Improving Quality with out Six Sigma

While Six Sigma is a good quality program it requires a large commitment in time and resources.  Not all organizations are willing to make such a large up front commitment.  However this does not mean that the IT department must abandon any attempt to improve quality.  Peer Reviews are a quality technique that is easily implemented with minimal costs and which can substantially improve the quality of both systems and services.

Peer reviews work on the principles that multiple sets of eyes are better then one and that the earlier an error is found in the development process the cheaper it is to fix.  A peer review is the review of a piece of work (design document, process flow, business procedure, etc.) by a peer group.  The key here is Peer Group; management is not involved with the review.  Management is excluded to prevent the review from being perceived as a performance appraisal.  

The peer review group includes a presenter, who is not the originator of the work.  The presenter presents the work to the group, not the originator of the work.  This helps to separate the originator’s personality from the work and from the review.  There should be at least two reviewers in addition to the originator and presenter at a peer review but not more then four.  To large a review group meets with the laws of diminishing returns. 

The point of the review is to suggest ways the work can be improved.  The results of the review do not have to be shared with management but can be reviewed with management if changes have to be prioritized or if the group cannot reach a consensus. 

Preparing for the review requires the originator to document his work and to review it with the presenter.  This first step has two benefits.  First the originator is forced to document his work, for with out a document to review their can be no peer review.  Just the act of putting his thoughts on paper can help the originator to identify errors. Second the originator is forced to explain his work to some one else, the presenter.  This second step requires the originator to verify that his document makes sense to some one else.

The presenter then presents the work to the review group.  The review group then suggests areas where the work can be improved.  In addition to improving the work under review the review process has a side benefit.  That benefit is a greater understanding in the organization about what each group is doing.  To maximize this effect you should try to pull your review groups from as broad an audience a possible.  This may appear counter intuitive, don’t you want your experts in the field to review the work?  No, your expert in the field is most likely the originator; the point of a peer review is to explain what you are doing to some one from “out side the box”.  Expanding your review group offers different perspectives on the work under review and can prevent “group think”.

Having ones work reviewed can be stressful, particularly when the originator has a lot vested in the work.  To mitigate some of that stress peer review sessions are scheduled along inch pebbles instead of milestones.  An inch pebble is a smaller more manageable piece of work.  A peer review should only take half an hour so the amount of work presented should be consistent with a half hour review.  The idea here is that the smaller the amount of work under review the less vested the originator is in the work and the more open he will be to the suggestions of the review group. 

The concept of inch pebbles also ties back into the idea of finding flaws early.  More frequent reviews ensure that problems are corrected as early as possible and at the lowest possible cost.

Still peer reviews can devolve into faultfinding missions.  To keep a positive atmosphere it is essential that management continue to reinforce the fact that peer reviews are not about assigning blame but are about improving product and process.  It is a good idea to spend some money and have an outsider do the initial peer review training.  Using an outsider helps to reinforce that peer reviews are about improving quality and not about appraising performance.

Peer reviews do not have to be limited to large projects.  For example for quick program fixes I implemented a “second set of eyes” rule.  Under this rule no changes could be turned over into production with out the originator explaining the change to a peer and having that peer sign off on the change. 

This process did several things.  First it ensured that the originator had thought through the change sufficiently to explain it to some one else.  Some times just the act of having to explain some thing to some one else can reveal a flaw.  Second it provided the originator with a different point of view on the problem and solution. Third it ensured that a second person knew what was being done.  If the change created a problem in production and the originator was not available there was at least one other person who knew what had been done and why. 

This “second set of eyes rule” greatly reduced follow on problems from program fixes.  Of course the point of peer reviews is to eliminate problems before they reach production and as the group used the peer review process we also noticed a marked reduction in production problems.

The simple framework of peer reviews can have a substantial effect on a department’s quality with out having to implement a full Six Sigma program.  If you look at quality improvement as a journey implementing peer reviews can be a first step.  Once you have realized some success with peer reviews it should become easer to sell the organization on a larger quality program such as Six Sigma.