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Employee Involvement - Employees shall have the authority to raise nonconformances


Alan Cotterell

In all Management Manuals I write these days, I include the use of one form only for reporting nonconformances (opportunities for improvement), whether arising from internal audit, inspection, or employee or customer complaint. I think I read in ISO9004 (Y2K version), that employees shall have the authority to raise nonconformance reports for quality system difficulties and process problems. I wonder how others feel about the level of empowerment this offers, as these reports are the first thing certifying bodies look for during third party audit, and they insist the reports must be 'closed out'. This clause seems to herald the end to employers paying 'lip service' to ISO9000.

Christian Lupo

That level of empowerment is the way all systems should be set up. The system (after all ) is for the people. I have seen many companies set up CA system such that only management or supervisors may issue nonconformances. This ignores the largest portion of any company that have the best ideas on what is wrong. It is important that employees are trained on how to use the system for it to be effective. Couple thigs to be aware of: 1) when employees begin writng up issues they will be reluctant because they dont want to be "blamed" for something that went wrong, therefore management and supervisors need to encourage the proper use of the system. Otherwise people will cover up issues for fear of reprisal. 2) Some people write corrective actions for political reasons. For example "you wrote me up so I'm going to write you up.." It has to be clear that this behavior will not be tolerated, and could have many negative (too many to mention) ramifications.


I totally agree with the idea that non-conformities should be reported at the earliest point it was detected. Except that, well, I dont know. This may seem too ideal, since employees (operator level) tend to get a little bit wary in raising non-conforming products, specially if they were the ones who caused the non-conformity. Yes, management may empower employees, but execution-wise, I dont think it will be easy.

Jase Eyre

Alan, you are absolutely right. If the quality system is lousy - taking up employee time for little or no return - then why shouldn't they be empowered to 'hit back'? I mean, we are talking major impediments to productivity here! A one-sided QMS will just result in resentment towards the system as a whole: "I've been singled out for wasting x hours because I haven't done so or so, but what about the xxx hours I 'waste' complying with a system for which I can detect no real benefits, and which even slows me down at critical points?". Continual improvement will only be possible if the 'whole system' is judged by the same yardstick. Hear, hear, Alan; join me in a rousing round of the 'internationale'?

I have promoted the use of the corrective/preventive system by all staff whenever I have had the opportunity. The risk of creating a monster can be somewhat managed by using a register (eg. ruled book) rather than hard copy forms.
I have noticed a typical set of stages when implemented. Firstly there is a fear of using the system as they may be singled out by management.
Next, after a few have tried it out and found it is a way of helping management help them, there is a rush by most staff.
After a level of comfort arrives, staff begin to use the system as a means to point blame at other employees and vice-versa.
When they realise this can backfire and is not the purpose of the system, it settles into a system resembling the intent of the standard.
Obviously this will not always be the case and factors such as the size of the company and the maturity of staff and management play a big part.
The key - get rid of those forms from the workshop floor and consider the use of a register, with columns representing the stages of the ca/pa system. It keeps it neat and tidy, and helps the review process when looking at status and trends etc..

Alan Cotterell

I don't think the change the provision of some facility for worker participation in decision making represents, really warrants singing the internationale. If you think about it - what do we have when we implement a documented management system - empowerment or more executive control? We never seem to get three things together in any organisation - empowerment, ownership and participation. Do these things make up Industrial Democracy?

Andy Bassett

This is a bit of an opportune post. Yesterday an employee in a company where i am consulting said that they wanted to have a possibility of raising process/procedure problems to me, as i am currently responsible for Process Improvement.

Good idea you might think.

Now - this particular company is having a problem knowing its xxxx from its xxxx. Frustration and demotivation is all around with no one able or willing to give any direction.

What i now suspect is going to happen, is that every niggle, departmental cooperation problem is going to land on my desk to referee.

We will see in a few weeks.


Andy B

Alan Cotterell

Dear Andy, I'm sorry if the clause causes difficulty. I wonder if your quality management system includes a policy manual for all twenty clauses of ISO9001:1994? If the policies reference national standards, the problems with procedures can be minimised as the policies should express management intent and objectives, rather than telling people how to do their job. It is worthwhile to sit down and develop a product delivery process flowchart, this can often remove the need for more comprehensive procedures. I hope the use of Nonconformance (Opportunity for Improvement) Reports by employees serves its intended purpose of improving and optimising the management system, rather than being used as part of industrial relations issues.


Captain Nice
Staff member
Originally posted by Alan Cotterell:

In all Management Manuals I write these days, I include the use of one form only for reporting nonconformances
Having just sent some info to a company in asia, I was looking at my resume a few minutes ago. I can tell you that I first did this back in 1990 (FL Aerospace). One form for all. Back in 1994 I wrote my first nonconformance - corrective action database based upon a single form. I have preached this since that time.
I wonder how others feel about the level of empowerment this offers
The problem (if there is one, such as it is) with most companies I have worked with is not that their employees are not 'empowered' to report complaints and such as you mention. What you are implying is that employees will report all sorts of paroblems and then the 3rd party auditors will act as a police functionary to ensure upper management reacts. Ideally this might seem a smart move. However, in my experience there a combination of factors at work. Some employees are natural complainers. Some employees are apathetic. I could go on but will end with this comment:

Your proposition of using 3rd party auditors as 'police' is old, tired and disturbing. It has taken years to remove the immediate thought of POLICE when the word quality comes up. Now you suggest that because companies cannot police themselves that this should be the job of 3rd party auditors. Although it is happening, to some degree, I don't see police intervention as the answer in most companies. I'm also sure most management feels this way.

Alan, in your posts you seem to constantly portray management as people who can't or won't do what is right. I'm a liberal democrat in the US which is essentially a statement of pro-labour. You take it to the extreme. In this post you say:
"...these reports are the first thing certifying bodies look for during third party audit, and they insist the reports must be 'closed out'. This clause seems to herald the end to employers paying 'lip service' to ISO9000..."
Dream on. In addition, you are close to advocating a situation where business is overseen because they're too stupid, corrupt or inept to "do what's right'.

One of your assumptions is that all these employees 'reports' will be valid and that they will get in the CA process. Often times there are NC's that simply do not require a CA. Christian had some very valid points in his post, as well.

Each company empowers employees in different ways and to different degrees. Some companies do not really require a high level of employee empowerment. Governments are quite like this. Citizens = Employees

You say:
"...when we implement a documented management system - empowerment or more executive control? We never seem to get three things together in any organisation - empowerment, ownership and participation. Do these things make up Industrial Democracy?"
What is industrial democracy? Is it like in a commune where everyone has a say? What is the opposite of 'industrial democracy'? If I started a business I would look at it as my business. Not a democracy. If I want advisors, I will hire and/or appoint them.

Now I know you're thinking of risk, as you always do, and of safety. As a business owner I have certain obligations. But many things can happen. An employee can screw up (Bophal, India - Union Carbide). A design can fail (the NASA space capsule that fire engulfed killing the 3 astronauts some years ago where it was found that the design engineers had for years been advising against using pure oxygen but NASA stubbornly refused to listen). However, empowerment and 3rd party police are not going to solve these types of problems.

You want a business where the foundation is 'democracy' I suggest you start one.

While empowerment is a good idea, in my opinion, the question becomes 'at what point does it end'? My experience is that there are some good companies, some bad companies and most are 'middle of the road'. Once a 'good' company, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) founder (Olsen?) walked the halls talking with employees and in general was very involved. His business decisions were in part made on the feedback he got as he toured and met with employees on all levels of the business. DEC did well for many years but - despite the extremely high level of 'empowerment' it eventually (for all intents and purposes) failed somewhat miserably. Back in the 70's and 80's when he did this it was a rather novel idea. Take a look at many Silicon Valley companies in the US today - they are the evolutionary product. But we also have to consider what their core business. Writing software and designing computer components and hardware is not the same as 'heavy' industries such as metal stamping and forging. Is empowerment the same in both? No.

I'm sorry to say I see the term empowerment as a gimmick term to a large degree. It has been bandied about for quite some time now. "Empower your employees to make decisions" is how I heard it first many years ago. And "Reduce micromanaging - empower your employees." You may say you are empowering employees. I would say you are involving employees in the business processes and you are giving them responsibilities. Is this a good idea? In my opinion, yes - it is. In some companies and industries it works better than in others.

Alan Cotterell

Dear Marc, I have taken your comments on board and see sense in them particularly in the matter of the 'police' aspect of third party audit. I think the use of the documented management system by customers to assess how their contract is being handled is the desirable way to go (2nd party audit). This puts a bit of pressure on the organisation 'to do it right first time' in all operational risk areas (quality, safety, environment, security). However you might find the following response I received by email, interesting:Alan,
Good to hear from you. I can't argue with the principles - I like
The issue of non-conformances - brings back a vision of a miner
working at the bottom of a 100' shaft, with four other men and a
Diesel excavator, deep under the arches of a poorly ventilated
station. He pointed out that the venting wasn't good. The gas
detectors didn't pick it up, because they were set for different
gases. It was ghastly and unfit for human consumption; I was there.
We actually sorted things out pretty efficiently, but that wasn't
quite the whole story.
Response from management - move the man to a different gang.
Officially, they needed an extra man - unofficially (and I necessarily
speculate a little here although some of it was told to me directly),
he was a trouble-maker, his card was marked, and a tacit message was
sent to the entire work-force. Sadly, I think this shows the limits of
ISO 9004.
If you circulate the example (which I think is good, generic and was
sorted quite acceptably) please don't put my name to it. Card-marking
is an understandably sensitive issue. I have no documentary evidence
to back up what I have heard and seen and am also quite sensitive
about the cleanliness of my card.
Crazy world we live in. Once there is physical evidence (most
specifically, paper records) it is to be believed and the entire onus
is on the witness. But the paper-pushers are given the authority to
sit in judgement, receive by far the greatest reward and don't have to
bear witness to anything, however true, so long as it has never been
committed to paper. How far short of morality our justice inevitably
falls, and I can't see a cure for it. As I see it, It is logically
intrinsic to the system.
My feeling - don't look to industry to address this. There is a slim
chance that people of sufficient moral character could make it to the
top in politics, but the pressure on business to generate money is
just too great for the right people to rise. Then again, maybe you are
right - it is industry that is most wayward and most needs to be
changed. The question is, how? 9004 is good but few people see the
value of QA systems. They are too full of petty (but generally
necessary) details which consume people's everyday lives and leave a
residue of resentment. You've got to keep the big picture in peoples
mind all the time, from the earliest age.
The issue of paper records touches the heart of my concerns about the
sustainability of our global human community. If the enforceable
written law of man diverges too far from the laws of nature, and I
believe it is currently very far removed, then cold, objective,
mechanical nature will sit in judgement and dispense her ruling. That
is the real Supreme Court, against which there is no appeal, and
history suggests the judgements have rarely been compassionate, indeed
sometimes quite capricious.
Please don't misinterpret this as a soft, woolly, anthropomorphic,
image based on religion. They aren't very helpful for most people. It
is a scientists attempt to give neat and simple expression to the
response of a powerful and complex system, reacting to the evidence
available to it.
You are good at providing thought-provoking material!
All the best,
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