How many Quality Managers does it take to kill a tree?

Posted by Craig Thornton

Unfortunately the answer to the above question is invariably “just one”.

Such is the propensity of many a Quality Manager to continuously write and rewrite policies & procedures, they must be spending over half of their time ‘playing’ with paper.  

But why?


Policies and procedures by the pound? Yep, I can do that!

I guess Quality Managers must think that it is the most important function of their role.  Having lots of policies certainly seems to show that work is being done.  

But even as a young Quality Manager I knew I was chasing shadows.  The notion that as soon as I updated a procedure all managers would come running to my door and kneel, waiting for me to tell them of the changes, and then rush back to their departments to pass on these great changes to the masses… yeah, right.

What I found was that these great works of non-fiction were read, at best, only 4 times:

  1. When a new employee started and the documents formed part of their training.
  2. When it was audited as part of our internal audit programme.
  3. When we had our 3rd party audit.
  4. When something went pear-shaped and we wondered what the procedure said.

Don’t get me wrong, these are important documents - in some industries they are very important - but as a general rule they just need to be there for certification and add little or no value. 


Why have procedures? 

So…if procedures aren’t often read by anyone besides their author and add little value, why do so many managers spend so much time on them?

I believe that writing procedures is a displacement activity for getting in front of people and directly talking with them.  Many Quality Managers simply don’t have the skills to communicate directly with senior management and employees.  They aren’t confident about their position in the organisational hierarchy or competent speaking their mind.  Often they are a bit set in their ways and not great at listening. 

This is such a shame because good direct communication skills are vital in implementing a quality management system (QMS).  In fact, I’d say that direct communicationis the key skill. 


Quality Managers and Direct Communication

In quality management you have to be able to listen, question, observe, debate and persuade.  Try doing that effectively from behind a desk – it’s just about impossible.  Direct communication involves getting in front of people on a regular basis.  You know that awkward, stilted conversation that you have when you meet someone only occasionally? 

Getting in front of a person regularly and talking with them (as opposed to talking at them), builds a relationship and makes communication freer and more honest.  This is the bedrock of a great quality system.

One Quality Manager I spoke with recently said that he had radically changed the way he worked.  Instead of spending most of his time behind his desk, he made a decision to visit and talk with employees at the worksite on a daily basis, checking their work and discussing the value to the customer of what they were doing.  By doing this he was able to demonstrate that the cost of quality had been reduced by 50%!  All within a couple of weeks. 

Now this is a Quality Manager that had tools to measure the cost of quality. But how many procedures were written to bring about this drastic change? Not one.  Just simple regular communication with his fellow employees helped to significantly reduce the costs of quality.

If I had a just-starting-out, keen-as-mustard Quality Manager in front of me, or indeed a jaded, seen-it-all-before Old Timer, I would tell them this:


Policies and procedures are a systems necessity, so make them as clear as possible. 

  1. Remember who your audience is.
  2. Standards don’t require you to put extracts of the standard into a procedure to make it look really important.
  3. Standards don’t require you to make procedures so detailed that the reader would rather die before getting to the end of it.
  4. Don’t write 1000 words when a couple of pictures will do.
  5. Remember the difference between a policy and a procedure.  Not everything is a policy, and having one will not make an employee do their job better.
  6. Make the system structure simple so that policies and procedures can be quickly found. If they’re not easily found, you are hiding something.
  7. Never change your system structure if an auditor suggests it, unless of course your system is broken.


Quality systems are all about communication.

Shut down Excel, get out from behind your desk and go and do some talking and listening.  Policies and procedures aren’t a replacement for direct communication – they should flow from it.  There are no shortcuts here. 


The bottom line

Documenting a policy or procedure in itself achieves very little. The real value is how you capture the information and how you drive its adoption - both of which need good communication. Get in amongst it - be a change agent, not a paper pusher.


Tags: Quality Management