During WW2, the British war machine experienced significant bomb and bullet failures which presented quite a problem for those wielding weapons. Military Standards were developed that directed suppliers to write lots of documented procedures (sound familiar) describing how variation was to be minimised and quality controlled.

Quality control is a costly exercise and doesn’t minimise waste or rework – it basically identifies and segregates out-of-spec products and services. The first quality assurance standards were an attempt to travel upstream to identify and prevent cause.

British Standard 5750 was born and swiftly followed in Australia by the AS Series 2990, then 3900 hotly pursued by the first ISO 9000 versions. Each was (and is) a true assurance system based on total quality management principles – however are heavily reliant on documented manuals and procedures.

This is a legacy of their military roots! The backbone of military consistency and improvement are the nissan huts full of regimented manuals, procedures and operating instructions for the squaddies. These work in the military and in other high risk industries such as nuclear and aerospace. They only work because they are supported by rigorous and constant competency based training programs.

Each successive version of the 9001 series tried to recognised the inherent weaknesses of the previous models by trying to reduce the document burden and move to the mysterious ‘process approach’.  Each failed miserably until hope has emerged with very recent release of the new 2015 series of management standards based on the Annexure SL specification.

Why did they fail? The reasons are a complex stew consisting of the original military manual roots, clueless certification auditors, the fear of change and the unknown and a desire to cut organisational costs. Procedures are easy to write, they breed like cancerous cells and can be cheaply dumped on an intranet – Job Done!

The trouble is, this brood of unwelcome progeny will come back to bite you – they require continual and costly maintenance, are always out of step, auditors love to ply you with useless non-conformances that have no value and no one reads them anyway – but hey, we’re certified!

Remember the Royal Commission findings from the Longford gas plant disaster:

Esso’s OIMS, together with all the supporting manuals, comprised a complex management system. It was repetitive, circular, and contained unnecessary cross-referencing. Much of its language was impenetrable. The Commission gained the distinct impression that there was a tendency for the administration of OIMS to take on a life of its own, divorced from operations in the field…

James Reason (Swiss Cheese model) and Andrew Hopkins (Lessons from Longford) also have problems with procedures – prescriptive procedures can readily shutdown competency based decision making and stifle innovation.

The new Standards are heavily  focussed on outcome and effectiveness rather than their deceptive cousin, compliance. Compliance alone can be dangerous if it not supported by actual achievement of process objectives or desired outcome. Until now most procedures have never had a clearly defined outcome – pick one and read it. They usually start with Purpose –“this procedure was written to describe how we…..”.  First mistake – no clear process goal, objective or success outcome. It should read – “this procedure defines how all materials are delivered correctly to the right place at the right time…”   Now support this with a performance measure and effectiveness and perhaps efficiency can be determined – forget compliance as the first port of call!

The next issue – who is the target audience and how is this knowledge communicated? Oh that’s right, it’s on the intranet (grin). This is important. Should you choose to use procedures to communicate ‘how things are to be done around here’ then you have an obligation to successfully communicate this knowledge to your audience. Forget toolbox meetings – I mean competency. A real drag, right? Not really, think about it! Key knowledge, critical process – it makes sense that you are confident that your workers are competent to enact and deliver your procedure precisely – attendance at a death by PowerPoint presentation will not achieve this. Think about national training framework approaches, theory testing, practical demonstration and observation. You want procedures to work – then you need to do this.

Of course not all procedures are critical. I’m not talking about ‘managing your stationery cupboard’ stuff here. The new Standards mandate a risk-based approach – we can filter your business processes based on risk to business objectives (think revenue, profit, EBIT)..…but that is a story for another time….