Is Your QA Manager Named Michonne?

Friday, April 24, 2020

#Automotive SPICE    #Quality

Sometimes the Quality Assurance (QA) Leader helps to make an organization great by instilling quality as a top priority. And other times, the QA Manager becomes a wandering, ineffective annoyance since he’s only been armed with enough to stumble through the proverbial forest. Which is it for your org? Here are some good clues where we’ll use the character Michonne Hawthorne and the zombies from the legendary series, The Walking Dead, as an allegory for the better and lesser solutions respectively. Seeing as a couple of weeks ago we witnessed that series’s final episode for the character ranked #86 on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heroes, this is a compliment to her character’s tenacity and a reminder of how extraordinary it is to succeed if not armed properly.  So let’s ask three key questions to determine if your QA Manager is like Michonne:

Question #1: Are the QA Minions Only There to Throw Off the Scent?

In the TV series version of The Walking Dead, the long-anticipated arrival of Michonne occurs in Season Two’s finale during an upheaval where Michonne appears unexpectedly accompanied by her two chained “walkers” (a.k.a. zombies). These undead creatures have been tamed by removing their arms and lower jaws, which not only prevents any dangerous attack mode, but it simultaneously truncates their [un]natural aggression. Among several reasons to have such impotent minions is the most brilliant one: their very presence or scent fools the other mindless, attacking walkers into believing everything is fine. 

This invisibility frequently can be true of Quality Assurance (QA) engineers and, in fact, the truth may even be invisible to them. They were told they were hired to improve the final quality, but weren’t empowered with authority or resources to make any significant impact. They can certainly measure the effectiveness of testing or inspection procedures, but the silent truth eventually becomes apparent: they are only there to throw off the scent. Do no harm. Tick the box. They are reporters to managers, customers, etc. to specifically make it appear as if quality shall be assured but, in reality, that was never going to happen. Defects are found and possibly escalated, but releases must happen per the original schedule and “we don’t have time to improve processes”, therein, quality ends up being what it was: mediocre. Best case is the QA team is superficial; worst case they slow down the team with worthless audits.

They were decoys … and likely scapegoats.

Question #2: Is the QA Army Untrained?

The walkers (a.k.a. zombies) have no special skills and wander about brainlessly. Even those that have been captured have not been trained to do any extra tasks, nor are they engaging with the protagonist’s team to accomplish anything. Conversely, Michonne not only has superior warrior training, but she learns leadership over time with the guidance of several other survivors.

Maybe this analogy is slightly harsh to most QA engineers since they are typically intelligent, degreed employees, but the fundamental premise is still somewhat accurate: some QA teams have not been trained on the technology, the tasks of the team, and how to navigate management or politics. For those teams they may have measurements — which are typically accomplished from afar without intimate knowledge and helpfulness – but woeful ignorance makes the development team shun them.

Conversely, the heroes help the team make tough decisions that positively impact quality as part of the process. That means confidently shutting down rogues on the team attempting to shortcut a daily activity, or defend against “The Governor(s)” focused on short-term, possibly self-serving objectives rather than upholding quality processes.  The QA leader that’s trained and practiced – both in hard skills and soft skills – will be equipped to overcome the unexpected.

Question #3: Is There a Co-Owned Strategy or Direction?

In the comics and TV series, the walkers have no input into the groups’ strategies, nor do they have a true strategy or direction of their own. They are separated from the strategic leaders, yanked around occasionally, trusted for nothing, and are redirected by a noise or distraction in the dystopian world. In the end, if a group of the living thrive, it’s because they have intrinsic motivation and strategy.

What’s interesting in both the TV series and the real world: Even the living who wander without strategy and are silently separated from the team fail. The QA managers instilling a higher-level approach and embedding quality strategies inside the teams succeed; in part because they’re seen as trusted advisers. The common goal is not a cliché, but rather it’s truly a mantra of “better product quality”.

Doing an analysis of the Automotive SPICE Assessments conducted by Kugler Maag Cie on three continents over the past nine (9) years shows a shocking difference between the zombies and the living. For organizations that scored a zero (0) on Quality Assurance (i.e. “No QA strategy in place and/or not following it.”) every other engineering and project management process was statistically significantly lower than those who scored a one (1) in Quality Assurance. In other words, if there was well-oiled QA team, everyone else upped their game. In theory, that should be causational — the QA leader shone a light on weaknesses to a co-owned strategy. Or arguably people’s behavior changed because they were being observed, which is a phenomenon that ironically shares Michonne’s last name: The Hawthorne Effect. Either way, we know one thing …

A good QA leader isn’t a mindless wanderer.

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