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By Jack Ganssle

The Non-Quality Revolution

Summary: Deming is dead. Both literally and figuratively.

I'm leery of assuming anything anymore, since companies work hard to bury information behind a blizzard of PR "image consultants." But an awful lot of email from engineers speculate that firmware is at least partly to blame in the recall of so many of Toyota's cars.

It's hardly surprising that the code could be at fault.

Sixty years ago Deming taught that improving quality would lead to improved productivity and lower costs. The Japanese eagerly listened and embraced this philosophy. Those of us with lots of gray hair remember how "Made in Japan" was a synonym for "junk." Thanks to the quality revolution, the now opposite is true.

Today, Japanese cars are world renown for their quality. My Prius has 102k miles on it and has only been back to the dealer once - for a software upgrade several years ago. The only service it has ever gotten are replacement tires and oil and filter changes. It still has original spark plugs as their scheduled maintenance interval is an astonishing 120,000 miles. My old VWs needed attention every 3000 miles for valve adjustments, plugs and points.

Our last Toyota had 170k miles on it when we gave it to a son. It, too, required virtually no maintenance. Two kids learned to drive on it so the body had more than a few dings, but even the clutch was original.

I have no idea how Toyota manages their firmware engineering. But, in general, while many industries have adopted revolutionary programs to improve their quality, that effort has pretty much missed software development.

Since so much of the magic marketing goo of so many products derives from firmware, in my opinion the quality revolution is over. Kaput. You can't pretend to focus on excellent products without doing the same to the code. And few companies have paid anywhere nearly as much attention to the latter as they have to bending sheet metal and stamping parts.

Why is the market for software quality tools is so small? Simply because there is no demand. No urgent call for quality.

Why are so few software engineers trained in quality? Simply because there is no demand. No urgent call for quality.

Quality is no longer job one. Software has derailed Deming's vision.

And that's a damn shame.

Changing to a quality culture for software will be expensive, just as it was for making cars. Detroit scoffed at the idea for years till they learned that the up-front costs yielded massive back-end savings. The same is true for the code.

One thing is clear: if a nation (or perhaps even a company) starts a software quality revolution, like Japan they will corner the market for their products.

Published February 9, 2010