Software Hell is a Crowded Place

fireI’ve been thinking a lot about management fads lately, and ran into this 2005 article by Nick Carr, titled “Does Not Compute”. Here’s the part that caught my eye:

“A look at the private sector reveals that software debacles are routine. And the more ambitious the project, the higher the odds of disappointment. It may not be much consolation to taxpayers, but the F.B.I. has a lot of company. Software hell is a very crowded place.”

Carr continues by describing two examples of failed projects: a massive systems integration effort at Ford Motor Company, and a overzealous business intelligence initiative embarked upon by McDonald’s. Both projects were cancelled when the price tags got too big: $200M for Ford, $170M for McDonald’s. The catch is that failure is good, because when we fail we at least know one solution path that’s not workable – we just need to 1) understand that it doesn’t have to be expensive, and 2) have more courage to allow ourselves and our colleagues to fail without getting depressed or thinking our coworkers are idiots. This is often expressed as “fail early, fail often“. (But note that the assumption is that you persist, and as a result of the learning experience, ultimately meet your goals.)

Without an effective team culture, rational managers, healthy relationships with stakeholders, and capable programmers dedicated to continually improving their skills, all roads can lead to software hell. The process of getting there – which is hellish in and of itself – is the famed death march. This is where a software-related project, doomed to fail, sucks up more time, people, resources, and emotional energy at an ever increasing rate until the eventual cataclysm.

Carr also cites The Standish Report, which in 1994, asserted that only 16% of projects were completed on time, and budget, and meeting specifications. By 2003 the percentage had grown to 34% in a new survey. Other projects that were still completed ran, on average, 50 percent over budget. (And this is for the survey respondents who were actually telling the truth. I know a few people who wouldn’t admit that their project was quite so grossly over budget.)

One way to solve this problem is by focusing on sufficiency and continuous learning, starting the blueprint for a system based on these questions:

  • What features represent the bare minimum we need to run this system?
  • What are the really critical success factors?
  • What do we know about our specifications now? What do we not know?
  • What do we know about ourselves now? What do we want to learn more about?

Software development is a learning process. It’s a process of learning about the problem we need to solve, the problem domain, and ourselves – our interests and capabilities. It’s a process of recognizing what parts of building the solution we’re really good at, and what parts we’re not so good at. Let’s start small, and grow bigger as we form stronger relationships with the systems that we are developing. Having a $170M appetite sure didn’t get McDonald’s anywhere, at least in this case.

RIP Six Sigma: Management Fads and the Apocalypse

The End of Six Sigma?

The End of Six Sigma?

On December 21, 2012, the Sun aligns with the Galactic Center precisely – for the first time in 26,000 years. At the same time, the 5,000 year Mayan calendar resets to the year zero. Apocalyptic fears are running higher as a result (those Mayans must have known *something*, right?), and internet bulletin boards are swimming with speculation: “Is it the end of the world?”

As a scholar of quality management, I can’t help but notice a correlation between this prediction and one offered by Goeke & Offodile in a 2005 edition of the Quality Management Journal. By studying the frequency of articles tagged with “Six Sigma” in the ABI-Inform catalog over time, and comparing the results with quality circles and TQM (which they considered to be earlier fads) using a technique called “analogy forecasting,” they observed that a “fad” pattern seems to be apparent.

What is a fad? According to Abrahamson (1996), it’s a “relatively transitory collective belief… that a management technique leads rational management process.” In their pursuit of rationality, a mass of people tries out a particular management approach, and time ultimately leads them in another direction (hence the transitory part). Thus we shouldn’t look at a fad as something bad, necessarily – it might just reflect a normal collective learning process. Fads help us learn and develop tacit knowledge, regardless of whether they are perceived to “work out”.

If time confirms the forecast provided by analogy forecasting, Six Sigma will last about another 7 years. Hmmm… article published in 2005, add to that 7 years… and you get… 2012! Based on the faith that so many have placed in Six Sigma, it would not be surprising that a transition to a new management paradigm – for them – would feel like an apocalypse of sorts.

I am a proponent of applying Six Sigma analytical methods for improving performance in many situations, especially those that call for the systematic removal of defects and reducing variation. But it’s important to remember that underlying so many of these management methodologies is a foundational layer of common sense: your people must be aligned according to the values they share with one another, those values have to be aligned with the organization’s values, and the people have to know what to do day by day to keep things running, improve on them, and innovate for the future.

Some of the conclusions that Goeke & Offodile offer are excellent as well as fundamental:

“Management fads, when successful, disappear from view because they have become part of good, mainstream management practice.”

“Even when management fads don’t work out as planned, they still benefit by adding to the firm’s collective knowledge.”

I’d like to second this latter quote, and toss in two more benefits: a) attention to a new management approach, even if it turns out to be a fad, can stimulate collective awareness of a company’s current and desired core values, and b) the common language that is often provided can help rally people around a common vision – one step towards achieving real results.

Six Sigma, whether it is a management fad or just solid management practice “in transition” to something that becomes more invisible, will not change the underlying strategy of a business. Managers should always seek to establish solid, sustainable foundations – and continually improve upon them to achieve ever-increasing standards for excellence – regardless of whether they call it Six Sigma, or something else.


Abrahamson, E. (1996). Management fashion. Academy of Management Review, 21(1), 254-285.

Goeke, R.J. & Offodile, O.F. (2005). Forecasting management philosophy life cycles: a comparative study of Six Sigma and TQM. Quality Management Journal, 12(2), 34-36.