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Getting the Most Out of Your ISO Certification – Part 5 Documented Processes

Consistent action creates consistent results.

Picture a child trying to ride a bike. In the beginning, she struggles against the gravity pulling her toward the ground, finding the balance between the simultaneous steering and pedaling that will keep her upright. Crashing to the ground, she wants to simply give up, but instead, she tries again and again, until she finds a rhythm and gains her balance. She practices consistency until she achieves her desired result. And often, it’s with the help of someone who’s been there before, holding onto the back of her bicycle seat, talking her through the process, telling her how she might find success.

When at first, she may want to give up, what is it that we tell her?

“Try again… you’ll get it!”

We commonly use the phrase, “It’s as easy as riding a bike.” But if you tell that to the 7-year-old learning to ride, she’ll let you know that it most certainly is NOT easy! However, we say it because we know. We’ve been there. Once upon a time we also had to apply the rule of consistent action to gain the result that we wanted; the feeling of sailing down the street, wind blowing in our hair, enjoying the hard-earned freedom of riding a bike! And once we have learned it, we never look back.

As Easy as Riding a Bike

Now, let’s apply that same principal to the processes in our business. In theory, we should first identify the steps necessary to accomplish our goal, and then we should clearly and simply lay them out in a practical and palatable manner for others to learn from and practice consistently. This should yield our desired result. However, while this sounds downright elementary, the truth is that simply deciding on what your key business process are, and then defining them so simply that they can actually be useful, is a challenge to even the savviest of business people.

Many organizations either tend to document everything, leaving us with a 750-page manual that nobody reads, or don’t document much of anything that’s actually important. We learn about the process, and then faithfully keep it tucked away in our heads, requiring our colleagues to become mind-readers as they guess the recipe for success.

The truth is that the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle of the 750-page document, and tribal knowledge alone. Here’s where the “20/80 rule” is so important. It states that we should document the 20% of the processes that get us 80% of the way there.

ISO 9001

Previous versions of ISO 9001 offered little opportunity for an organization to discover this “sweet spot”, dictating what documentation was required: quality manual, documented procedures, work instructions and records. Today, there’s much more flexibility, allowing the organization to decide what aspects of the quality management system should be documented. A quick look at section 4, “Context of the Organization”, tells us that the needs and expectations of interested parties must be considered. This means that if customers or regulatory agencies have expectations about product quality, we must take that into consideration, developing the appropriate documentation to meet those expectations.

We also need to consider that some of our employees will move on, whether its to other jobs within our company, new opportunities outside of our doors, or retirement. The next generation of workers will be lost without adequate documentation. And, while we’re considering that next generation, let’s remember that it’s important to make our documentation available on the platforms they are comfortable with – a searchable PDF available on their mobile device is more likely to be used than the 750-page manual collecting dust on a shelf.

So, as we consider section 7.5 of the ISO 9001 Standard, “Documented Information,” and even more specifically, section 8.1 “Operational Planning and Control,” let’s first take a look at the 30,000-foot level before we swoop in and start work on that underutilized and overwhelming set of processes and procedures.

Start Here

Let’s start with considering our organizational processes in their simplest form. Most organizations typically have just a handful of what we’d consider truly “core” processes. Keep in mind that we’re looking for the 20% of what we do that gets us 80% of the way there. Make a list of what those processes are for your business. To get you started, here’s what most organizations have in common:

  • The HR process – the way you search for talent, train, hire, fire, review & promote people.

  • The Sales/Marketing Process – how you get your message out to your target audience and drive interest in what you do, and how you encourage a prospect to become a customer.

  • The Operations Process – how you make or deliver your product or service. Typically, there may be 2-3 core processes within this one, including things like account management, production, quality control, etc.

  • The Accounting Process – how you manage money coming in and going out.

  • The Customer Retention Process – how you maintain your customer base to ensure they come back and send you referrals.

What's Next

Next, we should identify the key steps of each process. The magic here is to keep it simple and not over-complicate the number of “core” processes that you identify, or the steps involved in each. In his book, “Traction,” Gino Wickman identifies just 7 parts of an HR Process in his illustration:

  1. The Search

  2. Interviewing

  3. Hiring

  4. Orientation

  5. Quarterly Reviews

  6. Termination

  7. Ongoing Benefits Management

Within each of these steps there are 3-5 bullets with more detail, but not much more. In the end, he challenges that we should end up with each documented process being captured in two to 10 pages, with Operations typically being the longest of the processes. The challenge? Keep it simple!

Keep It Simple

Why is simplicity so important? This set of core processes, simply outlined and easy to follow, become “the way” that the company operates. Everyone within the organization should be able to pull out this small set of marching orders and successfully navigate each identified process. After all, success means that your business has to become primarily self-sustaining. It has to be able to run without you. These processes have to be followed by all, so that your team can produce the same, consistent result with or without you telling them what to do.

Section 8.1 of the ISO 9001 standard often drives people to feel pressured into creating long and complex documentation. It reads,

“The organization shall plan, implement and control the processes needed to meet the requirements for the provision of products and services…”

Note that there is no requirement for impressing an auditor with any kind of length or complexity. In fact, one of the most common challenges that auditors face is swimming through mounds of useless paperwork that no one really reads.

Instead, with the business systematized, we can better troubleshoot problems when they arise. If we find a gap or challenge with a process-related issue, we can drive our teams to go straight to the simple and straightforward documentation, find the spot that includes the misstep, and then alter it, eliminate it, or add a new step. At this point, you’re simply performing maintenance, not recreating the wheel. Your bike doesn’t need new wheels, after all. If you start with good wheels, keep them well maintained, and repair them when necessary, you’re in for a long, smooth ride.


Kirsten Smith is the owner of Made to Thrive Consulting, LLC, an organization born from a passion for excellence in business and a desire to help people and organizations reach a higher potential than they thought they could.

Andy Nichols is an experienced Quality Management consultant, trainer and author.


© Made to Thrive Consulting, LLC, 2019. All rights reserved.


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