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Are You a Slave To Your Quality Management System? (Part 1)


When I first started working, IT businesses tended to fall into one of two categories - those that had a Quality Management System and those that didn't. Those that did tended to have a library of management standards (literally - there would be rooms stacked full of folders with thousands of pages of policies, processes and procedures) which employees were expected to obey without question. The whole purpose of the Quality Department was to maintain the Quality Management System and to ensure compliance to it. The Quality Management System not only represented thousands of trees, but the amassed knowledge, understanding and wisdom of the organisation over its lifetime.

Over time, these libraries have been (mostly) replaced by equally enormous libraries of on-line documents much to the relief of trees and tree huggers over the planet (but to the chagrin of printers). More and more companies have moved from the "have none" category to the "have" category thanks to the relentless movement towards ISO, CMMI, ITIL and whatever other set of standards, models and frameworks you wish to add.

What most of these companies share is that what they call a Quality Management System is anything but a system. In many cases it's actually a shambles, so for the rest of this piece when you see the acronym QMS it stands for Quality Management Shambles.

So how does something that starts off with a (hopefully) good intention end up in such a mess and what can you do about it?

Many organisations signed up to ISO 9000 because they were required to in order to do business with other organisations, especially government ones. Some did so because they saw that having a Quality Standard behind them help differentiate them from their competitors. Some probably did because a Quality Consultant told them it was a good idea. Whatever the underlying reason, one thing was certain - the first thing they did was to create a QMS in order to meet the requirements of the standard and then mandate that all employees followed the QMS to the letter so that the organisation could get (and subsequently keep) its certification. In many organisations, you can see that the QMS is actually organised according to the original headings of the standard in the same way that many businesses now organise their QMS to align with CMMI Process Areas. Over time, new bits got added to correspond to new departments, regulations, legislation, management proclamations and other influences. In the good places, old bits got updated or achived, and in the very good places improvement programmes were initiated to replace the bits that weren't working and so the ISO quality cycle was fulfilled. And the QMS became more and more shambolic.

By making the QMS meet a relatively arbitary standard (albeit globally recognised) the most crucial questions and drivers were generally ignored, namely:

  • What is the real purpose of the Quality Management System?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • How do we intend our staff to use it?
  • Does it reflect the way we actually work and our culture?
  • Is it aligned to the system that is our organisation?

In other words - do we control our Quality Management System or are we slaves to it?

If you don't have answers to these questions, then you should really start to reconsider whether your Quality Management System has any place in your business other than as a stick to beat your staff with, or a tool to demonstrate compliance to a standard that may or not add genuine value to your business.

Next time, I'll look at the critical success factors in designing a [Quality] Management System that is fit for purpose and can be used to enhance the working environment rather than choking it.


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