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Watch Your Language! Don’t confuse processes with procedures

Many industries use industry lingo or jargon to communicate within the industry. It could be jargon used as short-hand to convey a variety of work-related information, or it could be a more technical language based on established industry vocabulary. In any case, it’s a common language understood by those who use it across an industry. Used within their esoteric industrial context, some words and terms mean something different from what they mean in casual discourse.

For example, what a framing carpenter calls a “header” is different from what a professional soccer player would call a “header.” Computer programmers use “headers” every day at work, as do printers and typographers. A professional snowboarder has yet another idea of what a “header” is. (Ouch.) The word “header” means something specific and unique to those working in their respective industries. Although they may all use the word “header” on a daily basis, each one of them is speaking a different language in a sense. The meaning of this technical term changes depending on its industrial context.

More than a bare definition

In the context of a discussion involving ISO 9001, the words “process,” “procedure,” and “system” are technical terms. They mean something specific to ISO 9001 practitioners. The full meaning of a technical term, however, isn’t always readily grasped from its definition. Some education or training is often required to fully understand technical jargon. To borrow a term from philosophers, these words are “theory laden.” To fully understand them, one must understand not only their context, but the theory behind them.

Per ISO 9000:2005, a procedure is a “specified way to carry out an activity or a process,” a process is a “set of interrelated or interacting activities which transforms inputs into outputs,” and a system is a “set of interrelated or interacting elements”. Click here to learn more about ISO 9000.

By themselves, these definitions are of limited value. Once some background information is supplied, however, they make better sense. Without adequate understanding of these terms, certain pitfalls present themselves that invite errors in management system definition.

Process vs. procedure vs. documented procedure

Every process of human design is developed to meet some objective—the process objective, the reason for processing. During processing, activities are busy transforming inputs into the needed outputs. A process itself is something that happens.

A procedure is a description of (or prescription for) processing. It’s “the proper way to do it,” as specified by management. Every process has one, even if it’s loose or vague.

When a procedure is conveyed in some type of durable media, instead of being related only verbally, we now have a documented procedure.

A Customer Property “procedure”?

When organizations adopt procedures to address the treatment of customer property, it’s in response to the corresponding requirement of ISO 9001. Before ISO 9001 came along, no company had a process called “Customer Property.” So, no company had a procedure (let alone a documented procedure) called “Customer Property.” After ISO 9001 came into the picture, however, many organizations adopted QMS procedures called “Customer Property.”

Generally, when customer property is submitted to an organization, it’s either intended to be transformed by the organization, or it’s something intended to be used in the transformation (or to verify it). In any case, it’s an input to an organization’s operations. It’s not a process at all, let alone a QMS process. When a QMS procedure has been dedicated to this requirement, the idea of a procedure has been stretched beyond its definition. A procedure describes something that happens, not an input.

Technically, it’s incorrect to call a document titled “Customer Property” a procedure because procedures describe how processes or activities are carried out. “Customer Property” is neither. It’s a non-process.

QMS procedures imply QMS processes

A procedure responding to the “Customer Property” requirement effectively treats “Customer Property” as a QMS process—a process needed for a management system. Including non-processes among real processes actually needed to output quality product and service confounds definition of the system.

Similarly, when organizations raise “Product Identification” procedures or “Preservation of Product” procedures, these don’t describe “processes” needed for the QMS in the spirit of ISO 9001.

Generally, these are merely methods or activities resident within core processes. They aren’t management system processes—processes needed for a management system, but merely requirements of ISO 9001 that pertain to core processes.

For example, the core processes of a small manufacturing company might be: Sales, Purchasing, Receiving, Production, and Shipping. These are real QMS processes. For each, management has defined how it’s supposed to be done in a procedure. Notice product identification and product preservation requirements are applicable in three of these five processes (the three in which product is encountered): Receiving, Production, and Shipping. Corresponding QMS procedures address customer property, product identification, and product preservation. But to dedicate a procedure to these requirements is to fabricate a QMS process for each.

Make your system count

Considering that ISO 9001 is a standard of effectiveness, its requirements must be met effectively in order to count. A system defined as needing non-processes has not effectively met the ISO 9001:2008 requirements of 4.1a to (effectively) determine the processes needed for the system.

Essentially, the same requirement will be found in 4.4 of ISO 9001:2015, based on a review of the draft international standard (DIS) (see this article: 5 Main Changes Expected in ISO 9001:2015 from the 2014 Draft International Standard). But it’s never too soon for organizations to cease struggling with non-processes and reap the benefits of well-defined management systems. Precise use of the language of ISO 9000 will help.

Click here to see a list of  ISO 9001 mandatory documents.