Ask the Right Awareness Questions

ISO 9001:2000 says employees understand quality and customer requirements

by J.P. Russell

The new ISO 9001:2000 quality management system (QMS) standard has opened several new lines of questioning (interviewing) that will help organizations connect all employees to quality and customers.

I have been delighted with the standard’s new interview opportunities and find them beneficial
to the business management systems of organizations seeking registration or reregistration, adding real value.

Prior versions of the ISO 9000 series standards required the quality policy be understood by employees at all levels in an organization. So, an auditor would question employees about the policy.

As an auditor myself, I have received an entire spectrum of answers over the years.
I recall one company becoming so frustrated it made employees sign a form declaring they understood the quality policy as a prerequisite for receiving their paychecks.

Unfortunately, employees are usually good at putting themselves in the customer’s shoes and reacting to crappy products bought–for example, from a department store. But they are not usually able to think of themselves as providers of quality products and services. Perhaps they are so far removed from customers it seems meeting requirements is someone else’s job. ISO 9001:2000 attempts to correct this.

Four clauses

In support of the quality management principle for the involvement of people, ISO 9001:2000 has four requirements centered around communicating quality awareness. The four new requirements go beyond emphasizing the quality policy must also be understood.

These four clauses that provide new audit interview opportunities are:

1.5a–Communicate the importance of meeting requirements.

5.5.2c–Promote awareness of customer requirements throughout the organization.

5.5.3–Establish processes to communicate QMS effectiveness.

6.2.2d–Make personnel aware of the relevance and importance of their jobs and how they contribute to the quality objectives.

Now, auditors will need to interview employees to verify the organization meets the quality awareness requirements.

Requirement awareness

Asking employees about the importance of meeting customer requirements also provides audit evidence of management commitment. When you interview top management people, they will explain how they communicated the importance of meeting requirements to people in the organization. Then when you interview the employees of the organization, you can test the effectiveness of the methods used by top management through questions such as:

  • Are you aware customers have requirements?
  • What are some customer requirements?
  • What happens when customer requirements aren’t met?

Promoting awareness

Clause 5.5.2c is about responsibilities and authorities for management representatives to promote awareness of customer requirements throughout an organization. Examples of questions an auditor might ask to determine whether this requirement is being met include:

  • How are customer requirements communicated to you?
  • How are you made aware of customer requirements?

Communication processes

Clause 5.5.3 requires the establishment of processes to communicate QMS effectiveness. Management should be able to provide evidence of such means as bulletin boards, newsletters and news on internal company intranets.

This effectiveness requirement creates another opportunity for a contact interview question about the progress of the QMS. Simply posting the number of customer complaints or defects related to a particular area is not likely to be sufficient audit evidence to prove people are aware of the effectiveness of the QMS. A way to meet this requirement is to keep people informed of the organization’s progress toward meeting its quality objectives.

Some possible general interview questions to establish effectiveness could be:

  • Has your organization established a QMS?
  • Are you informed about its progress? How is it doing? Is it getting better or worse?

This clause provides an opportunity to link the organizational quality objectives
to employees at all levels. It will be difficult for organizations to comply with the requirements of this clause unless they establish meaningful and measurable quality objectives.

The quality objectives can be passed down from top management to managers, supervisors and employees to provide solid linkage between the objectives and the work being performed.

Organizations are trying different techniques to keep employees informed about the effectiveness of a QMS. They may use communication processes already discussed (newsletters, bulletin boards) or other processes such as weekly team meetings, e-mail updates or informational letters given out with paychecks.

Another measure of the effectiveness of a QMS can be found in customer satisfaction ratings. Everyone can relate to customer satisfaction levels. If you work for a company that has a 99% customer satisfaction rating, you may feel good about it. If your organization’s customer satisfaction rating is 63%, you know you have a lot of hard work ahead of you. 

Relevance and importance

The fourth contact opportunity clause is the most powerful of all. It requires employees to know the importance and relevance of their jobs and how they contribute to quality objectives. This is a long overdue requirement. I think of it as demonstrating how everyone fits into the big picture and is marching to the same drum.

Some possible interview questions to establish this knowledge are:

  • How does your job contribute to the quality of the product or service?
  • What do you do to ensure the customer is satisfied?

In one interview with a packer, I asked how he contributed to customer satisfaction. The packer job was an entry level one with lots of turnover. In fact, it was not unusual for people to quit after the first paycheck.

The packer’s answer to my question was something like, “I just box the stuff coming off the machine and put this sticker on it.” Then it hit me: This person (in perhaps the lowest level job) is the last person to see the product before the customer does. The packer is the last person to check for defects or irregularities. He/she can have a significant effect on customer satisfaction.

Once organizations can communicate the importance and relevance of everyone’s job, there will be linkages from top to bottom and bottom to top. You, as the auditor, will start to see that a QMS is no longer a separate system from the business management system. Now, the business and quality systems are compatible and working together
to achieve common goals. You may feel like saying, “Eureka! Finally, ISO 9001 is going to add measurable value.”

You may want to consider keeping a general list of quality awareness questions you can use throughout the audit. You can highlight questions on your checklist or put the quality awareness questions on an index card to use on every interview.

Carryover requirements

Other QMS awareness questions have been carried to the new version of the standard from the 1994 version. One such requirement is that top management be responsible for ensuring the quality policy is communicated and understood throughout the organization.

Some possible quality awareness questions for auditors to ask are:

  • Does the organization have a quality policy (or policy about quality)?
  • What is the policy?
  • Can you explain it in your own words?

The ISO 9001:2000 awareness requirements will have a significant effect on how the QMS is viewed by top management and employees. Now that there is alignment from top to bottom and bottom to top, organizations should stop asking how much a QMS costs and instead ask how much ISO 9001:2000 is going to save them.

About the author

J.P. Russell is an ASQ Fellow and a voting member of the American National Standards Institute/ASQ Z1 committee. He is a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to Technical Committee 176, the body responsible for the ISO 9000 standard series. Russell is the managing director of the internationally accredited Quality Web-Based Training Center for Education,, an online auditing, standards, metrics, and quality tools training provider. A former RAB and IRCA lead auditor and an ASQ Certified Quality Auditor, Russell is author of several ASQ Quality Press bestselling books, including Process Auditing Techniques; Internal Auditing Basics; ISO Lesson Guide 2015: Pocket Guide to ISO 9001:2015; and he is the editor of the ASQ Auditing Handbook.

Please note: This article originally was published in the ASQ Quality Progress magazine Standards Outlook column September 2002. Although the managements system standards have been revised, the principles and concepts presented are still relevant today.