Zen and the Art of Projects

In 1976 a American professor called Richard M. Pirsig published his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a massive hit around the world.

It’s a simple tale by the professor who takes his son on a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California. But the underlying theme is about the philosophy of quality. An investigation into what quality is and how it can be defined. That is somewhat more complex.

It’s All About Quality

Luckily for us project guys the definition of quality is not so ethereal or elusive as Mr. Pirsig imagined. He discussed the qualities of life, we only have to concern ourselves with the quality of a project.

I’ve found that Quality Assurance is not given its due status in the project world. I had a pretty casual relationship with it myself. And that was because I didn’t understand what it was really for. I didn’t understand (back then) that the Quality of what we were building was the most important part of the project.

Yes the project could be on time, under-budget with a great HSE record. But if it didn’t do what it was paid to do then all our efforts were for nothing.

To me quality was all about dye-pen testing and tracking the origins of steel and sifting through vendor documents, it was quality control. But its higher calling is to ensure that the project produces an end-product that is of the quality expected by the people who paid for it.

To understand that we have to go back to the Contract and the Specification.

Let’s say we’re going to build a water-treatment plant. The specification tells us what the water-in will probably be like and what the water-out needs to look like. Usually a range of values, upper and lower specifications. The design talks about the volumes of water to be processed, the temperatures and so on.

Quality is engineering, procuring, constructing and commissioning a water-treatment plant that delivers the required volume of water within the specification range demanded. And it has to keep doing it for its entire life-cycle.

Producing a plant that is of a lower quality or a higher quality is not what’s been paid for. The plant either doesn’t produce the right specification of water (lower quality) or it is too expensive (higher quality).

The old adage that you don’t expect a Rolls-Royce when you pay for a Ford kicks-in here. Conversely you didn’t pay for a Rolls-Royce for a Ford to turn up at your door either.

In our world Quality is not subjective, its a hard target.

If you’re interested in the quality of life, read the book – it’s still relevant. The road trip is engrossing, and disturbing.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Ends.