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Denise Robitaille


Where There’s a Will . . .

There’s a <i>maybe</i>.

Published: Tuesday, December 12, 2006 - 23:00

The adage “The pen is mightier than the sword.” is hackneyed, accurate and profound. I’ve done several pieces on the influence of words. The simple fact is that how we say something often matters as much as what we’re saying. It’s a wondrous phenomenon, one that is too often taken for granted.

The virtual infrastructure supporting a well-defined quality management system (QMS) is its documentation. That’s how we define requirements and communicate them. We use documents for instruction, guidance, warning alerts, acknowledgments and validation. What goes into our documents is, therefore, a big deal.

The precision with which we select the words we use isn’t unlike the care we apply to choosing the right tool for the right job. In regard to documentation, carelessness or simple inattention can result in ambiguous instructions, inappropriate expression of urgency, inaccurate specifications or misleading directions. The receiver gets the wrong message and consequently cannot respond correctly.

The authors of standards are most attentive to some of these words. At a recent meeting of technical experts, there was discussion over ensuring that we were making correct use of “shall,” “should,” “may” and “can.” They suggest different things, and those differences actually affect how users apply the standards. In order, the accepted connotations are: must, ought to, has permission to and is capable of. Those using the standard have come to recognize these words as codes that indicate what things are mandatory and what are good ideas for consideration.

Selection of words sometimes has a more subtle effect, suggesting options that don’t exist or future intent when something is actually a current practice.

Such is the case with the word—“will”—that’s the subject of this column. Many organizations have documents that are written in the future tense. Specifically, they make excessive and inappropriate use of the word “will.” Procedures and work instructions are rife with these predictions. For example, “The customer service representative will enter the orders,” “The operator will fill out the inspection sheets” or “The supplier will respond to the corrective action.”

Is this really worth talking about? It’s just a little word. Consider what using “will” can imply.

“Will” is often used when you’re planning to do something. It says what you intend to do. It’s also the kind of word people often use when they want you to go away, as in: “Yes, I will do it.” (intent without follow-through). So, the implication is that it’s something we’re planning to do, that we may have intent to do, but not necessarily something that we’re currently doing as a matter of course. And there’s that subtle suggestion that it will be done, unless another option is presented. It makes tenuous that which should be firmly established.

Your organization was functioning long before you wrote your first QMS documents. Maintaining documents that say “will” suggests that you had this huge plan to do things differently, but the green light has yet to be given. “This is how we’re going to do things.”

By contrast, documents that are written in present tense have a tone of affirmation to them. Beyond the specific requirements found in the text, an attitude of commitment is expressed, as in “This is what we do,” “This is the status quo” or “This is something you can rely on.” We are also defined by what we do, so having procedures that describe our processes in clear, affirmative language is a statement of who we are as an organization: “This is what we are about.”

Finally, we need to ensure that we aren’t saying that other people will do things when we have no control or way of knowing. Such is the case with this example: “The supplier will respond to the corrective action.” You have no knowledge of what your supplier will do and minimal (if any) influence over what they decide to do. Writing into procedures that others will do something is unrealistic and erodes the integrity of what the document was intended to do—namely, define requirements.

So, please, don’t tell us what you will do; tell us what you’re doing.


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.