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Denise Robitaille


How Is a Scrabble Game Like a Quality Management System?

In games and business, strategy rules

Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - 10:35

The headline’s question seemed a bit far-fetched to me when it was originally posed. The answer provided another delightful illustration of the myriad analogies we find in our everyday lives that relate so effortlessly to our work as quality professionals. The comparison demonstrated the complexity and uniqueness of each organization’s quality management system (QMS).


This analogy is so clever that I wish I could claim authorship. But I am indebted to Bob Pojasek of Capaccio Environmental Engineering for his presentation at BOSCON (ASQ Boston Section’s annual conference).

So, back to Scrabble and your QMS. Consider this: Every Scrabble game has a defined number of tiles. It is also played within the constraints of the game board. In order to complete the game, players need to organize all the tiles into legitimate words, based on an identified standard (e.g., Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus) and create an interconnected pattern that contains all the tiles. There are other rules. For example: No tile can be orphaned over to one side. No letters can abut any others unless the abutment results in an acceptable word.

Let’s look at our typical QMS standard: ISO 9001 (or any sector-derived equivalent, like AS9100C, ISO/TS 16949, or ISO/IEC 17025). They all have rules—a bunch of “shalls” that we are required to conform with. It defines a structure and it has a variety of elements that you have to implement, applying them to your own organization—your playing field or game board.

What’s neat about the analogy is that it illustrates the choices that you have. There may be a bunch of rules, and there may be a specified number of requirements—“shalls,” but you get to decide how they all fit together.

Let’s take a couple of examples and further develop this analogy. Let’s say you’ve got seven tiles: A, A, B, L, E, U, T. You could, over the course of several turns, make small words like “but,” “lat,” and “ale,” with connections like the “A” in “lat” doing double service as the first letter in “ale.” You’ve got three words with minimal interconnection. But it complies with the rules of the game. Someone else could instead make “beau” and “late.” A third player could choose to make one big word: “tableau.”

The initial seven letters represent different activities relating to the ISO 9001:2008 requirements for management of customer-owned product, identification and traceability, and preservation of product. Following this analogy, one organization has chosen to define the requirements for these activities in three unique procedures, while the other organization has chosen to combine all the activities and corresponding requirements into one procedure. One is not better than the other. They’re simply different applications of the same requirements.

The other similarity between your QMS and a Scrabble game is that things change. As you use up letters, you get new ones. And just like in a QMS, you are vulnerable and should pay attention to the concerns of interested parties (stakeholders)—in this case, the other players. The manner in which they deploy their tiles is directly relevant to your ability to succeed.

The choices the organization gets to make exceed the simple structure and implementation of the QMS. It also establishes plans and decisions about how to assign personnel, schedule work, and expend resources. You decide where to put things and how to fit them together—what to do and when to do it.

The analogy doesn’t just work for establishing and documenting a QMS. However, it continues to work well as we consider planning, preventive action, risk management, and allocation of resources. In Scrabble, there are different points that are scored depending on how you play the tiles. Using all your letters gets you a whopping 50-point bonus—a major coup that gives you an immediate advantage in the ultimate outcome of the game. However, you haven’t saved any vowels or strategized on the next move. Having cleared your tray, you now have seven new letters that need to somehow fit onto the game board. So, what originally looked like a bold, efficient move that garnered you immediate results will probably result in some constraints on future moves, resulting in lackluster scores that may or may not allow you to make steady, but unremarkable, process toward your goal.

You may discover that you must now attempt to fit the other more unique letters, like the “Q” onto the board, despite the fact that you’ve already used up one of the limited number of “U” letter tiles in the game. That’s always a gamble. Do I save that resource in case I need it? Or do I expend it now to get almost instantaneous payback? Applying this reasoning to a QMS implementation: Do we bunch everything up together and just get the system certified? Or do we spend a little more time and energy and make sure we get the best layout of all the processes with a more robust and meaningful system that has a better chance of yielding our goals of profitability and continued sustainability?

There aren’t any right answers, but there are lots of choices. You get to decide how elaborate your documentation and processes are. You get to decide how they’re defined and implemented. You choose how they are sequenced and interrelated. The complexity of the interrelations should be appropriate to the nature of your business. However, just like in Scrabble where no letter can sit alone on the board, there should be no processes that are not somehow connected to others (e.g., calibration to inspection, and both of them to record-retention that will be used for root cause analysis and internal auditing). This is a manifestation of one of the quality management principles: systems approach to management.

Regardless of the decisions, in most cases, with due diligence everything will eventually work out. So lay your game tiles out so that your strategy allows you to win the game. Scrabble, anyone?


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Authored of more than a dozen books on a variety of quality topicsDenise Robitaille has participated internationally in standards development for more than 20 years, serving in several leadership roles, including her current position as chair of TC176/SC1. That committee is responsible for the development of ISO 9000, the guiding document on quality fundamentals and terminology that is the foundation for ISO 9001.

Robitaille also chairs PC302, the committee responsible for revising the ISO 19011 standard on auditing quality management systems. She has facilitated the implementation of ISO 9001 for multiple organizations for more than 25 years, is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality, and a certified lead assessor.


Innovative Thinking!



When I read the heading of your post, I wasn't too sure the answer was going to be satisfactory. Nevertheless, you piqued my curiosity. And, boy am I glad I read on. What an absolutely fantastic analogy between Scrabble & a quality management system. I intend to use it to describe the QMS to people I work with.


Please pass on my thanks to Bob Pojasek.


Regards, Shrikant Kalegaonkar (twitter: shrikale)