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The History and Purpose of the Capability Maturity Model (CMM)

Updated on May 12, 2016

CMM History - Why It Matters

The Capability Maturity Model was developed to ensure success where success really matters - at NASA and in the military, where lives are on the line and success is survival. But we can all learn from and use these techniques to succeed and prosper in business today.

Rockets to Success

The origins of CMM are tied to NASA, rocketry, and missile development. These early rockets are at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The origins of CMM are tied to NASA, rocketry, and missile development. These early rockets are at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. | Source

The Need for Reliable Quality

Back in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the US military had a problem. And that problem is faced by every business in the world today. The problem is simple: We need reliable hardware and software. The need is most obvious when lives are on the line - in the military and in aerospace. These days, though, many businesses fail because their computer systems are unreliable or software is confusing to staff and customers. On the positive side, great computer systems that are easy to use create competitive success, and reliable products lead to customer retention and customer delight.

We can take the solutions developed by military contractors for the last 50 years and apply them to our businesses today.

Why the Problem Was So Hard to Solve

The US Air Force wanted missiles that would fly, hit their targets, and blow up. They had a terrible time getting them made. Why? There were several reasons:

  • The United States has a history of caring about quality only during wartime. We accept delays and poor quality in daily life. Going all the way back to the Civil War, almost all developments in reliable production, manufacturing, quality, on-time delivery, and quality management came from wartime efforts.
  • Military contracts were both top secret and proprietary. Any solution that led to quality results delivered on time was usually part of a top-secret project that couldn't be shared. And when it was developed by a military contractor, that contractor certainly didn't want to share it's secret sauce with it's competitors.
  • The military equipment being built from 1955 forward was more for the cold war than for war. This was especially true of strategic assets: nuclear warheads; long and medium-ranged missiles; long-range bombers; and nuclear submarines. We didn't want to use them right away, which was the urgent issue of World War II. In fact, we hoped to never use them at all. But we had to be sure they would work when we needed them, even 30 years later. (Thank goodness we never did need them!)
  • US manufacturing was complacent and negligent. AT&T Bell Labs solved huge issues of quality management to produce the transistor, but, led by the mentality of Henry Ford, American manufacturing was not interested in quality management. Our top assets in the field, W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran, were welcomed by Japan, and it wasn't until 1990 that the US took interest in quality management solutions.

Nonetheless, the US Air Force, working with Congress, NASA, and a number of private contractors came up with a solution. And that solution gave us two great systems we can still use today: the Zero Defect quality (or Cost of Quality) movement; and the Capability Maturity Model (CMM).

NASA: At the Center of the CMM Solution

NASA was, and is the US civilian space agency. There are many reasons for this. But a crucial one was that it was designed to provide this benefit: All of the knowledge gained in development for NASA, even by private or publicly-held companies, was, by order of Congress, to be shared for the good of the nation.

This put military contractors in an awkward position. Obviously, missile manufacturers were the best candidates to become rocket makers. And the makers of fighter aircraft were the best for cockpit design for rockets with their similar high-gee acceleration. And submarine manufacturers could help with closed air-circulation systems. But, to get lucrative NASA contracts, which would also make them popular with the American public, making it easier to employ top talent, they had to agree to NASA's open information-sharing policy. Most of them did. And all of them benefited.

The Origins of SEI and CMM

The effort was coordinated by the Air Force, which was responsible for long-term strategic missile development. But it was coordinated through NASA, making it a public initiative. And Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, PA, won a contract to manage and interpret all of the information that came through the program related to the development of high-quality software. This grant created the not-for-profit Software Engineering Institute (SEI) which still manages CMM, and its newer implementation, CMMI, today.

Early Innovators In Quality for Software

Philip B. Crosby of the Martin Company, a missile manufacturer (later merged into Martin-Marietta, then Lockheed-Martin) was a key innovator in quality management. He took on the job of making sure that missiles built for the military always worked. He proposed a leadership and management concept called zero-defect for both hardware and software. It consisted of four simple points.

  • Quality is conformance to requirements. Requirements define what the customer wants. Delivering to meet requirements is quality.
  • Preventing defects is easier than making mistakes and fixing them later. And less expensive, too.
  • Zero defects is the quality standard. Let's let go of the idea of doing our best and allowing errors to creep in.
  • Failed quality has a hidden monetary cost. If what we deliver has defects, someone will have to pay the price.

Crosby's Quality Management Maturity Grid was the structure that later developed into the full Capability Maturity Model.

Another innovator was Michael Fagan, who developed Software Inspection at the IBM corporation, following the advice of quality guru Joseph M. Juran. They developed the software for the space shuttle, which was error-free for the entire history of the shuttle. And they showed that it costs less to produce bug-free software than it costs to produce software full of bugs. If only Microsoft had paid attention to that!

The development of CMM and CMMI spans the history of the US space program, from the Gemini rockets that took men into orbit, through the Apollo missions to the moon, through the Space Shuttle with its long years of service. Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynmann evaluated all of the space shuttle systems in 1996, after the Challenger disaster. He concluded that the only system that was well-engineered and thoroughly reliable in all ways was the shuttle software. This is ironic, considering that, in general, we expect many more defects in computer software than in hardware or manufacturing. It demonstrates that the space program, with all of its famous errors and disasters, did remarkable work and developed excellent methods.

For the US, the era of manned space flight is over. But let us learn from their excellent work and bring quality products, manufacturing, systems, and software to our businesses today. How? By understanding and applying the Capability Maturity Model in our 21st-Century businesses.

Why Procedures Matter

Caterers and restaurants follow recipes. Why? That way, they give their customers the food they want, have it taste the same reliably every time, and reduce waste because they know how much of each ingredient to buy and use.

A procedure is a recipe for a business activity. If we want consistent results - defect-free products and bug-free software - we need to know that we are using a great recipe every time. That is what a high level of capability and maturity means to a company and its customers.

The CMM Solution

The Capability Maturity Model organizes all of the work on software development related to NASA and military contracts, and it actually applies not only to software, but to any and every organization that wants to satisfy customers. The model proposes that every organization has a level of maturity, a level of ability in producing reliable results. As leaders, executives, and managers - even for small businesses - we can identify our current level and move up levels of the CMM ladder towards greater ability to eliminate defects, deliver quality, and ensure value for our customers and success for our business.

CMM rates the level of maturity (reliable capability) of procedures. The five levels of maturity in the CMM model are:

  1. Initial: Chaotic, ad-hoc, folkloric, heroic.
  2. Repeatable: Processes are defined well enough that they can be repeated.
  3. Defined: Consistent processes are defined for the whole company
  4. Managed: Processes are kept up-to-date
  5. Optimizing: Processes are being improved in a reliable way

To learn more about these five levels, please read The Capability Maturity Model Improving Business Operations.

Recent Developments in CMM

CMM was highly successful in its initial release. But the essence of the CMM concept is continuing to improve, and that applies to improving the CMM as well. So, over the first few years, the SEI observed the benefits and effects of CMM, and listened to complaints, as well, from contractors and from their primary client, the US military, as well. As a result, the standard was upgraded to CMMI, The Capability Maturity Model, Integrated. At the present time, the US military requires that all its contractors for systems that include software must be rated at CMMI Level 3. This has been extended to include their sub-contractors, as well. Also, the Chinese government is implementing a policy that all software developed with funds from the government of the People's Republic of China be CMM or CMMI appraised, as well.

We have also discovered that implementing CMMI does not always make things better. With CMMI being a contract requirement enforced by a big client, many companies take on the CMMI initiative as a matter of compliance, rather than as a focus of leadership and commitment to success. Also, even when corporate leadership is committed, communication may be poor and resistance can be strong. This has led to some cases where CMM or CMMI implementation backfired, making things worse. I discuss this in Business Success: Maturity and Capability, or Negative Synergy.

Who Uses CMM?

For the last several years, all US military contractors and sub-contractors have been required to have CMMI certification. However, it is seen as a side-issue, and not a central commitment to quality, all too often. Meanwhile, the People's Republic of China has adopted the CMM standard for military and government-sponsored programs and is taking it very seriously. The success of CMM in China is one of the reasons that China is quickly becoming a major industrial contender in world markets.

Using the CMM Concept in Your Business or Department

I have studied CMM, learning from the best, including one of the managers who developed zero-defect software for the Space Shuttle. I have helped companies make decisions regarding which quality management and operations management improvement systems to use, and assisted with implementation of best practices.

Clearly, those who want to be military contractors or sub-contractors, or contribute to China, the world's largest consumer market, should be taking CMM very seriously. These companies should be addressing how to become CMMI compliant if they are not already.

But, at another level, every company that wants to stay in business should pay attention to CMM. Why? Because the opposite of capability is incompetence. And the opposite of maturity is immaturity. And who wants to work for a company or a boss who is incompetent and immature? Who thinks such a company could succeed? Each and every company - even one-person businesses like mine - is more likely to survive and thrive if we take responsibility for developing our own capability and maturity as an organization so that we can reliably delight our customers.


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