Denise Robitaille  |  02/27/2009

The People, Yes

Ignore them at your company’s peril.

One of the most interesting books I’ve read is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon and Schuster, 2006). It’s a historical narrative of Lincoln’s administration, focusing on the dynamics of his cabinet.

Lincoln was dedicated to preserving the Union. At the time of the Civil War, the United States was less than 100 years old. The system of government “… of the people, for the people, by the people…” was unique in the world. Lincoln perceived that if our nation was dissolved, the great experiment of self-governance would have failed. The notion that common people, leading everyday lives, could make a difference would have been invalidated.

Implicit in Lincoln’s stance is an unerring comprehension of the importance of people to any organization, community, or enterprise. This attitude is echoed in the words of Carl Sandburg in his book, The People, Yes. Later, W. Edwards Deming added, “Drive out fear…,” which is No. 8 of his 14 points for management. These are the steps we walk in.

The voice of the people is a big deal. People matter. The work they do has value.

Of the eight quality management principles found in ISO 9004 that are used as basic inputs for developing ISO 9001, the third principle is “involvement of people.” ISO 9004--“Quality management systems--Guidelines for performance improvements,” states: “People at all levels are the essence of an organization and their full involvement enables their abilities to be used for the organization’s benefit.” Without people an organization has no essence; it can’t exist.

ISO 9001 and ISO 9004 create the link between quality management system (QMS) standards and the vision of the luminaries who came before.

Although a company isn’t a democracy, and the model of self-determination has constraints when applied to an enterprise, I’d like to review how endorsing people’s involvement plays out in ISO 9001. It relates directly to the effectiveness of the entire QMS and positively affects the bottom line.

During QMS implementation, I’ve often hit the defeatist wall as hourly workers protest: “This is all fine and well, but the managers aren’t really going to support this.” Or, “We can do all this stuff, but we’ll never get management buy-in.” The feeling is that nothing will change. Their insight and suggestions will be ignored. Management will abdicate responsibility for making the implementation succeed and relegate its maintenance to one or two overworked “quality” employees.

Unfortunately, this cultural blue funk stifles opportunities for problem solving, growth, improvement, and innovation. Not only does it limit the payback on investment, it also violates the QMS’s basic precepts, rendering it noncompliant to a QMS standard.

ISO 9001 is replete with requirements that directly or indirectly mandate that management listen to the concerns of employees and address their needs. These are “shalls”--i.e., requirements. They’re not optional recommendations.

Here are a few of the many subclauses that are particularly relevant.

5.1: “Top management shall provide evidence of its commitment… by … e) ensuring the availability of resources.” Management must ensure that people have the tools, information, and environment they need to do their jobs effectively. Management can’t turn a blind eye to identified needs. Again, bear in mind that this is a “shall.”

8.2.2: “The management responsible for the area being audited shall ensure that actions are taken without undue delay to eliminate detected nonconformances and their causes.” If the identified cause (or causes) of a nonconformance is inadequate planning, lack of training, poor documentation, ineffective communication, or some other lack of resources, the standard requires management to address the cause. I especially like this “shall” because it illustrates the value of auditing. It creates an objective and nonthreatening conduit for management to be aware of the obstacles to people’s optimum performance.

5.5.3: “Top management shall ensure that appropriate communication channels are established within the organization….” There must be effective methods of communicating. Individuals can’t fulfill requirements if they don’t know what’s expected. It’s difficult to do your best when it’s being measured against a yardstick that’s been concealed.


Bottom line: If you’re committed to being an ISO 9001-compliant organization, you can’t ignore the importance of people involvement. This isn’t just an idealistic abstraction; it’s the difference between success and failure.


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.