Implementing ISO-9001: when people meet systems

Why not read our latest blog post, Industrial Strategy Boosting Technical Skills?

Quality CycleFirms implement the ISO-9001 quality standard generally for two reasons. The first is simply as a marketing activity where the key outcome needed is the ISO certifying organisation’s logo on headed notepaper and website. The second is as a vehicle to the general improvement of the business. This blog looks at the latter case – where a firm wants to evolve its systems into those that would comply with the standard and be good for the firm in general. It uses as a model a company that could by many standards already be considered a ‘quality firm’. It comes from a standpoint that the firm is not trying to use ISO-9001 to rescue it from demise.  Indeed most firms that enjoy a modicum of success are most likely to be quality firms since they would not be satisfying their customers otherwise.  ISO-9001 is about customer orientation and incremental improvement for future good.

This idea of focus on the customer and knowledge of what the customer feels about the firm’s goods and services is central to ISO-9001. Whilst in principle therefore ISO-9001 implementation should be simple, the people aspects of the standard must not be underestimated. People can easily thwart management change initiatives such as standards compliance.

Changing Hearts and Minds

Firms implementing ISO-9001 will realise that there are many choices to be made. In the simplest, the firm can simply search on the Internet and find a vendor who will give the necessary documentation for under £1000. This documentation can be applied and the firm will get certification. This approach does nothing to improve the firm’s internal systems and hence does nothing to improve its quality and ultimately its bottom line.

The alternative to this simple approach is that the firm treats the adoption of ISO-9001 as a companywide learning experience. This requires staff engagement with the project and with the knowledge and skills needed by the implementation activity. There are four principal areas where staff engagement is essential:

  • in building the quality manual,
  • in implementing auditing,
  • in evolving procedures and
  • in taking responsibility and reviewing.

This blog goes on to show the central role that people play in such an important change activity.

Building the Quality Manual

It’s in the quality manual where people and systems come together. ISO-9001 requires that the company documents its systems. Note that at this point the firm can choose: does the quality manual just cover quality-oriented processes or is it the company system in its entirety that is being captured. There is huge benefit in the latter.

Quality manuals should never be large documents – Indeed ISO9001 – 2015 now omits the mandate that a Quality Manual as such is used. If they are so large that people in the company cannot perceive the document in its entirety and specifically understand the procedures that apply to them then it’s unlikely that they will ever refer to the manual and less likely that they will actually follow its discipline. The quality manual needs to capture what the people do in the organisation to progress liaison with customers from initial encounter through satisfaction of need to collection of monies. In most firms such procedures are best captured in diagrammatic form – words are too difficult to comprehend and even more complicated to write to avoid ambiguity. The ISO-9001 quality manager or project manager needs to understand the best diagramming for his or her people.

The quality manual should capture what people do and not what management would like them to do – change comes later. The ISO-9001 project manager must spend considerable time with each department capturing inputs, processes and outputs (referred to as an IPO approach). An output from strategy is an input to product marketing. Output from product marketing is an input to sales and an output from sales is an input operations. Using an IPO approach it is relatively simple to capture everything that happens in the firm. This capture activity where people meet systems should be used as the first of many to win hearts and minds and persuade staff of the value of the standard.

Implementing Auditing

ISO-9001 has at its heart the idea that checks will be done to confirm the systems expressed in the quality manual are actually done. At this point the firm has another choice. It can assign responsibility for its auditing either to an internal department or an external provider. As an alternative it can task each and every member of the company to take their part in the auditing activity. Auditing teams can be assembled for a few hours a year and commitment rotated in departments.  Contracting auditing to a third party does nothing to build the quality ethos in the firm. It immediately causes the standards to be identified as something that is ‘bolted on’ to the normal activities of the firm. Having staff do auditing has huge benefits.

Many quality consultants ‘big up’ auditing. Auditing is simple. It requires that the owner of a process (and we assume that everyone who follows or undertakes a process takes on ownership) illustrates to a knowledgeable and relatively independent person that they know what they’re doing, that they are following the processes that they’ve agreed to and that those processes are meaningful in supporting the firm’s strategy.

In the aggregated IPO activity noted above, what better auditor of the marketing department than its customer, the sales department? Sales operatives will have some understanding of the marketing processes and this understanding will be improved through audit relationships. Opportunities for improvement can be discussed between auditor and audit subject.  Such opportunities will be missed where auditing is contracted out.  Similarly the huge benefits from inter-staff and inter-department discussion will also be missed. In implementing ISO-9001 the interpersonal relationships that auditing encourages must not be underestimated and appropriate skills training given.

Evolving Procedures

When a company first captures its procedures it’s very unlikely that these will be a perfect reflection of what the company actually does. It’s more likely that they are one or two individual’s ideas which need to be confirmed and the procedures will likely be changed as auditing ripples through the company. The quality manual (or perhaps better titled, the company manual) forms the basis for the procedures. Each audit provides evidence that the procedures are being followed and that both procedure and what is done is viewed critically by auditor and audit subject. This allows improvement to be suggested by two of the most relevant individuals.

In addition to evidence of compliance, there are four possible outcomes from an audit. The first is compliance – that the procedure is followed. The second is that the procedure is not followed and there is a major nonconformity. Whilst this could be viewed as a disaster, it is simply an opportunity for the company to change the procedure to better reflect what it really does. The standard gives guidance about essential aspects of the procedures which go to strengthen quality. The third is that there is a minor nonconformity requiring some corrective action and again this forms an opportunity for change. The final outcome is that whilst the procedure is compliant, there is room for improvement and an opportunity for improvement is logged. Three of the four outcomes involve opportunity for change and must be viewed in a very positive light. Indeed the most negative is the case where there is simply compliance.

Responsibility and Review

Probably the most frequent ISO-9001 systemic failures come from lack of management responsibility and management review. It is critically important that the managing director meets the external auditor and convinces him by his preparedness to attend surveillance visits of his absolute commitment to the standard and the ethos of quality.

Quality Review Agenda

Typical Quality Review Agenda

The management team conducts a management review meeting from time to time against a standard agenda. Comparing this agenda and an agenda that one might develop for the management team in general will show dramatic similarity. After all we suggest above that the quality manual is nothing but a companywide system manual. The quality management review is therefore nothing but a general management review.  Perhaps the only difference is that the auditors should attend to discuss those opportunities for improvement – opportunities for the company to better satisfy its customers.

There are several key agenda items that should resonate with all directors.

Review is therefore an opportunity for management to learn about how well the firm is doing in satisfying its customers. Where staff have developed the system manual and where staff audit their peers, review is an opportunity for management to learn how well its people are integrated within the systems and how engaged and committed staff are to central goals.

Implementing ISO-9001: when people meet systems.

The above debate suggests that whilst ISO-9001 can be achieved by bolting on a quality system to the normal operation of a firm, the firm will benefit little save the ability to use the stamp of the certification body on its marketing literature.  It will miss the huge learning opportunity for all.

There are simple principles that can be adopted under which everyone in the company benefits. ISO-9001 enables every firm adopting it to get a handle on its processes and how its customers feel about what its doing. But don’t miss the people aspects: people are part of the procedures; they should be part of procedure development, of procedure audit and of procedure change.

Managing people is complex. Get specialist help.

Call Us Today