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Denise Robitaille


Who’s on First?

And who’s responsible for doing what?

Published: Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - 21:00

The Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” is one of the greatest comic treasures of our time. Bud Abbott begins listing the improbable names of his team players: Who, What and I Don’t Know (the three basemen), while a befuddled and increasingly frustrated Lou Costello tries to nail down the names in the line-up. In this sketch, “Who’s on first?” is both a question and an answer.Like so many other humorous gems, the hilarity is tempered by the reality from which it springs. We often don’t know who does what.

It’s a common occurrence in organizations to find that the communication of responsibility and authority is inadequate. Sub-clause 5.5.1 of ISO 9001:2000 states: “Top management shall ensure that responsibilities and authorities are defined and communicated within the organization.” This requirement is generally covered with verbiage in the company’s quality manual. We do a pretty good job of saying who is responsible for the entire enterprise. Traditionally, there may be bulleted text defining the responsibilities of the executives and senior managers. This is followed by an organizational chart that serves the dual purpose of describing the chain of command and illustrating some departmental interfaces. Finally, there’ll be a generic catch-all phrase stating that other responsibilities and authorities will be defined in related procedures. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.

Formalized documented procedures made it easier to remember to say who is responsible for different tasks and who has the authority to make decisions. There was traditionally a section titled “Responsibility.” But, ISO 9001:2000 shifted the emphasis away from documented procedures in favor of optional formatting that was more reflective of unique organizations and their internal cultures. However, when the process is defined in a less-structured format, saying who does what sometimes gets forgotten.

This failure to identify the responsible parties is the source of many breakdowns in organizations. Without adequate deliberation of qualifications, assignment of tasks, delegation of authority, or allocation of personnel, we hamper the ability of the organization to effectively implement appropriate action.

The responsibilities need not be embedded into a procedure. What is required is that they be defined and communicated. ISO 9001:2000, in sub-clause 5.5.1, assigns top management the responsibility for ensuring that this happens. It can be done through project plans, schedules, memos, morning meetings and bulletin boards—just to name a few. The important thing to remember when using these methods of communication is that there must be consensus as to their application and there must be adequate control to ensure that they’re consistently and uniformly utilized.

Over the years, I’ve observed two processes that are particularly representative of this problem: corrective action and management review. In both cases, the standard requires as an output of the processes identification and implementation of action, items related to the inputs. For management review, these inputs relate to information about such things as objectives, performance indicators and customer feedback. The input into the corrective action process is the identification of a problem of significant magnitude and risk to warrant the corrective action.

The output for each includes a plan of action. The plan must include identification of the individuals who have been assigned to implement the action(s). Implicit in the assignment is a deliberation of the qualification of the individuals and their availability. Assigning a task to someone who’s going to be tied up for the next three months with another high-profile project is as fruitless as not designating anyone at all. It practically ensures that the task will not get done. It may also result in a loss of morale, as individuals end up feeling perpetually defeated by unrealistic demands on their time.

Less of an issue is the occasional delegation of a project to someone who doesn’t have the appropriate skill set or the requisite level of authority. Sometimes management grabs the first person who volunteers without ensuring that he or she is really the best fit for the task. Again, the results often include a frustrated individual who’s trying to do the right thing, without having adequate knowledge or ability.

For management review, there should be a person’s name next to every action item that comes out of the review process. Who will:

  • Follow-up on the customer surveys
  • Prepare the companywide announcement about the merger
  • Communicate the updated objectives to the various functions
  • Revise the metrics for the objectives
  • Research the new equipment technology introduced at the last trade show
  • Investigate training available on new environmental mandates
  • Initiate the corrective action issued relative to late deliveries

For corrective actions, the questions might include who will:

  • Revise documents affected by the change
  • Verify that the change is consistent with regulatory requirements
  • Update the production schedule
  • Check to see if any other customers’ deliveries will be affected by the plan and contact them
  • Conduct training on the revised process
  • Authorized the expenditure of monies
  • Cover for the individuals while they’re being trained
  • Assess the effectiveness of the corrective action

Some of the actions may already be considered part of someone’s job. However, it isn’t always appropriate to assume that the person is aware of a change that falls outside of his or her normal everyday tasks. The person also deserves the courtesy of being told if something big is coming along that will eat up a giant chunk of his or her time.

Following are some basic rules for appropriate assignment of tasks:

  • As part of the plan, always say who does what.
  • Make sure people you select are qualified.
  • Ensure that they have the time.
  • Don’t volunteer other people without their knowledge or their boss’ consent.

Otherwise, half way through a project, you’ll find yourself asking: “Who’s on first?”


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.