Do You Really Understand? In the quality profession, just knowing is not enough

by J.P. Russell

Being a quality professional can be frustrating. People don’t seem to get what we do, and if they get it, they soon forget.

I recently had a conversation in which I told someone I was a quality professional. The response was, “Oh yeah, I know. You’re a quality inspector.” It can be just as frustrating working with fellow quality professionals who know what to do, but don’t understand why they are doing it.

I think the challenge for quality professionals for the next decade is to achieve a deeper understanding of our profession and its purpose. Lack of understanding is perhaps the biggest contributor to incompetency in all professions. We cannot be expected to grasp everything, but there are key aspects—core competencies—of every job that must be understood.

Student types

I have devoted most of my life to adult education. I have seen good and bad teachers and taken good and bad classes. As an instructor, I also have observed good and bad students. Bad student behaviors include:

  • not paying attention
  • distracting others
  • having a careless attitude
  • not wanting to be in the class
  • trying to get through the class with as little effort as possible

The tricky part is identifying truly good students. Are good students those who know the material and may have memorized most of it? When tested, they pull from their memory or try to match questions with a similar or the same phrase in the text. They work hard, are sincere, interested, and want to achieve the objectives of the course. They normally complete the course with honors and are successful at most endeavors they undertake.

Type A or B?

You might call these students “type A” students. They might complain about a test question if they cannot find the same or similar phrase in the text material because they are trying to match questions with the teaching material instead of truly understanding the meaning or concepts being taught.

In my eyes, the really good students seek to understand meaning and concepts—not just match the test answers with the teaching material. They also work hard, are sincere, interested, and want to achieve the objectives of the course. They may struggle with the material a bit more and get lower test scores than type A students, but they will still complete the course successfully.

You might call these students “type B” students. They don’t complain about a test question if the fundamental concept has been covered in the class because they seek an understanding of the fundamental concepts that they can apply to any future applicable situation.

Physician example

Think about this scenario among medical doctors. All medical doctors are likely to be extremely intelligent, but which one would you rather have treat you: the doctor who has memorized what he or she was taught or the doctor who fundamentally understands and can apply the concepts he or she was taught?

There is a model for learning called Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is well known in the education field and is used by most learning institutions when setting learning objectives. According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, remembering or knowledge is the lowest level of learning. Yet, most tests to determine who can go to college or into professions such as law, engineering, and medicine are based on knowledge or memorization.

Another problem is that individuals who achieve only a remembering or knowledge level of learning consider themselves experts to apply, analyze, and evaluate data without understanding the underlying concepts. Based on this, knowing but not understanding would be an underlying cause for many of the incompetency issues that continue to surface in our professions. As Albert Einstein said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

Experts and professionals

Many professionals stop short of understanding. In the quality field, there is a constant outcry to rid the profession of incompetent instructors, consultants, and auditors. In the last decade, standards have been published that provide guidelines for consultants and other professionals.

Many organizations offer personal certifications that are awarded to individuals meeting the certification criteria. There are also standards, such as ISO 17024,1 that provide guidelines for organizations that offer personal certifications. These certifications and standard tools help ensure individuals have the proper pedigree but may not ensure individuals understand core competencies. Referrals from trusted sources and previous accomplishments (not awards) still seem to be one of the best measurements of a competent professional.

ISO 90012 uses the word “understand” and says the process approach emphasizes the importance of understanding and meeting requirements. Understanding means not only knowing the words in the standard, but also comprehending the meaning of those words.

System and process auditors

Recently, I was interviewed regarding some of the expected changes for documents and records in the future version of ISO 9001 currently under development. I understand that people want to know what will be changing, but this standard is not about the number of prescriptive requirements on which processes must be documented. The purpose of this management system standard is to provide management controls that will reduce the risk of providing nonconforming products and services.

For there to be management control of any process, there must be a predetermined method—a procedure, flow chart or picture, for example—and the means to verify the predetermined method was followed. The means of verification include records, audio or video recordings, tests, or inspections. Beyond basic management control, there must be an agreed-on, predetermined baseline from which there is improvement. After there is a fundamental understanding of these requirements, all situations and issues can be addressed.

Clause 7.2.3 of ISO 19011:2011—Guidelines for auditing management systems covers the generic knowledge and skills required of management system auditors.3

It says auditors should be able to:

  • Understand and consider the experts’ opinions.
  • Understand the appropriateness and consequences of using sampling techniques for auditing.
  • Understand the types of risks associated with auditing.
  • Understand interaction and synergy among different management systems.
  • Understand the requirements of each of the management system standards.

Understanding the requirements is especially critical when atypical situations arise. In my experience, unusual situations are common, which may be an oxymoron. Understanding requirements helps auditors determine whether the intent of a requirement has been achieved even if prescriptive requirements cannot be verified. The reverse is also true.

Several years ago, I was conducting a periodic surveillance for a certification body (CB) of an organization that was ISO 9001 certified. Everything was going well except I could not verify the corrective action program was implemented and maintained. There were procedures, but no records of corrective actions.

To seek records for verification, I asked to see nonconformity reports from the more than 40 audits the organization conducted every year, but there were no nonconformities. That was my first concern. Next, I sought copies of customer complaints with the idea that the organization might take corrective action to address complaints. I was told it did not have any customer complaints.

I know the organization met all the requirements, but I thought it was circumventing the intent of the quality management system controls for identifying, addressing, and eliminating problems. What would you do next? The CB had issued an ISO 9001 certificate to the organization and there were no prior nonconformities from previous surveillances. The waste of resources to implement the management system and conducting so many audits was sad. Would a competent or incompetent auditor report a finding even though the organization met all the prescribed requirements?

There are situations in which organizations meet the requirements of the standard, but not the intent of the controls. In other situations, organizations do not conform to the exact prescriptive requirement, but meet the intent of the control. This is when understanding the reason for the controls and their application is important.

Perhaps knowing versus understanding marks the difference between a competent and incompetent professional. Is the progression from knowing to understanding an appropriate objective to seek? Or, are there individuals that understand, but don’t know?  Knowing versus understanding is not new, but we have not made much progress in addressing the need to understand that concept.

Understanding the challenge

Quality professionals must understand concepts such as quality, improvement, variation, processes, risk, controls, and how to solve problems. We know our shortcomings, but how do we overcome them?

I don’t have a magic wand to wave and come up with the solutions, but I can tell you that knowing is not enough. Push yourself and your colleagues to fully understand core competencies. Use every opportunity to understand until you get it right.


  1. International Organization for Standardization and International Electrotechnical Commission, ISO/IEC 17024:2012— General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons.
  2. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 9001:2008—Quality management systems—Requirements.
  3. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 19011:2011—Guidelines for auditing management systems.

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.

 Note This article first appeared in the ASQ Quality Progress magazine Standards Outlook column April 2014.