NaÔve quality systems

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This paper questions classical approaches to quality assurance.


Product quality. 1

Process quality. 2

Remarks. 2


Product quality

Six Sigma (for example) is a systematic methodology that uses information and statistical analysis to measure and improve a company's operational performance, practices and systems.

It proceeds by identifying and preventing 'defects' in manufacturing and service-related processes.

The aim is to anticipate and exceed expectations of all stakeholders, and accomplish effectiveness.

Three critical elements are:

         The philosophy: to reduce variation in your business and take customer-focused, data-driven decisions.

         Measurement: the talk is of looking for 3.4 defects per million opportunities (DPMO) in manufacturing processes,

         The methodology: five phases: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control (DMAIC) a data-driven quality strategy for improving processes.


What is wrong with this approach?

Production lines and mass manufacturing are one thing.

Knowledge workers and professional service provision is another

Many businesses do not deliver products whose quality can be assessed on the way to delivery.

How to assess the quality of what a doctor, lawyer or consultant is doing?

And even when the product or service is complete, it can be difficult to measure its success or failure

One may of course ask customers to complete customer satisfaction surveys.

But satisfaction with the process counts for nothing if the final product or service is a failure.

And may take months or years before the final outcome of the work is known, if ever.


The result is that service providers have turned to quality management approaches that assess process quality rather than product quality

Process quality

For organisations that perform substantial processes to deliver a service or product, there are process quality approaches

Perhaps the most well-known approaches those defined in the ISO 9000 and CMMI standards.

These standards have led to the creation an assessment industry

You can employ people to check you are following processes you claim to be following.

The assessment is often based on checking that documents and reports have been completed using pre-defined templates.


I have nothing against document templates; I recommend people develop templates and use them.

But if you donít know what is wrong with reducing the quality assurance of rich and complex human activity system to a formula assessable by a bureaucrat.

Checking that a hugely complex specification has used the right version of a document template.

Checking the date in the footer matches the date on the front page (I kid you not).

Then I canít begin to tell you here.


Much of the work we do takes place in a rich and complex human activity system.

People need to apply considerable intelligence and experience to the work at hand.

Be wary of:

         assuming the structure of the management hierarchy is the most important thing.

         assuming that measuring process quality will lead to product or service quality

         underestimating the effect that individual personalities and skills have in success

         underestimating the effect that chance plays in success.


See also the ďHuman Factors in Hierarchical OrganisationsĒ page at



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