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Denise Robitaille


Mr. Rogers and the Process Approach

The right language and format makes all the difference.

Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2005 - 23:00

I was channel surfing the other day, looking for some local news that would tell me why I had woken up to a power outage that had lasted the better part of the morning. I don’t usually watch TV during the day, so I had no idea what stations carried noon time news broadcasts. As I was flipping through the channels, I came across a show about the workings of a machine shop. Then I heard the voice-over and recognized the soothing and unmistakable tone of Mr. Rogers’ gentle accent. Curiosity piqued, I had to stop.

Mr. Rogers narrated the video (which debuted in 1986) that featured Mister McFeeley visiting the manufacturers of King Musical Instruments. He walked through the processes for fabricating a trumpet, beginning with getting the raw material from the stock room and moving through cutting, shaping, soldering, bending, assembling, polishing and testing. Along the way, we saw tools, machines and jigs, while listening to Mr. Rogers explain how, “Everyone is very careful about their work, and very proud.”

The video moved seamlessly from one station to the next, describing the output of each process before proceeding. It explained what tools operators needed and what kind of skills were required for various tasks.

All the trumpets are tested (100% inspection) to make sure they sound the same because “Sometimes they have to be played with others in an orchestra or band,” as Mr. Rogers explained. That described pretty succinctly the driving force behind the criteria for consistency and repeatability.

Later on, I visited Mr. Rogers’ Web site and found he has other videos of factory tours, featuring manufacturers of dinner plates, fortune cookies, crayons, construction paper and sneakers. What they all have in common is a sensible approach to describing the sequence of processes, the resources required and the criteria for acceptance. Some included descriptions of additional processes like sorting, packaging and labeling—all narrated with the same clear, uncomplicated and understandable language.

The videos are probably among the best demonstrations of how to fulfill the requirements of ISO 9001’s Clause 4.1. In part, the standard requires an organization to:

  • Identify the processes needed
  • Determine the sequence and interaction
  • Determine criteria and methods needed to ensure processes are effective

Organizations spend time and energy trying to develop clever formatting and cutting-edge documentation for these general requirements. They often come up with a quality manual and procedures that have the desired polish and conform to the requirements of the standard. But the documents often lack that elusive characteristic that makes them user-friendly and meaningful. Often, they’re so complex or confusing that they need interpreting. This results in the alienation of users and managers, who end up having to pay lip service to documents they will re-shelve as soon as the auditor leaves.

Documents should say:

  • This is what we need to do.
  • This is who will do it.
  • This is what we need.
  • This is the sequence for the steps.
  • This is how we will know that what we did is right.

We need to be constantly vigilant about the language and format that we use to define processes and requirements. We have to ensure the documents serve those for whom they are intended. And we need, whenever possible, to simplify our concepts.

Another detail about the videos that impressed me was the repetition of one phrase to describe acceptability. Over and over again Mr. Rogers would say, “They check them to make sure they’re just right.” (Of course, he would stretch out “just” so that it sounded a lot longer). I think Mr. Rogers may have inadvertently contributed another dimension to the definition of quality. As such, I believe it’s appropriate for him to take his place on the list, along with Juran, Deming, Pirsig and Crosby.

Although it may sound over-simplistic, the concept of quality as being “just right” has merit. It falls somewhere between “fit for use” and “perfect in every way.” It expresses acceptability in words that are most personal to the customer. Something about the notion of “just right” suggests intent. It hints of specialness. You have succeeded not only in fulfilling “the” requirements, but in fulfilling “their” requirements. That perception isn’t to be discounted lightly as it’s often an expression of customer satisfaction—which, according to Mr. Rogers, is achieved by the special way (defined process) that people accomplish tasks.


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.