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Denise Robitaille


Drive Out Fear

Until we take the fear out of audits, we'll never reap their full benefits.

Published: Tuesday, September 29, 2009 - 05:00

It was the great W. Edwards Deming who first applied this tenet, “Drive out fear,” to quality management in his book Out of the Crisis (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1982) It’s one of his 14 Points for Management.

Over the last two decades, more than a million organizations have implemented ISO 9001-compliant quality management systems (QMS). The number is even greater when you consider those who have adopted sector-specific or similar QMS. Yet, how many of them abandon the tools and processes of their management systems, reverting to archaic fear laden tactics?

I submit to you that we simply aren’t walking the talk. We aren’t utilizing the best features of the management system models that we claim to have espoused. We retreat to what is comfortable—to what is known—to what we perceive as safe or prudent. We react out of fear; and in so doing we stifle innovation and improvement. We defeat the very attributes that are the hallmark of effective and sustainable quality management systems.

We dismiss the system that, in many cases, we’ve spent thousands of dollars to implement. It’s tantamount to purchasing a new piece of capital equipment or a new software program and letting it sit idle.

Let’s look at how fear drives some of our processes and how vanquishing this fear will allow us to use our quality management system to experience real benefit.

Let’s start with the auditing. The textbook definition found in ISO 19011:
“… systematic, independent and documented process for obtaining audit evidence (3.3) and evaluating it objectively to determine the extent to which audit criteria (3.2) are fulfilled.”

Now let’s consider the players: There’s the auditee. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first-, second-, or third-party audit, auditees do not want to get dinged with a nonconformity. They will go to great lengths to avoid the dreaded nonconformance. Individuals are afraid of auditors. They will try to cast situations in the most favorable light; they’ll conceal things; they might even lie. Managers and quality professionals say that an audit is about finding opportunities to improve, but our tone and our manner suggest otherwise.

How far-reaching can the consequences of this kind of culture be? Several years ago one of my clients went through an ISO 9001 implementation and certification process. During the course of the audit, one minor nonconformance was cited. The individual who had responsibility for the area was devastated. In his mind he was being blamed for the only mar on an otherwise perfect audit. He perceived the corrective action request that he was given as his punishment for having caused the nonconformance.

To alleviate his distress I explained to him that he has received the CAR because he was the one best qualified to address the problem and help fix it. The company was asking him for his help. To this he replied, “Alright, then I will tell you the truth.” Up until that moment he was afraid of the consequences if it was learned that he’d modified machine settings—with the anticipation that it would increase efficiency. He hadn’t considered the effect on the next process. But, he had had a very good idea.

Without encouragement two things would have happened:
1. We would have never gotten to the root cause because he would have done everything he could to conceal his culpability out of fear of losing his job.
2. He would have stopped thinking of ways to improve his process.

It’s not just about morale or having a feel-good environment to work in. It’s directly relevant to an organization’s ability to investigate problems thoroughly and uncover the information that will allow us to improve.

Of course, this is just a reflection of the fear that’s been impressed on them by top management. Look at their attitude toward certification bodies. I’ve observed audits where the auditor was wrong; and I told my client that he should challenge the finding. “Oh, no. We don’t want to upset the auditor. We don’t want to get dinged with any majors or minors.”

The auditees are not the only ones who are afraid. This is almost laughable, but let’s talk about the registrars. They’re afraid of getting a reputation for being too tough because that means they’ll lose clients. So they guide their auditors ever so subtly toward the very serious “minor” nonconformance. So the auditors end up afraid of upsetting the clients and getting fired.

The certification bodies are afraid of losing clients; organizations are afraid of getting nonconformances; auditors are afraid of getting fired; and the person on the manufacturing floor just wants to run for cover.

All of this results from a process that is supposed to be objective, nonconfrontational and intended to drive improvement. We end up by devaluing the work of organizations that have robust management systems. We also imperil the entire conformity assessment industry. This is tremendously unfortunate because in this global economy the integrity of organizations who have implemented an internationally recognized QMS is a very desirable thing.

That’s what we say. But we are not walking the talk. We dwell in the realm of fear. We aren’t listening to Deming’s wisdom: Drive out fear.

Fear is not just in the auditing process.

Let’s look at design and development. Have you ever been in a company when there’s been a major snafu with a new product launch?

The new major release was scheduled to coincide with the gigantic annual trade show. Unfortunately, while your competitors all had flashing, spinning, awe-inspiring whirly-gigs to display, all your sales rep had were some very nice glossy photos and a slide show of what your product will look like when it gets out of prototype.

Now it’s a week after the debacle. An event is held that is referred to as the post-mortem. Actually, it happens for every project. But when things are bad, the term "post-mortem” is fairly accurate because someone’s job is dead and gone. The outcome of this meeting is that someone will get fired.

So, what’s the likelihood that people will be honest about what went on during the project? Who will dare the wrath of the boss by suggesting that diverting three software engineers to a secondary project to appease a customer may have had an adverse effect? Who wants to admit that we may have underestimated the time the project would take? What engineers will concede that they should have brought the purchasing folks in early on to do an evaluation of the new supplier who had the special component that was the lynch pin of your new design—except they were also in prototype and things didn’t pan out.

Instead of asking the hard questions; instead of looking at what the records and data show; the participants in the post mortem resort to concealment or blame.

They don’t ask questions about how the design plan was set up, how it was deployed, how it was funded, if there was adequate staff, if the purchasing people were brought into the loop soon enough, if communication channels were sufficient, if the plan was revised after the design review showed more work needed to be done, and on and on…. They don’t use any of the great tools of the root cause analysis process.

There’s no opportunity to investigate what went wrong and to formulate a plan to correct the process.

The next project will suffer the same fate, except now people are really, really afraid because they know they’re doing the same thing and the result will be the same, and then someone’s going to come out of that post-mortem without a job. Because they’re afraid, they don’t want to suggest something untried because the risk of failure is too great and the consequences are… back to the post-mortem. There goes the opportunity for innovation.

Deming talked about suppliers when he said, “End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag alone.” This is fear transferred to our relationships with our suppliers. Lower your price or we’ll go elsewhere. What does the data show? It costs more to develop a new supplier than to work with the one you have. Consider costs of researching alternate sources, conducting supplier audits, getting samples, conducting tests…. How much time and money will be spent? Let’s stop terrorizing our suppliers.

Managers tell people to get stuff done in three hours when all the historical data suggests that it will take at least four. There are only two possible outcomes:
1. The project won’t get done on time and people will feel marginalized and fearful they will lose their jobs.
2. Employees will cut corners (there goes control of the process), and probably make mistakes that will eventually result in customer returns and possibly lose the customer.

Whatever happened to the notions of quality and control? We abandon our processes out of fear that they won’t work when the chips are down. I once asked a manager why they hadn’t initiated corrective action for a serious problem that was costing them money and affecting their reputation with key customers. The answer was, “That quality stuff is okay, but this is important….” So they put together a committee and made it into a big project, but ignored the good data, the investigative tools, and the results of audits, and never solved the problem.

There is value in maintaining control of well-developed processes. If they’re lousy processes that only pay lip service to a standard's requirements—to please the auditors that we’re afraid of—they’re less than worthless. They are a drain on resources. But good processes, that are well-defined, consistently implemented, verified periodically as effective—these are processes that make things go. These are the ones that benefit the bottom line.

Where are the tools you’ll need in order to take action? Again, they’re scattered liberally throughout your QMS. They relate to establishing objectives, planning, qualification of suppliers, management review, controlling production and service processes, training, and monitoring both internal and external factors.

It’s time to start walking the talk and trusting the QMS in which you’ve invested so much time and money. It’s time to drive out fear.


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.


misused word

I believe the word 'becomes' in this article should be 'because'. Becomes just doesn't fit. I have copied the paragraph with the questioned word below. It is found, in the published on line version, near the bottom of page two:

"Now it’s a week after the debacle. An event is held that is referred to as the post-mortem. Actually, it happens for every project. But when things are bad, the term "post-mortem” is fairly accurate becomes someone’s job is dead and gone. The outcome of this meeting is that someone will get fired. "

Good catch

Good catch. No more editing at 2 a.m. for me.