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Quality Engineering, Planning & Strategy
Is Crosby’s “Quality Is Free” Still Useful In Modern QA?

It is useful to review the practices of quality professionals from earlier eras to see what we can learn and what it tells us about how we work. I led a workshop for The QA Lead on the ideas of W. Edwards Deming in 2021, and below I will review the work of Philip B. Crosby.

Crosby was Director of Quality at ITT and he argued that quality is free because the costs of improving quality will be more than met by reducing the Cost of Quality. Crosby also created a program to improve quality called “Zero Defects”, the cost of which would be more than covered by the costs of poor quality. He is also known for his book Quality is Free, in which he explained these ideas.

The Cost of Quality 

In defining The Cost Quality, Crosby shows how much poor quality costs businesses and so shows how programmes to improve quality can save the company money and increase profits. He says that the Cost of Quality is made up of a number of ingredients. He was writing about manufacturing and included the following ingredients: scrap, rework, service, engineering changes, purchase order changes in the Cost of Quality. The ingredients he lists easily relate to items that software engineers deal with today:

  • Scrap is rather like unfinished work
  • Rework, this is like fixing bugs
  • Service, this is customer service time
  • Engineering change, is similar to refactoring
  • Purchase order changes, is like customer churn

And an ingredient representing fixing incidents in production could be added to the list of ingredients of the Cost of Quality. The Cost of Quality really represents the cost of poor quality.

That it is so easy to relate to the ingredients that Crosby wrote about in the 1970’s shows how powerful the concept of the Cost of Quality is. If a company can improve its quality, it can reduce the costs of the ingredients and so reduce its costs. There is also a cost of each of the ingredients in terms of time as well as money. Improving quality will also save time, for example reducing the amount of time spent on bug fixing will save development time.

Today we would be more likely to express the Cost of Quality in time more than in money, as fixing bugs uses up development time that could be spent creating new features. The Cost of Quality shows the cost of poor quality, which makes it possible to argue that “Quality is Free”.

Crosby’s Quality Improvement Programme

Crosby had a 14-point quality improvement programme called “Zero Defects”. It is useful to consider how the points in the programme can help an engineering team today.

Point 1: Management Commitment

Crosby says that this point is “To make clear where management stands on quality”. He stresses the importance of management having a commitment to quality and that this should be expressed by writing a formal quality policy.

Managers easily express support for quality but committing to quality is more demanding as it should include them understanding the processes to improve quality. It would be more useful if this commitment was expressed in developing their understanding of quality, for example by studying quality.

If management does not have this understanding, they may fail to help the company to improve quality as problems occur. Everyone at the company will be influenced by the level of commitment that management has.

Crosby wrote, “Workers are like a mirror. The reflection you see is your own”. Management commitment is also important for success because problems will be encountered and if managers understand how to improve the quality they will be able to support their teams in improving quality. 

Point 2: Quality Improvement Team

A Quality Improvement Team should be recruited “to run the quality improvement programme”. Crosby says that this should be a part-time role except for the chairperson.

In manufacturing this may have been a good way to organise for quality, however lean and agile development teams have a flatter structure. Having a separate quality improvement team places quality outside the normal line of management which could lead to it not having as much weight as day to day issues. It also takes responsibilities for quality improvement away from the engineering teams. Quality improvement, for lean and agile teams, is more likely to succeed if it is at the heart of what the team does and so should be part of the team's responsibilities.

Point 3: Quality Measurement

Quality measurement is needed “to provide a display of current and potential non conformance problems in a manner that permits objective evaluation and corrective action”.

A team needs to know where it is in relation to quality and quality measurement can help a team in that regard. If the metrics are imposed on a team or used to criticize rather than support the team metrics can cause discontent. It is important that metrics are seen by the team as being supportive of their goals as if they feel that they are being judged a team can become defensive. 

Point 4: The Cost of Quality

It is useful to evaluate the cost of quality as this will define the ingredients of the cost of quality for the teams that you are working with. Every company is in a different situation and it will be useful to evaluate its cost of quality. You may find that this company has a lot of unfinished work or that it spends a lot of time fixing bugs. The costs of quality that are identified are those that the company can work to reduce.

Knowing their cost of quality will also help motivate the team as the concept of The Cost of Quality then will become a practical thing for them to change for the better. 

Point 5: Quality Awareness

Crosby advocates meetings between management and staff and a publicity campaign as a “method of raising the personal concern felt by all personnel in the company toward the conformance of the product or service and the quality of the product or service and the quality reputation of the company.”

This method of raising quality awareness is to show that quality is important to the company but it separates quality from other activities. It would be more useful to discuss quality in the context of work that is in progress so that quality can be built-in or to consider what can be learnt about quality when something has failed.

Point 6: Corrective Action

Corrective action is “to provide a systematic method of resolving forever the problems that are identified through previous action steps.” Crosby advocates regular meetings between managers to resolve problems that have been detected.

Software engineers are motivated professionals and, instead of managers considering unresolved problems, it would be more effective to re-interpret this point to empower engineering teams to learn from defects and take corrective action that creates solutions to the issues.

Point 7: Zero Defects Planning

Crosby says that you should examine the various activities that must be conducted in preparation for formally launching the zero-defects programme. Any initiative to improve quality will need planning. According to point 7, the planning needs to cover explaining the concept of the programme and take into account the “cultural environment of your particular organisation”.

Point 8: Supervisor Training

This is “to define the type of training that supervisors need in order to actively carry out their part of the quality improvement programme”. A supervisor would have been the first line in management, would have supervised the work of staff and reported to a manager. We may no longer have staff with the title of supervisor but people with leadership roles such as scrum masters, product owners, and test leads will probably need training in order to better support a quality initiative. This point is to provide for training for supervisors but not for management or team members. Quality is management's responsibility and management needs training too.

In a lean or agile team, all staff would benefit from training as they all contribute to quality. Training needs to be lifelong learning as we always have things to learn and creating a culture of lifelong learning will raise the abilities and knowledge of all employees. Continuously developing skills and knowledge is an activity that all staff need to embrace as developing themselves enables us to help our teams improve quality.

Point 9: ZD Day

A Zero Defects program starts with an “event that will let all employees realise through a personal experience that there has been a change”. The example in the book “Quality is Free” includes every employee signing a pledge “to do my job right the first time” and being given an “I’m for quality” badge. This places responsibility on the employees without giving them agency and so is not going to create a positive reaction that improves quality. 

Point 10: Goal Setting

Goal setting is to turn pledges and commitments into action by encouraging individuals to establish improvement goals for themselves and their groups. A better way to ask teams to improve quality would be to help teams to improve continually as setting a goal means that once the goal has been reached the team has succeeded and does not need to improve further. 

Creating a culture of continual improvement would be a better way to achieve improvements in quality than setting goals...

Point 11: Error-Cause Removal

This is “to give the individual employee a method of communicating to management the situations that make it difficult for the employee to meet the pledge to improve”. This empowers staff to raise issues in order to improve quality and Crosby states that every error that cause removal action should be praised. 

In an agile or lean software development team, error-cause removal could be even more powerful as staff should be able to take many actions to remove causes of errors without needing the prior approval of a manager.

Employees experience the quality of the product during their work and will have suggestions as to how to improve quality. Error-cause removal would be powerful if staff were empowered to take action themselves to improve quality without the need to ask management.

Point 12: Recognition

Recognition of those who participate in the program, whether it be by public praise or by an award, is really powerful. Crosby points out that people don't really work for money, there are other factors that we value such as appreciation. It is possible to engage people in a programme to improve quality by giving recognition for their contribution, this can help create a culture of quality which is so important in improving quality.

Point 13: Quality Councils

Crosby says that there should be a Quality Council that aims to bring together the professional quality people for planned communication on a regular basis. If there are a number of testers working in a company, it is useful to bring them together in a Community of Practice to share ideas and problems. Testers can support and learn from each other if they meet regularly.

Point 14: Do It All Over Again

Quality improvement is a continuous activity and Crosby says that you should “do it all over again” in order “to emphasise that the quality programme never ends”. Crosby talks about changing the manager who leads the plan for the second year. This may have been the correct approach in manufacturing but in a lean or agile development team, the team should own the quality of their work and therefore own the plan.

This step turns the programme into a cycle. The programme would also benefit from creating learning cycles from error cause removal and corrective action so that each time an error cause has been removed the knowledge gained is shared across the teams so it can be used in planning in the future to improve quality.

Conclusions

Crosby’s ideas are a case of the glass being half full. The concept of the Cost of Quality is a useful tool to quantify the cost of poor quality. Identifying the Cost of Quality provides a way of arguing that “quality is free” and can help persuade people in a company to support quality improvement. 

His 14-point programme, however, is not so useful today. Many of the points in the programme need updating to work for lean and agile teams and do not give teams agency to improve quality. The most useful point is the creation of Quality Councils to bring together quality professionals. The quality improvement programme would also benefit greatly from there being psychological safety in the company as this will enable employees to ask questions and raise issues without fear of repercussions. Management should strive to ensure employees feel safe psychologically at work. This is not one of Crosby’s 14 points.

When I led a workshop about the work of W. Edwards Deming, I found that all his ideas are useful today, whereas Crosby should be remembered for his argument that Quality is Free, not his programme. 

Related Read: AGILE VS DEVOPS: WHICH SHOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY

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By Mike Harris

Mike has been working in testing for 20 years and is currently the tester for Geckoboard . He has been a member of a test team, a Solo Tester, and a Test Lead. He has also worked as a part of waterfall, lean and agile teams. Mike has a B.Sc.(HONS) from Middlesex University and is an Associate of the University of Hertfordshire. He has set up and led a Testing Community of Practice and been part of a successful agile transition. He is also Programme Secretary of the British Computer Society’s Specialist Interest Group in Software Testing. He also contributed to the e-book Testing Stories and has had articles published by the Ministry of Testing. In his spare time, he coaches his daughter’s cricket team Mike has a blog at TestandAnalysis.com. Follow Mike on Twitter: @TestAndAnalysis

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