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by Denise E. Robitaille

This is the third article in our five-part series on enhancing your QMS in the wake of the ISO 9001:2000 transition. This month we look at internal communication--what it means and how to implement this requirement so that it will benefit an organization.

--Denise E. Robitaille, series editor

The nuns at St. Anthony’s Catholic school used to tell a cautionary tale of a woman who’d spread a vile bit of gossip about her neighbor. Horrified by the consequences of her actions, she went to church to confess her transgression. She explained to her priest that she regretted the gossip and wished to confess, atone for her sin and make reparation. The priest granted absolution and then assigned her the following task:

“Take a pillow and climb to the top of the steeple,” he said. “When you reach the bell tower, rip open the pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind. After you’ve finished, come back to see me.”

The contrite penitent did as she was told. When she finished, she descended and went to the priest. “Now, go and gather all the feathers,” he told her.

“But that would be impossible,” she exclaimed. “I could never find them all.”

“That’s true,” he replied. “In the same way, it’s impossible for you to fully repair the damage that your gossip has done.”

This parable demonstrates both the intricacy of communication and the exponential consequences of losing control over this fundamental element of our shared humanity. What we say (or don’t say), the care with which we target our listener, the veracity of the content and the accountability we assume for the actions that ensue are all issues that we must control.

The costs of inadequate communication

Communication is the means by which we inform one another, give instructions, exchange ideas, grant permission, conduct commerce, shout warnings and express satisfaction, etc. Implicit in any of our verbal or written interchanges is a presumption that the information is reliable both in substance and authority. We must be confident that we can trust the message and that the person who composes it is both qualified to communicate the message and in some way accountable for its content.

Well-controlled communications are accurate, timely, complete, directed to all appropriate or required recipients, and crafted in a way that’s understood by the intended audience.

Communications are incomplete until the recipient confirms that the messages have been received. They’re of limited value if the recipient doesn’t fully comprehend what’s being communicated, and they’re worse than useless if the information is wrong.

Within the context of ISO 9001:2000, failing to control internal communication engenders the following risks:

Incorrect information might be disseminated.

Updated information might not be available in a timely manner.

Information might be correct and timely but inaccessible.

Interested parties might be inadvertently omitted from a distribution list.

Recipients might misunderstand or misinterpret what’s being communicated.

Examples of probable outcomes from these failures include:

A customer’s concession to a deviation never gets acted upon.

The latest revision of a specification doesn’t go to production.

Modified quality objectives aren’t shared with employees.

Revised safety protocols aren’t implemented.

Material is purchased from a disqualified supplier.

Operators miss an important training session.

Customer complaints don’t get appropriate attention.

New-product rollout is delayed because of multiple miscommunications.

The ultimate consequence in all instances is a breakdown of one or more processes that will adversely affect your ability to fulfill customer requirements. In some cases, poor communication guarantees you’ll ship the customer the wrong item or fail to make on-time delivery.

If you don’t control your internal communications, you don’t know where messages are going. You lose the means of knowing what actions were taken by those who received your messages. You have no way of tracing or retrieving them if the information is wrong. You don’t know if the data originated from a reliable or authorized source. And you can’t even be sure that everyone is hearing the same thing.

Failing to establish effective internal communication creates a systemic breakdown comparable to a problem with your document control process or any other feature that pervades your organization. For example, the relationship between communication and document control is that the documentation describes the requirement, and communication is the conduit for getting it to the appropriate process owner. If you have problems with document control, you could communicate the wrong specification. The input to your communication process is directly influenced by the data’s integrity; therefore, you must ensure that the content is factual.

The other aspect of communication to consider is the relationship between sender and receiver. A message’s author is responsible for ensuring that the intended audience will understand the language and format. He or she must also make the message accessible. Posting an important notice on a server that only a small population is authorized to access is nearly equivalent to not communicating at all.

Establishing appropriate channels

In order for an organization to control its internal communications adequately, there must be consensus as to process, protocols, authorizations and records.

How do you communicate a change to a customer order? Who has the authority to tell you to change your production schedule? Who must know about a revision to a subassembly? Who lets salespeople know if a customer’s order will be late? How does the company ensure that all affected functions sign off on the organization’s capacity to service a new contract? Whom do you tell about customer complaints? Where and when do people go for companywide notifications?

Clause 5.5.3, Internal communication, is one of the new requirements found in ISO 9001. Although the 1994 version didn’t explicitly require “that appropriate communication channels are established,” it’s reasonable to infer that good internal communication has always been a prerequisite for organizational efficiency--especially across departmental boundaries.

This requirement illustrates the shift in ISO 9001 from documented procedures to defined control. It’s not necessary to write a procedure about how you control internal communications. However, it is required that communications relevant to your quality system activities are adequately controlled to facilitate the fulfillment of organizational goals. Your communications conduits must work for you.

For the purpose of your ISO 9001 registration, it’s your registrar’s responsibility to assess the implementation of your internal communication methods as they relate to your company’s quality policy, objectives and procedures. It must be evident to the auditor that your mechanisms for communicating information are consistently applied, adequately controlled and effective. A typical question might be, “Does the e-mail system for schedule change notifications work?” To answer that, an auditor might look upstream for issues that prompted a schedule change and then look downstream to see if they were resolved in a timely manner.

For example, a customer might have sent an e-mail stating, “Switch purchase orders 22345 and 22361 on the schedule because we’ve had a change in projections.” Your accepted protocol is to e-mail the scheduler, flag the message as urgent and wait for a confirmation. The auditor would follow the trail from the customer request to the evidence indicating what was ultimately shipped out. If the schedule wasn’t revised soon enough to switch the orders, the customer probably didn’t get the needed parts.

Conversely, if things happened as requested, there’s verification that the company has adequate control of this particular communication conduit. This is one of many examples of using an alternative to a documented procedure to define and control a process.

Communication as process

Communication is a process. In keeping with the process approach, it’s appropriate to apply the inherent concepts of input and output to this group of activities. The input is the information that creates the need for the communication. The nature of the information determines the method and flow. The output of the process is the successful transmission. The message content creates input for the next step in the series of processes. If the input (i.e., message) is, “Part X73 is going to be late; skip to the next job,” then the output (or response) might be: “OK, confirmed. Will post Job 4876 next.” The messages’ traceability ensures that requirements--even when they change frequently in a volatile market--are controlled and effectively communicated.

When you consider internal communication as a process, you can begin to ascribe to it some of the same features you apply to other quality management system processes. Let’s look at them individually.

Definition

Consider the methods and nature of your communications. Types of communications might include:

Customer concessions

Changes to work instructions

Revisions to customer specifications

Rescheduling

Project status

Training requirements

Objectives

Process deviations

Changes to supplier qualifications

Personnel assignment

Segregation of material

The methods you’ll use to communicate are equally diverse and might include:

Color-coding or other nonverbal status indicators

Signatures

E-mails

Meetings

Bulletin/white boards

Engineering change notice forms

Internal audits

Lockout/tag-out protocols

Memos

Physical placement (e.g., finished goods on marked shelf)

Newsletters

Threaded discussions

Tags

If you don’t have a defined procedure--which isn’t a requirement of ISO 9001:2000--you must have consensus on the communication conduits. Designers must know where on the server they can consistently find the latest updates to customer specifications. Operators must demonstrate consistent awareness that a red tag means a job has been rejected and a yellow one means it’s awaiting inspection. Employees must know that the cafeteria bulletin board is where they sign up for training sessions. Whatever communication method you use must be uniformly practiced in order to be adequate and effective.

Responsibility

Who’s responsible for making sure information gets to the appropriate recipients? Who’s authorized to initiate certain messages, such as production schedule changes? Who must receive the information? Does the recipient have to respond? Who should archive the messages? Who handles your e-mail system?

Resources

Does the organization provide the means for effective communication to occur? Are there bulletin boards, adequate access to computer terminals or e-mail, suggestion boxes or readily available forms? Sometimes breakdowns occur simply because the organizational culture doesn’t foster communication. People must be able to express concerns and ideas as well as information. Are supervisors intimidating or inaccessible?

Training

Do people know how to use the e-mail system? Do they know how to use the various forms that are utilized to communicate requirements? Do they know who to ask if they don’t understand the nature of a message? Do people know the protocol or rules for contacting people at other facilities or remote locations? Does the company offer tuition assistance for “English as a second language” courses?

Implementation and verification

Do your employees consistently use the established methods to communicate? Are they communicating at all?

It’s necessary to verify that the process is effective in fulfilling the requirement.

As described earlier, it’s possible to assess the extent to which communication methods are working by reviewing a message’s outcome and determining if it resulted in the desired action. If the document revision got to the operator, if the supervisor confirmed that the equipment maintenance schedule was updated or if the customer’s complaint was acted upon in a timely manner, then you have verification that your internal communication process is effective.

Records

The same rules apply to this process as to any other. Records of requisite communications provide evidence. The ability to produce an amended contract, for example, isn’t just a good QMS practice; it can also be the means of avoiding litigation. Records of communications can also help you understand problems and breakdowns. When doing a root cause analysis, it’s helpful to know when messages were sent and to whom. It might be that the revised requirements were sent but weren’t available to the person who needed them. Or there might have been a delay with a communication. If there’s a misunderstanding about the message, a record affords you the opportunity to reassess the format and improve the way you craft subsequent communications.

Words into goals

Internal communication is the link between requirements and the people who must fulfill them. Commitment to consistent and effective communication is one of the tools you use to empower individuals to fulfill organizational goals.

About the author

Denise E. Robitaille is a consultant, writer and trainer. She’s also a lead assessor, certified quality auditor and a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO/TC 176. Much of her work involves assisting companies with implementing and maintaining ISO 9001-compliant quality management systems. She’s the author of The Corrective Action Handbook, The Preventive Action Handbook and The Management Review Handbook, all of which are available from Paton Press (www.patonpress.com).