A Publication of WTVP

Working with documents and standards as part of a continuous improvement initiative.

With the recent implementation of new quality management system requirements, I’ve found myself in several discussions involving documents and standards. If not handled properly, a company can expose itself to a multitude of problems, which has always been the case.

Standards and Expectations
There are many kinds of documents and standards: those that apply to a wide spectrum of products and services, those that cover a range of processes and test methods, and even those that provide guidance or requirements for a company’s management system.

With regard to purchased goods and services, standards are often invisible to consumers. Certainly, if your work involves testing in a steel mill or purchasing computer chips, you would definitely be aware of applicable standards. These standards form elements of contracts with suppliers and even govern how processes are performed in your own company.

It is important to keep in mind your customer’s expectations as well as those of the supplier organization when dealing with documents and standards. Standard developers and users alike need to be constantly vigilant to ensure they work for the benefit of all. While a win-win result is not always possible, it is certainly good to maintain the attitude that such a result can be achieved.

It is widely accepted that the identification of product, process and testing requirements is a critical element of any effective quality management system. The proper use and control of these standards is needed for the overall system to meet its objectives. This is an important concept, and if this attitude is overlooked, it can cause a multitude of difficulties.

A Few Key Rules
On the surface, this appears mundane. Some managers might even consider working with standards to be “non-value added”—a task many uneducated managers might target for elimination. From my years in quality, engineering, operations and research positions, there have been many situations which would tell a different story. Let’s cover a few key rules that may be used when working with internal documents or external standards.

  1. Rule #1: Read the standard carefully with a positive attitude. This puts you in a proper frame of mind. You will likely find that most of the content is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. Take careful notes on those areas that appear to be less clear or seem to suggest or imply requirements that may be difficult to accomplish.
  2. Rule #2: If it says it, it means it. When confronted with what might be the most difficult interpretation to be implemented, remember that if the document can be interpreted that way, it is very likely it will be by others as well. Seasoned quality professionals remember the difference between requirements (using keywords like “must”) and guidance (using words like “should”). Guidance is usually considered optional; however, in some situations, it can become a de facto requirement. In addition, failure to follow reasonable guidance, in some cases, can result in problems (even legal ones) at some point in the future; therefore, this rule can have critical importance.
  3. Rule #3: Brainstorm the most efficient method to implement requirements. Do this by listing all of the requirements and then brainstorming ways to achieve compliance for each requirement. Common-sense methods of implementation are the best, but if you can’t find a common-sense approach, seek other ways to do so. One good way is through the use of tools like Process Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (PFMEAs) to determine the risks of not meeting requirements.
  4. Rule #4: Test your own method. Even when you have no question as to what is required, it can be useful to cross-check to be certain all of the bases have been covered—particularly if the standard is complicated. It can be beneficial to consult with someone else with applicable experience (i.e. consulting with a heat treat engineer when the standard applies to heat treatment) to obtain their input.
  5. Rule #5: Seek clarification. When confronted with unclear areas of a document, work with the appropriate individuals to obtain clarification and reach a conclusion that will benefit all concerned. If discussions are held up-front, they can often be a source of long-term cooperation and understanding between the parties. If you can’t reach agreement on a reasonable approach, you may just need to find the most practical way to comply with the interpretation.
  6. Rule #6: Plan for change. Once all of the requirements are appropriately identified and clarification has been obtained, identify the gaps between what your organization has done in the past and what is now required. You will need to identify the needed changes in processing by considering equipment changes (new or improved), technology changes, training issues, et al., that will be needed for implementation. These changes need to be fully documented, and agreement reached from all parties involved.

The basic message is this: everyone should be viewing standards as baselines for improvement. Once a better way is found, the changes should be formalized to reflect the new process. In other words, a change is never complete until it has been formally documented and improvement comes from compliance. Failure to do so will result in slipping back to the old ways.

Improved standards can make life better for everyone. Users are the key to improving standards because they see issues never imagined by non-users. Bottom line: we should encourage everyone to get involved in making standards the best they can be. It can really be rewarding because standardization is a significant component of an organization’s continuous improvement initiatives.

Finally, to ensure visibility and recognition, make management aware of the (definable and obscure, yet beneficial) improvements made to the organization. Everyone will benefit from this clarity. iBi