Compliance and Improvement

– are not mutually exclusive, although we often seem to make them so.

Let me be really controversial and lay the blame for stagnation at the door of ISO9001 certification! Not the standard itself, for it is only a set of requirements we choose to meet. However, when it is seen as the Holy Grail of quality, we design our systems to meet it and dread doing anything that might be different. We forget the purpose of the organisation, the real needs of the customers, the needs of the workforce and, probably, other needs too many to list.

The documented management system is seen as something to be adhered to at all costs, even when, say, it drives us to write purchase orders for things we’ve already bought over the phone. Forms are filled out slavishly and retrospectively and, if they’re not, internal audit raises nonconformances.  Internal audits focus on compliance with every word of the documentation and clause of ISO9001 (or the system or auditor’s interpretation of it).  Change is feared.

That is not to say change should not be feared, for it is change that usually catches us out – something changes without us being aware or it, or being in control of it, and we end up fighting metaphorical (or, sometimes, literal) fires.  Change can also be good – and most change should be good, very good. If nothing changes nothing improves and, unless we claim perfection already, improvement should be our desire.

When I started to write this piece I was planning to compare two “quality trades” – those who focus on the management systems and those who focus on the work done within the systems (30 years ago I might have contrasted “quality assurance” with “quality control”).  The two “trades” are complementary, both essential to any organisation, and both focus on that elusive term “quality”.  However, when contrasting them I decided it was better to focus on outcomes rather than outputs.

Quality professionals, whilst contributing towards compliance (and being one of the team that provides assurance where needed), should be focusing on improvement.  A formally documented management system, where one doesn’t yet exist, should be one step on the road to improvement; in developing it, quality professionals should be studying to understand the processes in place within the system and looking to address those that are not optimal.  Inefficiencies, waste, duplication, etc. all need to be eliminated as far as practical; think muda (the seven wastes, for example) – not just ISO9001.  And as I write this, it looks like clause ISO9001:2015 will have a clause entitled something along the lines of Opportunities and risks.

Compliance and improvement can easily sit alongside other if we want them to – but it needs quality professionals who know their profession, understand the business they’re in, understand management theory and able to put theory into practice.

(Posted as a blog 17th March 2014)