Is Project Quality Management Your Cup of Coffee?

This article is from a year ago, we had published on our previous blog site. We are re-publishing on this blog site.

It is amazing how a coincidence of events can spark new ideas. Or more precisely, throw a new light that sparks a deeper understanding of a long known concept.


Luc Bauwmans | SUKAD Champion Racer

This week I am facilitating a PMP preparation class. The hotel was overbooked so after our first day in a temporary venue we were moved today to our “permanent” home in the conference area. The new room is bigger and more comfortable, however there is one drawback: it does not have the espresso machine we were enjoying yesterday.

Now I am, euphemistically speaking, rather particular about my coffee, and the dubious black liquid that was offered today in the heated container that bore the “coffee” label did not in the least meet my expectations. So, after lunch I was desperate for a good cup and asked if I could get a helping from the espresso machine. To my delight my wish was granted so I narrowed down my specification: I wanted a “long” espresso (from the Italian “Un espresso lungo”), i.e. double the amount of water pressure-fed (as opposed to mixed in the cup as with americano or long black) through a single espresso dose of coffee.

I knew the machine only had two selection buttons: one with a small cup and one with a bigger cup. I wanted the bigger cup. A simple enough instruction I thought, and happy at the prospect of enjoying at least one perfect cup, I went back to class.

Now it so happened that this afternoon’s topic was project quality management. We started discussing various tools and concepts, one of them being the notion of “gold plating”, which means giving a customer more that is required. This is seen as bad project management as it wastes resources to no avail of the project outcome, and hence, contrary to what many may expect, quality is not achieved.

Quality management has also become one of my favourite topics after (finally) reading and understanding Dr. Edwards Demings’ “Out of the crisis”. This book has literally changed my way of thinking, not just about quality management but about management and leadership in general. Dr. Deming has posthumously rocketed to the top 5 on my list of great thinkers of all times. Inadvertently he exposes large inconsistencies in many other management theories and quality movements. His logic is disarmingly simple, but it is of a simplicity that betrays a lifelong journey through the labyrinth of life’s complexities. I can only hope that I may ever reach such clarity of thought.[1]

While I was sharing some of these thoughts with the group, a knock on the door signalled the arrival of my coffee. It looked strong so I confirmed it was a “lungo” and not a double or a “doppio”. I was reassured it was to my specification and the waiter left the room. I mixed the sugar while I continued to speak, and gave it two minutes to cool down. When I finally tasted, it turned out to be a double espresso.

My excitement turned to gloom. An old wound started to bleed again. What had gone wrong, why could they not follow an instruction as simple as “push the button with the big cup”?

Rationalising the possible causes that led to this quality defect I could come up with two high probabilities: the first one being my instruction not being understood (I should have confirmed), or much worse, my message was understood but the waiter was trying to “please” me by making it a double. He was trying to gold plate my order. The thing is, a double espresso uses twice the coffee in the same amount of water and is way too strong for my taste, and contains more caffeine and coffee oils than is good for me.

All of a sudden, my understanding of gold plating was rammed home by a protesting stomach and churning liver. Where I had previously classified it as a mild misdemeanour, albeit unethical as it is misusing stakeholders’ resources, it was now firmly moved to the brain cells that contain straightforward project failures. Not only did I not prefer a “doppio”, I simply can’t drink it.

As a matter of fact I cannot remember if indeed I have ever received a perfect “lungo” in the past three and a half years. Admittedly I do not patronise every coffee outlet, and there are a few places that do a nice “piccolo Americano” for which I am prepared to settle, if it is served in the stone cup (coffee tastes better in porcelain though) and not in the paper one, which contains almost double the volume. If only paper cups are available, I sometimes ask for a half cup, but then I see the barista forgetting, filling a full cup and then pouring out half. Those are not my best days.

On one occasion in a restaurant I asked the Maître d’, who appeared Italian, and we waxed lyrically about the elusive “lungo”. He understood, and I had finally found a home I thought, yet to my utter disappointment, a doppio was delivered to my table instead and the Maître d’ had gone off shift.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that most barista here are not coffee drinkers, in which case they would not understand the delicate balance of coffee and water. Perhaps there is the belief out there that the stronger the coffee, the happier the customer. Perhaps it is simply a lack of awareness, easily remedied by some training. There is a coffee and barista training institute in Dubai that would solve these problems forever against the investment of one day’s time, and yet, we can’t seem to get it right. With all the bravura and equipment at our disposal we still struggle.

There is no use blaming the barista. As Dr. Deming said, over 90% of variation is inherent in the system and is outside the control of the worker. If there are assignable causes we need to find and eliminate them of course, but contradictory to other quality theories, this is not where our quality improvement efforts end. It is where they begin.

Because if we can’t get a simple cup of coffee delivered to our table to our liking, one can’t help wondering where else we must fail miserably…

[1] A sentiment that echoes Peter Senge’s in P. Senge, “The fifth discipline”, introduction to the revised edition, Doubleday, 2006.