How links between processes can increase level of quality

ISO 9001 is based on seven quality management principles, and the process approach is one of the most important. By focusing on managing and improving processes, a quality management system (QMS) based on ISO 9001 aims to enhance customer satisfaction; however, many people miss the importance of process linkages. It is in understanding the linkages between processes that we can better meet the requirements of the customer and improve the QMS.

For more on the quality management principles behind ISO 9001, see Seven Quality Management Principles behind ISO 9001 requirements.

What are process linkages?

Simply put, a process linkage is any time one process needs to interact with another in your QMS. So, what is a process? ISO 9001 considers a process to be “an activity or set of activities using resources, and managed in order to enable transformation of inputs into outputs.” So, any time you are taking an input, performing an action on it, and turning it into an output – you are engaged in a process. A process could be taking supplier parts, assembling them, and turning them into a deliverable product. Another process could be taking information about a service that a customer wants, and turning this into a set of requirements for your service development team to create. Finally, a process could also be taking the design information of how a part needs to function, and making a drawing and specification to meet these requirements.

People generally get the importance of understanding the processes in order for them to control and improve the same process, but they often miss the statement in ISO 9001 that the process approach is “a system of processes within an organization, together with the identification and interactions of these processes, and their management to produce desired outcomes.” The QMS needs to include the interactions of processes to be effective; as ISO 9001 highlights, “often the output from one process forms the input to the next.”

What is important with process interactions?

So, what sort of things should be considered in your assessment of the QMS processes to improve process interactions? The secret is not to look at the process itself, but at the inputs and outputs of the process. Your inputs need to be correct for the process to run efficiently, and your outputs need to be useful. How can you tell if this is true? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Process Inputs. Does the process that supplies you with your input know what you need from the input? If you are constantly looking for further information, this may not be the case. For instance, if your process uses a report created by the purchasing department, but this report does not include all of the purchasing information you need, you will need to look for this information yourself. If it is easier for people in the purchasing department to find this information, it would be an improvement in efficiency for the report to include this information rather than hunting for it later.
  • Process Outputs. Do you understand what the next process needs from your output? In the example above, the purchasing department needed to better understand how their report was used. Further, is your output used by another process? If the output is a record that is stored to demonstrate conformance, then it might not need to be an input to a subsequent process in order to be useful. However, if you are creating a report that is not used anywhere, then you need to question the effectiveness of this part of your process. Wasting resources to create outputs that are not useful is inefficient.

It is important in ISO 9001 to improve individual processes; however, when making changes to improve an individual process you need to make sure that the overall process is not impacted. Before you improve your output, make sure that this will not affect the next process that uses that output as its input. Beware of any change that is easy for your process, but will cause more work for the next process than is saved by the improvement. For example, it might be easier when creating a parts list to list a kit of parts rather than each individual part, but will it take longer for the warehouse employees to collect and package these kits than it would to collect the parts individually? If so, the overall process is less efficient.

Understanding process linkages to increase quality

By understanding the process linkages, you can make your overall process more efficient by improving how one process interacts with the next. By improving your process linkages, your overall process is improved, time and resources can be reduced, and overall cost savings can be realized. Know how the processes interact, and you can prevent improvements in one area of the company from becoming additional costs in another area. Remember that improvement in one process that costs more in another area is not necessarily improvement, and improvement of the overall process is the main reason for having a quality management system.

For more information on creating a process flowchart, see this white paper on  How to create an ISO 9001 process flowchart.

Advisera Mark Hammar
Mark Hammar
Mark Hammar is a Certified Manager of Quality / Organizational Excellence through the American Society for Quality and has been a Quality Professional since 1994. Mark has experience in auditing, improving processes, and writing procedures for Quality, Environmental, and Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems, and is certified as a Lead Auditor for ISO 9001, AS9100, and ISO 14001.