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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

Happy Birthday, Magna Carta

Some pros and cons of legacy documents

Published: Tuesday, May 19, 2015 - 16:53

This June will you be wishing the Magna Carta a very happy birthday? An 800-year-old document might not necessarily warrant a lovely slice of cake, but I’m sure someone somewhere will be celebrating this anniversary. No doubt many readers will be wondering why I want to discuss the Magna Carta, but as I always do, I’ll ask for your patience and explain why I think it’s an important quality document.

The Magna Carta wasn’t born from the need to establish conformity to a required standard, as many documents are today. Its story, like any good tale from the Middle Ages, starts with a villainous character—in this case King John of England. King John longed for a war with neighbors across the English Channel that was going to be expensive, so he levied taxes on the impoverished inhabitants of his lands to pay for it. It became clear that some taxation balance was needed, so a few English noblemen, with support from the very powerful Church, set about creating a new set of rules to bring equality to society and remove some power from the king.

Some historians say the signing of the Magna Carta prevented a civil war, but in my view it also established a very early quality standard. Each of the Magna Carta’s 63 sections provides in-depth definitions of what we now recognize as “common law.”

The Magna Carta is an exceptionally popular document, even today. Recently, The Telegraph went to great lengths to remind us that the document is more popular in the United States than in its country of origin. A beautiful golden reproduction currently sits deep below the chambers of the Senate in Washington. The Magna Carta was also evoked during hearings when another unruly leader required leveling after going beyond his own laws during the scandal surrounding the Watergate tapes.

Today only four original copies of the Magna Carta exist. The medieval exercise of making multiple copies of documents would have meant that the best monks in the abbey were taken off their Bible Xeroxing duties to copy the original Magna Carta. Ironically, an unapproved copy, one without the king’s seal of approval—a great gob of wax—was issued, which meant it wasn’t actually legal. The Magna Carta had to undergo a little rework before an “approved” copy was released. This might have been one of the first instances of document control, so it’s not really that different from modern quality documents, except for the waxy bit.

From a quality standpoint, this document has one section of particular interest to me. Before you guess (incorrectly) that it’s section 33 concerning the removal of “fish weirs”—an amusing common-folk vs. the system issue—I’ll tell you that it’s section 35:

“There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.”

Some lovely examples of defining a quality standard right there, including the use of “shall.” (But what in hell is an “ell,” I asked myself, and had to resort to the dictionary.) How wonderful to think that, long ago, a defined legal standard was established for buying stuff. OK, maybe I’m the only one to get a little tingling sensation from my quality gland as it responds to this knowledge, but can you imagine a world without established measures? Evidently people in 1215 couldn’t, either.

This got me thinking about how we in the United Kingdom are keen adherents of measured standards, some of which have been passed down for at least 27 generations. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Whether legal or not, we will often reject a gloriously foamy-headed beer because it isn’t a “pint.” We’ll stand our ground, like the noblemen of yesteryear, demanding it be “topped up.” We’ll also challenge fuel stations when we believe we haven’t received our car’s worth of diesel, even going so far as to report said station to the National Measurement and Regulation Office. I believe that, for no other reason than the Magna Carta, we in the British Isles have inherited the cultural belief that we are due fair and correct quantities as advertised.

Along with the Magna Carta, I’m grateful to other international and industry standards that are in use today. It’s interesting to note that in 2015 we celebrate 800 years of one standard while looking forward to an improved revision of another: ISO 9001:2015. If the current draft of that standard is any indication, quality documentation continues to evolve, and most likely new training, auditing activities, and petitions for budget allocation will loom in quality professionals’ futures.

I’m not one for keeping outdated or nonapplicable business standards in use, but like most of us, I prefer change for the better rather than just changing for the sake of it. I’m fascinated by the impact of any organizational change and want to understand the culture that it helps create. Even if your company has only the minimum mandatory documentation, do you ever wonder where the other “rules” in your business originate from and what culture they have created? Have you stopped to consider whether that culture of “always doing it this way” truly supports the creation of a quality culture?

In many business or quality improvement projects, I’ve often found that some “rule” prevents the team or process from achieving excellence. Through simple investigation, I find that this rule is unfounded and the process owners unaware of its existence. When I ask the team or process owners to define their own rules, they usually do so quickly and effectively, often with unanticipated but wonderful outcomes. And while I appreciate that it’s challenging to change a culture based on a rule from long ago, it’s absolutely worth the effort if you can create a culture of quality by doing so.


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.


Great topic, Paul! Being an

Great topic, Paul! Being an ex-pat...I know exactly what you're talking about. A pity that even in this age of quality, we still cannot get the photographs on food packaging to clearly reflect the contents. I bet they did not have that issue with the Magna Carta!