Shoddy or Integrity?

Quality control needs to be embedded in business case processes, not tacked on at the end.

During the Civil War, the Union army put out contracts for a manner of supplies including wool coats for the soldiers. Some suppliers took shortcuts by adding “shoddy” to virgin wool. Shoddy is wool reclaimed from rags, but the fibers are shorter and damaged from prior use, therefore not as strong.

Army quartermasters examined the cut and stitching of these jackets and gave them passing grades because the inferior fibers were undetectable. But once subjected to long marches and exposed to the elements, the jackets literally unraveled on the backs of the soldiers.  The term “shoddy” evolved from a noun to an adjective describing poor quality hidden from view.

At the other end of the English language is “integrity.” Today we use the word to describe high moral character, but its Latin origin, integritas, is the concept of wholeness.

Ancient Romans used integritas to describe pottery. Saying a ceramic piece had integritas meant the quality that appeared on the outside existed throughout the entire piece. There were no hidden weaknesses or imperfections covered by an attractive glaze. A vessel with integritas will hold up under stress.

Wholeness or Hidden Weakness

A key role for senior executives is evaluating business cases and deciding whether to green light the proposals, committing capital and talent to the initiative. The challenge lies not only in weighing the merits of the recommendations, but also in confirming the quality of the business case itself.

A decision is a process (see A Decision Is Not An Event) with the majority of the work delegated to business teams. Final inspection and authorization is only the last event, relying on the soundness of the team’s work. Business cases are usually highly polished presentations that attempt to provide a compelling argument supporting their recommendations. Spotting weak internal quality at this stage is very, very difficult (if not impossible):

  • Did they take shortcuts and overlooked a solution that costs less or provides greater benefits?
  • Did they fall prey to any one of the dozens of biases that over-estimate value or underestimate risks?

Embedded Quality Assurance

To consistently receive high quality business cases, senior executives must demand consistent application of high quality business case disciplines during the problem-solving and evaluation work. Otherwise, undetectable shoddy work will sneak through, squandering opportunities and wasting resources.

© Dave Wittenberg

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