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
--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.
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
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
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
Recipients might misunderstand or misinterpret what’s
Examples of probable outcomes from these failures include:
A customer’s concession to a deviation never gets
The latest revision of a specification doesn’t go
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.
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
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 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.
Consider the methods and nature of your communications.
Types of communications might include:
Changes to work instructions
Revisions to customer specifications
Changes to supplier qualifications
Segregation of material
The methods you’ll use to communicate are equally
diverse and might include:
Color-coding or other nonverbal status indicators
Engineering change notice forms
Physical placement (e.g., finished goods on marked shelf)
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
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?
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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).