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Managing By Using The Tip Of The IcebergRepublicans are threatening a government shutdown this fall, citing runaway federal spending. That could be a tough sell. The U.S. budget deficit is at its lowest point in four years. Mike Dorning, Congress The GOP’s Deficit Problem, Bloomberg Businessweek, Aug 12, 2013.

Oh boy, I think. Here we go again. We had a problem. When we completed and delivered our last project, our status showed we had zero outstanding defects.

Now we never have truly zero defects. It is just that to better show the critical issues, we just show senior management the top concerns that prevent the customer from taking the product. Senior management has gotten comfortable with this view.

I call it management by the “tip of the iceberg.” No, I didn’t invent it. I hate it. I used that term because it was silly not to show everyone all the issues. I’m big into brutal honesty. I want people to understand how this business works. Discussing only the top critical issues is a great approach to help focus everyone, but we don’t want anyone to forget all the lesser issues that still impact the overall quality perception of the product.

See more at Honesty Is Just More Efficient

The problem is that today, when we happened to ship the product, the critical issues on the product line happen to be zero. Tomorrow, when we do a bit more work, because there are existing issues we are still examining because testing continues and because the customer may report an issue, we might actually find something that we want to track as a critical issue.

Note, most of our newly reported issues, on order of 75% turn out to known existing issues or simply not issues at all (“whew … we thought we missed something, but we didn’t!”). The criticality of an issue is just a reflection of our insight as an issue works its way through the review and repair process. Defect criticality is a management judgement (with technical underpinnings) on what is important. This insight on any one issue changes day by day on these very large projects.

The problem is that management approved the product release based in large part on having no outstanding issues. Normally we have dozens of issues when we ship a product, but rationalize them away (“we’ll fix them all in a maintenance release within 90 days!”). But management loved the fact we had “zero” issues. How can we now, they ask, “suddenly” have critical issues on a product we are delivering to the customer?

The solution is simple. When we present the “top critical issues” we also need to show at least a trend graph of the other 95% of all open quality impacting issues that we are investigating. Management needs to have the “big picture” even if they don’t want to approve a product launch that has hundreds of reported minor issues. It makes them nervous that we are so thorough that we track every minor little detail so nothing escapes our scrutiny.

It Makes Them Nervous That We Are So Thorough

So, what does this have to do with the Federal deficit last year? Simply, the “deficit” in this case is talking about the rate of change of the existing deficit, how much worse is it getting. It is not talking about the actual deficit. Our customers — in this case the voting public — start to feel better when we tell them the “deficit is going down!” No, its not. The speed in which we are increasing the multi-trillion dollar deficit is going down, but the deficit itself still exists and is still growing, but at a slower rate. We would ideally want this metric, the deficit — used this way, to be a negative number — declining — when the economy is going reasonably well. We want to be, at least slowly, getting out of debt during times our economy is growing. Instead, we continue to get deeper in debt during good times and bad (i.e., no, this is not good — this is very very bad.)

People, even very smart corporate senior managers, can get the wrong idea when we consistently only present part of the picture. The fact that Bloomberg Businessweek, a leading business publication, would make the above statement without explaining the difference between the change in the deficit growth and the total deficit leaves me groaning. Here is an organization that should know better, should help us gain real insight into the state of business and the economy, and they perpetuate the same silly misunderstanding.

It can make a lot of sense to focus only on a subset of our most critical issues in a project. Yet, even as we do that, we always — always — need to be aware of all the other issues at least as totals and trends. Any of these other issues could pop up and sink our project if we neglect them. Let’s avoid having our projects become the next Titanic because we think we can just slip around that little itty bitty piece of ice poking out of the water ahead.

Are you showing all the issues and work that needs to be done on your project, or are you selectively showing only what you think people want to know?

Thank you for sharing!