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Tim Lozier

Quality Insider

Picking Apart the QMS on the USS Enterprise, Part 1

I’m not a Trekkie, but I do know quality control

Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 11:13

I am by no means a Trekkie. I don’t go to conventions, nor do I have all the episodes memorized and cataloged. I don’t even try and weigh in on Picard vs. Kirk (although I do have some valid points in that debate—another time). What I do know is I tend to see things in terms of quality management systems (QMS), and while watching an episode of Star Trek the other day, I started wondering about what type of QMS the starship USS Enterprise had during its prodigious trek through the stars.

Taking the physics out of it, there are plenty of tricky considerations for running an operation in the deep reaches of space. Logistics, weaponry, medical, and engineering—on the Enterprise—all are state of the art. But what about its QMS? Was there a chief quality officer aboard? He didn’t get much screen time, if so:
Ensign Quality: “Captain, the corrective action is engaged.”
Kirk: “I need more analysis, ensign.”
Ensign Quality: “I can’t give you any more; I’m giving her all she’s got!”

Maybe there’s a reason the QMS was not prominently featured, but it’s fun to pretend. So what components of a QMS would be most critical to Kirk and the crew?

Document control. It seems everyone aboard the Enterprise were sticklers for procedure and protocol. Every time I tuned in, they would be talking about them. Procedures held the crew together in their utopian world. Violating them could spell disaster, as we typically saw each week, when Kirk (or Picard or those other captains) would throw out the rule book.

In any organization, document control is the repository of rules for how it maintains control. By having well-defined processes centrally located within a database, organizations can ensure that the most recent documents are the most relevant, and no one is working from older copies. Document control also must have workflow for change requests to effectively implement changes to these procedures.

Nonconformance management.  Let’s face it: For an uber-advanced, space-faring group, the Enterprise crew always seemed to be in a stew due to mechanical problems or adverse events. In fact, this seemed to happen each week (curious...). The engineering crew apparently lived inside a deviation record; everything appeared to be a workaround, or a quick and simple solution (unless it was in violation of Starfleet General Order No. 1: the Prime Directive). Although problems usually were identified and analyzed, and a solution found, did the crew have a well-defined process, or were they just flying blind, as it were?

I hope that in your organization, you are not facing nonconformances involving reactor cores or dilithium crystals. Usually nonconformances come in the form of product defects, and the importance of identifying them and taking action to correct them is critical to maintaining operations. Having a well-defined nonconformance process is an important element of any QMS, and a means to link those defects to a corrective action process is paramount.

Corrective action. Star Trek episodes never really touched much on the corrective action process. The Enterprise crew always focused on the immediate problem and how to correct it; rarely did you see them spending time on an extensive corrective action. Action plans, review boards, and meetings to discuss process improvement aren’t as action-packed as watching “Ensign Expendable” getting vaporized by some unknown alien threat. But I like to think the advanced technology that allowed the ship to travel at warp speed and beam crew members up, down, and nearly any location within range would also have been applied to corrective action process. No doubt they used sophisticated computer systems to run corrective-action simulations so they could figure out how to mitigate possible disasters. Then they would probably revise protocols to make sure they kept people, including Ensign Expendable, safe (unless he’s a “redshirt”).

In any organization, the corrective action process doesn’t end when a threat is mitigated. Corrective action relies on taking the steps necessary to identify root causes, implementing the proper corrective actions, and ensuring that those actions truly mitigate the risk of recurrence. Effective corrective actions not only fix systemic problems; they also foster continuous improvement and bring about change within the organization.

That’s all for this episode of Star Trek QMS. Stay tuned for part two, where we will continue to pick apart Starfleet regulations for quality and compliance. We will look more closely at training, risk, and reporting next.

Discuss

About The Author

Tim Lozier’s picture

Tim Lozier

Tim Lozier is the director of product strategy for EtQ, in Farmingdale, New York. He has extensive experience in the software industry, and has been involved in the creation of leading-edge technologies in user-interface design and development. He began his career in digital marketing before taking a turn into software design and marketing at Quark Inc. Since then, he’s never looked back—helping to foster the development (and blog about) leading quality management software solutions.