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Barbara A. Cleary


Checking Off the Box

Flawed attention to compliance stands in the way of improvement

Published: Wednesday, April 26, 2017 - 11:03

Complying to requirements and standards is sufficient to meet the objectives of injury and accident prevention, and ensure the health and safety of all employees—right?

In his article, “We’re blinded by compliance bias,” health and safety consultant Dan Markiewicz says no, citing data indicating that only 19 percent of occupational deaths are due to injury. The rest? Diseases such as circulatory impairment and cancer, which have nothing to do with OHSA or other standards to which an organization complies. Keeping employees safe with workplace standards is not sufficient to keep them healthy.

Quality professionals have long recognized that simply meeting standards is not enough to achieve organizations’ quality improvement objectives. After all, standards are stable recommendations, and processes are fluid and dynamic. The “zero defects” mantra illustrates an extreme of this concept, because it implies that it is possible and desirable to invest in efforts that will secure this objective. However, the costs associated with such a quest could ultimately put an organization out of business entirely. That’s the extreme in zero defects.

Instead, quality professionals recognize that reducing defects is a worthwhile goal. The lean Six Sigma initiative offers the objective of reducing defects rather than eliminating them.

What about other standards? Is it possible to conform to ISO standards, for example, without achieving quality in processes and products?

We all know the student who has managed to get A's in every subject, but who hasn’t really mastered the content of any of them. Or the employee who has all fives on 1–5 performance scales, and yet who is known for missing targets or alienating colleagues. A perfect score never guarantees a perfect employee.

When conformance itself becomes the goal, the point of improvement is missed entirely. Standards are in place to support organizations’ efforts at process improvement and customer satisfaction, and although they may be necessary to keep a focus on this improvement, they are far from sufficient to guarantee it.

One of the misdirections that a focus on compliance can take is the sense of satisfaction that employees feel when standards are met. This may be seen as a kind of smugness: We’ve made it; no further worries. In fact, improvement is a continuous process, not one with a single target point. The plan-do-study-act (PDSA) cycle of W. Edwards Deming and Walter Shewhart demonstrates this; once an improvement has been standardized in this cycle, building on that improvement with a continuous PDSA cycle, including ongoing data collection, begins again, to ensure that other improvements may be forthcoming.

Standards should be seen as tools, not end points, if the good of the customer is to be considered. Improvement is a lifelong journey. And as Steve Daum, PQ Systems software engineering director, says, “When you give someone a recipe, it can become a substitute for thinking. They can get too focused, maybe too obsessed, with the recipe, and forget to occasionally taste the food.”


About The Author

Barbara A. Cleary’s picture

Barbara A. Cleary

Barbara A. Cleary, Ph.D., is a teacher at The Miami Valley School, an independent school in Dayton, Ohio, and has served on the board of education in Centerville, Ohio, for eight years—three years as president. She is corporate vice president of PQ Systems Inc., an international firm specializing in theory, process, and quality management. She holds a masters degree and a doctorate in English from the University of Nebraska. Cleary is author and co-author of five books on inspiring classroom learning in elementary schools using quality tools and techniques (i.e., cause and effect, continuous improvement, fishbone diagram, histogram, Pareto chart, root cause analysis, variation, etc.), and how to think through problems and use data effectively. She is a published poet and a writer of many articles in professional journals and magazines including CalLab, English Journal, Quality Progress, and Quality Digest.


The Standard is only the basis

Hi and congrats for the article, I think that the standard is only on the basis for starting then a continuous improvement jurnay.

I read in the past for a new ISO for the Lean Standard , what do you think about ?

Compliance must deliver performance

Kodak's world class photographic film became obsolete while complying with ISO 9001:2000, so this is an excellent point.

This topic came up at the ISO World Conference, along with the phrase "performance based audits" (or results-based audits). The truth is that compliance and results should be synergistic. If compliance with the standard, such as ISO 9001:2015, does not deliver the desired results, closed loop improvement processes should modify the (auditable) processes so they do deliver the desired results. Then compliance with the process will deliver the intended performance, and also prevent backsliding to the previous inferior methods.

This concept actually dates back to Frederick Winslow Tayor's Scientific Management. Everybody complies with the standard for the job. If an improvement is made, the standard is changed accordingly so compliance delivers the superior results.