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Denise Robitaille


The Fable of the Monkey Gardeners

There’s no substitute for proper training and employee competence.

Published: Tuesday, July 12, 2005 - 22:00

Have you ever wondered how to demonstrate to a manager the rationale behind the ISO 9001 requirements for competence and training? It isn’t uncommon to find quality managers, consultants or auditors sputtering through an explanation of this requirement, trying to describe to others what seems abundantly and clearly evident to them. Subclause 6.2.1 states: “Personnel performing work affecting product quality shall be competent on the basis of appropriate education, training, skills and experience.”

Two points need to be decided to establish competence. The first is the requirements of the task that needs to be accomplished, and the second is the criteria for verifying that the individual is competent to fulfill the requirements.

Giving someone precise instructions or relying on their sincere willingness to do the right thing doesn’t guarantee that they will be able to perform the tasks as required

The following fable from third-century India illustrates this point wonderfully.

In the town of Benares, a great festival was proclaimed to establish a favorable position of the stars. As soon as the first trumpet sounded, everyone’s thoughts turned to the coming festivities.

At that time there were many monkeys in the King’s park. The park keeper thought to himself: “If I can get the monkeys to water my gardens, I will be free to join in the fun.” So he went up to the leader of the monkeys and said, “Dear monkey master, you get so much from this park, you enjoy the blossoms, the fruits and the young plants shooting up. Now there’s to be a festival in the town and I’d like so much to go to it. Could you water the young trees for me?”

“Certainly! We’ll water them,” answered the monkey leader.

“Do it properly,” cautioned the park keeper. With that, he handed over the leather hose-pipes and wooden buckets and went off to the festival.

The monkey took the hose-pipes and wooden buckets and immediately set about watering the young trees. “Listen, you monkeys,” the leader warned them, “We must be economical with the water. Before you water the young trees, pull them up and take a look at the roots. If they go deep, you’ll have to use a lot of water. If they’re quite short, you can use less. Otherwise, there won’t be enough water.” This seemed quite sensible to the monkeys, so they did as they were told.

A wise man realized what the monkeys were up to in the King’s park. “Why are you pulling up all the young trees?” he asked them. “Because our leader told us to,” they answered.

“When fools want to do something useful, they usually do harm,” murmured the man to himself.

The monkeys were willing and eager to do the right thing. They received instructions from their leader—who assumed he didn’t need to ask for further guidance from the gardener. They were given appropriate tools. They even considered the conservation of resources by evaluating the needs of each tree. But because of their lack of competence, they managed to kill the trees that had been entrusted to their care.

Providing instructions and outfitting people with the best tools doesn’t ensure that tasks will be accomplished as required. Training, qualification and competence issues to be considered include:

  • Qualification of the instructor or person assigning the tasks
  • Definition of the task requirements
  • Appropriateness of the tools
  • Ability of candidates to perform the tasks
  • Nature of instruction/training
  • Clarity of documentation or visual aids
  • Defined criteria for verifying that individuals understand the tasks and can perform the work without supervision
  • Contingencies for assessing continued ability over time
  • Schedules/plans for retraining

Failure to give adequate consideration to these issues could lead to defective product, customer complaints or personal injury—and that will throw a monkey wrench into your system.


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.