Quality becomes key to India's IT goals
Express Computers, 31st Dec, 2001

India's software majors boast of ISO and SEI CMMi Level 5, and some hardware vendors boast of ISO certifications too. Does that mean that India's IT industry is at the cutting edge of quality? Or, is it just a mirage? Rajneesh De and Srikanth R P find out.

Quality has always been a contentious issue in Indian industry. In fact, the inadequate attention towards quality has often been attributed as a reason for India lagging behind in industrialisation against global rivals. However, the opening of the Indian economy in the 90s brought about a sea change in India Inc's attitude. Indian firms then realised the importance of quality as it enabled them to stand up against global competition. The initial phase of the changing scenario was marked by a spate of companies going in for different levels of ISO certification. The second phase was ushered in by the emergence of a vibrant IT industry, for whom quality consciousness was always important. The cascading effect of the entire quality movement has even led to the growth of an industry whose sole aim is to deal with issues related to quality.

But how is the IT industry both software and hardware players coping with this increasing quality awareness? What are the dynamics guiding the entire process? A closer look at the difference in approach between the software and hardware industry in this regard throws up some interesting insights. In addition, even the approach of Indian companies is quite different from MNCs. This is understandable, considering that the latter are following only stringent processes that are in place worldwide. On the other hand, Indian companies are evolving their own processes as they realise that quality is the most vital element as they plan to move up the value chain.

Software shows the way

Not surprisingly, the Indian software companies leading the quality drive are all the usual suspects. Infosys, Wipro, Satyam, i-flex, TCS all leading Indian software companies, are in the forefront of the quality bandwagon. For most of these software companies, attaining SEI-CMMi Level 5 has been considered as the pinnacle in their journey to attain the peak of quality. As of October 2001, India has 32 companies at SEI CMMi Level 5 assessment-and only 58 organisations across the world have acquired such an assessment. The motivation for Indian IT software and services companies to attain SEI CMMi Level 5 assessment dates as far back as 1995, when Motorola's unit in India acquired this certification. The seed for quality was thus sown, and the following years have been that of ‘Quality transformation.' The quality maturity of Indian software industry can be measured from the fact that already 201 Indian software companies have acquired quality certifications and 64 more companies are in pipeline.

Prabhu Sinha, senior vice president, corporate quality, Satyam Computer Services, throws some light on why Indian companies are leading the quality certification drive. "There is a perception that certification is only for companies that need to prove their credibility in the global market. Data from assessments conducted from 1997 through June 2001 shows that 36.3 percent of these companies have been non-US organisations from all over the world." Especially, the CMMi Level 5 assessment definitely proves the effectiveness of the process implementation in a company. It has beyond doubt helped Indian companies establish credibility across the globe, and this has resulted in increased business for these companies. "Maybe, it has been the biggest factor in helping India to emerge as a software superpower, especially in the outsourced mode," feels Kiran Karnik, president, Nasscom. Agrees S Deb, chief quality officer, Wipro Technologies, "Indian companies had to build credibility in the outsourcing market. So they focused on the quality aspect, which naturally would differentiate them from ordinary suppliers. By doing this, they became the best in the world in terms of processes and quality."

The American difference

But does this mean that software majors of the world do not require any certification to prove their quality consciousness? Looking at the history of the real biggies of the US software industry, matters such as process improvement have had little to do with their success. In fact, innovation has often been attributed as one of the primary factors responsible for the success of companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, Novell, Apple, Borland and Adobe. Says TCS vice-chairman F C Kohli, "Orthodox methodologies do not gel with good enough software companies for one reason more than any other: they are boring. Bored people do not work hard. They do not take the initiative, and they avoid ambiguous problems instead of tackling them with gusto. Software companies must take care to create an exciting environment that fosters responsible heroism, and great software will follow." The basis for this is that much of the most successful software developed during the past 30 to 40 years has been developed by small teams with typically fewer than a dozen people, not large teams following conventional software processes.

There is another school of thought that feels that the concept of "good enough" software is an advantage for the US primarily because it is compatible with their "cowboy" culture. This approach is less successful in cultures that are accustomed to authoritarian management styles and those that favour a group consensus over individualistic decision making (i.e. European and Asian cultures). Maybe, this has been a primary reason for Indian companies embracing the quality route with such a passionate fervour.

In fact, this viewpoint professes that the focus on certification can be harmful for a software company, since it imposes a regimen of discipline. Any strict process can stifle software development, which after all is a manifestation of creativity. Not everyone is however willing to buy this argument. Says K Dinesh, director, Infosys, "A process does not stifle/curb creativity, it in fact supports a natural way of doing work. At higher levels of maturity, the time spent in fire fighting and defect correction is much less and this time could be used for more learning and creative work." Some say the discipline and framework actually helps software professionals free their creative energy for real development work. This happens because a lot of things are automatically taken care of as a part of the process culture. There is a conscious effort in the framework to share knowledge and provide everyone with organisation-wide data. Adds Vivek Govilkar, head-quality, i-flex, "Nobody would question the need for discipline and framework in the airline or pharmaceutical industry."

The argument that quality certifications do not stifle creativity in software development has further takers. Argues R C Tripathi, head-quality processes, Melstar, "Let us take the example of performing a dance. Performing a dance is a very creative thing. But the dancers go through a rigorous discipline practice and processes even to make a small movement. Therefore, standards and discipline does not come in the way of software creativity, rather it helps a team to systematically build a product and enhance creativity." Discipline and framework are not contradictory to creativity. The creative work of any software developer primarily comes in the design. The framework ensures that quality is part and parcel of any products and services the company delivers. Says Suresh Lulla, managing director, Qimpro Consultants, "The person creating the design always has the option of exceeding the norm set. Elegance and excellence are encouraged by all good systems. These systems allow for employees to suggest improvements and most of them have had a very large contribution from the practitioners."

While many big software companies have not gone for SEI CMMi, yet other big names like IBM Global Services, IT divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to name a few, have implemented these models in a big way. Some of these companies have in fact contributed in the development of this model. For example more than 10 divisions of Lockheed Martin are at Level 4 or 5. And in many cases, the companies that may not have gone for SEI CMMi Level 5 might have alternative processes to maintain quality. The larger companies have their own process frameworks, on which they have been working for many years. Their management might not have felt the need to be evaluated on the criteria of SEI-CMMi vendorship. As an example, Microsoft has recently publicised MSF, as their framework for processes. Many organisations, not driven by the need of certification, are finding it quite suitable.

Currently, there are many quality standards worldwide ranging from SEI CMMi Maturity Level 1 to 5, PCMMi, ISO 9000, Bootstrap, SPICE, etc. The costs of developing hardware or software (prescribing to a quality standard) vary greatly, depending on the level at which processes are already prescribed and documented. The emphasis must be on total quality management, with certification being an important milestone. ISO 9000 is a useful framework for guiding quality improvement in a company, but it may not be an adequate measure of its quality level, tools and methodologies. Quality is increasingly being seen as an essential business tool rather than just a useful one. Total quality culture as opposed to quality registration is more relevant to the final services delivered. A greater focus on ‘product quality' as a complement to ‘process quality' is the latest requirement. The emphasis must be on total quality management, with certification being an important milestone.

Total Quality Management (TQM) is a management philosophy and a way of conducting business, which emphasises more sophisticated techniques of continual improvement. The requirements of ISO 9000 stop well short of the cultural environment that TQM is seeking to establish. Indian companies are increasingly adapting to international quality standards. Today, the world looks towards the Indian IT software and services industry for quality and price-performance. Says Karnik, "A World Bank funded study conducted as early as 1992 to discuss Indian software strategies had concluded that more and more vendors in the US preferred to get their software developed in India for its quality and cost advantage."

Making business sense

It becomes evident that quality improvement by means of certification ensures business for Indian software companies. Agrees Dinesh, "We have close to 80 percent repeat business since attaining SEI-CMMi Level 5. This only reiterates our good performance and the fact that we have also been able to attract a large number of new customers to our list of customers." Govilkar concurs, "World class organisations realise the importance that quality plays in their bid to move up the value chain. i-flex too realised this early and was the first company in India to get SEI CMMi Level 4 certification in the year 1995. The quality initiative has paid rich dividends for us today." The importance of stressing on quality has lead to increased productivity and time-to-market. In the testing and rework area, the time has been cut down dramatically. i-flex being a predominantly product company has found that over the years the number of defects have come down. Even Melstar has had significant success post-SEI certification. In terms of business growth, it added 7 projects in the last couple of months after attaining Level 3 maturity.

With so much hype about CMMi Level 5, is it the peak of software development maturity? "Not really," feels Sashi Reddi, CEO, NSTL (India), a quality certifying organisation, who refuses to go gung-ho over the fact that these quality drives imply that Indian software companies are the best. "CMMi Level 5 or anything else is just one factor among many that goes into creating a competitive advantage. To that extent it does provide leverage. However, in the final analysis, once a supplier begins executing a project for a customer, it is the quality of that project that matters and no certification will matter. Once the initial relationship is formed then actual performance is the only thing of interest to customers." Even Sinha agrees that CMMi Level 5 is not the be-all and end-all in the domain of quality. "The quality movement in Satyam is all pervasive. It covers not only software development related processes but also areas like business and support processes. Continuous improvement is being achieved in process and product quality in every part of Satyam using multiple quality models like ISO, CMMi and TQM." Adds Pramod Khera, CEO, Aptech, "Level 5 is not the peak. It is the last leg of the smooth road reaching the bottom of the peak, where one starts climbing. There will be many other quality levels in the future for a company to scale."

Certification can also be a boost to the organisation in terms of introducing new process automating tools like K-net, which help minimise the project management time and also give companies very good process assets. Many companies can look at the Six Sigma model too. Dinesh reveals that over the last two years Infosys has successfully applied many of the Sigma Six techniques like CFPM (Cross Functional Process Mapping) to strengthen their processes. It has yielded them rich benefits in terms of ample reduction in cycle time. They are also creating Six Sigma champions within the company for institutionalising measurements across the company. Six Sigma and SEI are complimentary movements as far as Wipro is concerned. Says Deb, "Six Sigma helps in eliminating causes of defects, thus improving the quality of the products and services that we deliver. SEI CMMi Level 5 requires continuous improvement. Six Sigma helps us sustain SEI Level 5. We started our journey along the SEI path in 1994. We received the first certificate for Level 3 in 1996 and then for Level 5 in 1998. Our Six Sigma journey started in 1996, and both are going on simultaneously."

Maintaining quality

One pitfall of the SEI-CMMi certification is that it has no provision for reassessment. This certainly leaves a scope for compromises in the quality initiative. Explains Dinesh, "Once a company achieves Level 5, it takes a while before it gets institutionalised. Until then it is tougher to sustain it. Once a culture sets in, the advantages and the gains are phenomenally high and it creates a behaviour pattern where everybody takes decisions based on data/metrics. Having got used that style, it is almost impossible to go back." Retaining Level 5 is a challenge, since a company has to continuously innovate and improve its practices at that level. Says Sinha, "Satyam ensures that the SEI-CMMi Level 5 processes are implemented and continuously improved. We use the "Voice of Process" for software process improvements by conducting organisation level metrics baselining every six months and identifying improvement opportunities." What should be the ideal procedure followed to keep up the same quality post-certification? The company should continuously add new processes, methodologies and technologies to address new business areas and services and improve existing ones. These are piloted and then transitioned to all relevant areas of the company. As the company grows and new organisational units are added, the quality movement is automatically extended to all these new units. Every project should undergo a review every month by the quality team. Corrective and preventive actions should be identified and tracked to closure of projects.

Maintaining CMMi Level 5 itself is a very big activity. Level 5 is an optimising level. And an organisation needs to put its best efforts to maintain Level 5 requirements. Says P S Madhukumar, head, quality, MphasiS, "At MphasiS we have initiated many process improvement activities like balanced scorecard, dashboard and we also started a GAP study for CMMi-I model." At MphasiS, the strategic quality initiatives are driven quite rigorously. Reveals Madhukumar, " Initially we have defined the mission of our organisation. We have evaluated the opportunities and threats for our company. We have also analysed our strengths and weakness. After all these study we have come out with a strategy, and based on the strategy we have developed goals. And all these goals are tracked on a periodic basis and the necessary corrective and preventive actions are taken."

Hardware catching up

The software industry in India is much ahead of its hardware counterpart in the quality game. This is perhaps indicative of the position of the two industries in India, where the hardware segment, especially the all-essential manufacturing part barely has a discernible presence. The most common certifications for the hardware industry include ISO 9000 certification for quality, UL (Underwriters Laboratories) for product safety and ISO 14000 for environmental certification. However, most of the hardware industry in India has until now not obtained certification. The reason is that one has to ship the server or laptop to Taiwan or the US to get the computer certified. This can be a nuisance to smaller hardware vendors. However, NSTL offers some solace amidst this gloom. Says Reddi, "Now that NSTL (India) has opened operations in Hyderabad, we handle all the headaches of getting a computer certified. Our affiliate NSTL (Taiwan) is the only organisation in the world authorised by Microsoft to conduct the WHQL test (this is the industry standard for certification against all Microsoft operating systems)." Another piece of good news is that by using NSTL (India), the hardware vendor can pay in rupees and does not have to deal with international shipping issues. "Now that Microsoft is launching Windows XP, it is now even more critical to get the computers certified. XP will give serious warning messages if any component is not certified," adds Reddi. This can scare away potential buyers and hence hardware vendors have no choice but to look at getting their computers certified.

Among Indian hardware manufacturers, networking major D-Link has taken a lead in obtaining quality certifications. Currently, it holds ISO 9001, 9002, 9003, 9004 besides 14001 certification for its environment protection efforts. Says Anand Mehta, marketing manager, D-Link India, "At D-Link, quality is the pervasive element in all our products. We have invested in most advanced automated manufacturing facilities and implemented rigorous quality control programmes. D-Link's commitment to high quality standards has been attested with ISO 9002 certification. The ISO 9002 certification is a matter of great pride for us. We take even more pride in the fact that our products have very high reliability factor. We have very low rejections, which speak volumes about our dedication to quality."

There are just a handful of Indian hardware companies that have invested heavily in manufacturing. Most companies import the bulk of components and are merely doing assembly work in India. If high quality components are sourced and well-trained hands perform the assembly, the final product could be comparable to global ones. "Of course, rigorous quality checks have to be carried out on components as well as the product at every stage of manufacture. The quality management system for a hardware company must have a strong process orientation," says Vinnie Mehta of MAIT. So what is the best way for a hardware company to maintain a quality regimen? A total quality pyramid should be in place incorporating production team, quality assurance team, and management. The intricate processes of manufacture should be continuously monitored right through the manufacturing cycle, with an emphasis on getting it right the first time. Quality control procedures include a burn-in period for finished products and production reliability audits. Error avoidance and course corrections must be ongoing processes, forestalling the possibility of deeply embedded errors resulting in major losses. Constant and ruthless testing ensures products that stand up to the most demanding working conditions in the real world.

IBM's manufacturing facility in Pondicherry also caters to a strict quality regimen. Says Manoj Chhura, country manager, manufacturing, IBM India, "Our manufacturing facility in Pondicherry complies with global standards. We ensure that no product leaves the manufacturing facility unless it meets the requisite quality standards. Quality certifications facilitate business growth, but the real focus is to ensure that there is consistency in the quality of our products." But what is the advantage of a good quality process for a hardware company? Good quality parts reduce wastage during manufacturing and also reduce the need to rework products. It brings improved efficiency and productivity to the product and service organisations. Also, in the event that products do not meet requisite quality standards, there are possibilities that they may have to be withdrawn from the market and this could result in a huge loss.

How do Indian hardware companies compare to global ones with respect to quality? Fundamentally quality has to become ingrained in the work culture. There are islands of excellence in the Indian hardware industry. But a more pervasive adoption of quality culture is the need of the hour. The gains from adoption of a quality culture could be manifold. The benefits of technology gains are not so immediate or apparent. However, over time, a systematic work culture would help distil the cause and effect in operations, paving the way for continuous improvements. Says S Rajendran, GM-marketing, Acer India, "In terms of the Acer experience, we have witnessed a four-fold growth in productivity gains." Today quality has become an integral part of any organisation. Adds Rajendran, "It would not be wrong to state that quality today is a hygiene factor in the business world. The clear demonstrable gains can be enumerated as consistency in operations, bringing in a measure of predictability in operations, keeping a tight leash on cost, meeting expectations of customers both internal and external and enhancing the brand promise by ensuring an enjoyable experience in any stage of interaction with the organisation pre sales, sales process and post sales." V Ganesh Nayak, head, quality, Compaq India concurs, "Customer satisfaction and quality are considered very critical for Compaq in terms of customer retention, increasing market share and improving the efficiency of internal processes. Part of the senior management's salaries are linked to the CSI (Customer Satisfaction) index."

Given the slow pace of India's economic reform recent figures show the economy as a whole growing at a rate of six percent it will take some time for India to transform itself from a country with comprehensive state control of industry to a free-market economy. As in any state-controlled economy, job padding is pandemic, so a large cultural shift needs to be completed before productivity in the Indian economy approaches that of western nations. And quality in quantity, many feel, should be the major driver in this process. With more than 175 software companies having ISO 9001 certification and nearly 50 companies boasting of a SW-CMMi Level 3 or higher ranking, India Inc. seems on the right track with the numbers game.