But only if you've done all the groundwork to really prepare you for the scrutiny you'll receive. It's doing the groundwork, and getting your organization aligned with the quality precepts on which the NQA is judged, that makes the entire process worthwhile. I guarantee that it will benefit your organization in profound ways.

Quality chart

My initial experience with the NQA was a bit unusual, but I think it does nonetheless demonstrate that IT quality initiatives have real payback.

I'd long been a CIO for various enterprises and institutions. Although IT service quality had always been a concern throughout my IT management career, I'd been unable to establish a definition of it that I was happy with. Sure, I had some general guidelines for overall results. For example, I summed up optimal network performance as "always available, with no single point of failure." For computer services: "always available, response times of two seconds or less." For application development: "on time, as specified and at the agreed cost."

As for more in-depth quality measures, well, the works of Deming and Crosby were enlightening, but their principles were meant for the reduction of defects in products. Cross-walking them to the reduction of IT service failures usually left me with more questions than answers.

Then I joined a start-up business, and all that changed. The CEO made it clear that he had something very different in mind for his new company and his CIO. His company would be organized, built and operated around the NQA performance measures. As for his CIO, efficient IT service delivery would be required. More importantly, though, I would have the responsibility of ensuring that every business function in the firm had the information it needed to make ever better decisions for the customer, and to make them ever quicker.

While I was still interviewing, the CEO asked me if I'd ever done this kind of thing before. No, I told him. "Do you know how to do it?" "Not yet." I must have sounded ready and willing to learn, because he hired me.

But what had I gotten myself into? I was used to being responsible for the delivery of IT services, but now I would be judged on how well the business performed using the information that my function provided. That information had to be effective in terms of improving the strategic performance of the business.

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