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Using 3σ Control Limits in Software Engineering

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Source: Wikipedia; Control Chart

The  July/August 2010 issue of IEEE Software features an article entitled “Monitoring Software Quality Evolution for Defects” by Hongyu Zhang and Sunghun Kim. The article is of interest to the software developer/tester/manager in quite a few ways. In particular, the authors report on their successful use of 3σ control limits in c-charts used to plot defects in software projects.

To put things in perspective, consider my recent assessment of the results accomplished by Quick Solutions (QSI) in two of their projects:

One to one-and-a-half standard deviation better than the mean might not seem like much to six-sigma black belts. However, in the context of typical results we see in the software industry the QSI results are outstanding.  I have not done the exact math whether those results are superior to 95%, 97% or 98% of software projects in Michael Mah‘s QSMA database as the very exact figure almost does not matter when you achieve this level of excellence.

A complementary perspective is provided by Capers Jones in Estimating Software Costs: Bringing Realism to Estimating:

Another way of looking at six-sigma in a software context would be to achieve a defect-removal efficiency level of about 99.9999 percent. Since the average defect-removal efficiency level in the United States is only about 85 percent, and less than one project in 1000 has ever topped 98 percent,  it can be seen that actual six-sigma results are beyond the current state of the art.

The setting of control limits is, of course, quite a different thing from the actual defect-removal efficiency numbers reported by Jones for the US and the very low number of defects reported by Mah for QSI. Having said that, driving a continuous improvement process through using 3σ control limits is the best recipe toward eventually reaching six-sigma results. For example, one could drive the development process by using Cyclomatic complexity per Java class as the quality characteristic in the figure at the top of this post. In this figure, a Cyclomatic complexity reading higher than 10.860 (the Upper Control Limit) will indicate a need to “stop the line” and attend to reducing complexity before resuming work on functions and features.

Coming on the heels of the impressive results reported by David Joyce on the use of statistical process control (SPC) techniques by the BBC, the article by Zhang and Kim is another encouraging report on the successful application of manufacturing techniques to software (and to knowledge work in general). I am not at liberty to quote from this just published IEEE article, but here is the abstract:

Quality control charts, especially c-charts, can help monitor software quality evolution for defects over time. c-charts of the Eclipse and Gnome systems showed that for systems experiencing active maintenance and updates, quality evolution is complicated and dynamic. The authors identify six quality evolution patterns and describe their implications. Quality assurance teams can use c-charts and patterns to monitor quality evolution and prioritize their efforts.


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  1. […] The ability to measure code quality enables effective governance of the software process. Moreover, Statistical Process Control methods can be applied to samples of technical debt readings. Such application is most helpful in striking […]

  2. […] you can adopt statistical process control methods to gauge when the line should be stopped. (See Using 3σ  Control Limits in Software Engineering for a discussion of the settings appropriate for your […]

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