What is a Quality System?

A “Quality System” is your organization’s blueprint: it identifies your business model and processes, provides details about how your people will work together to get things done, and establishes specifications for performance — so you can tell if you’re on track… or not.

It’s a living, breathing system that grows as you grow, and learns as you learn. In many organizations, the quality management system (QMS) is a collection of documents and software systems that can provide a “state of the union” for you at any time.

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

What is a Quality System?

According to the ASQ glossary online, a quality management system (QMS, alternatively referred to as simply a “quality system”) is a mechanism for managing and continuously improving core processes to “achieve maximum customer satisfaction at the lowest overall cost to the organization”. By synthesizing philosophies, standards, methodologies and tools, the QMS helps an organization achieve quality-related goals.

A quality system is a specific implementation of quality philosophies/concepts, standards, methodologies and tools, for the purpose of achieving quality-related goals. When implemented, a quality system will be unique to an organization even though its structure will be similar to quality systems in other organizations.

Components of a Quality System

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) prescribes a minimum standard for the elements of a QMS through ISO 9001:2000. (This part did not change in ISO 9001:2015). To build an ISO 9001 compliant QMS, you must: [1]

  • Identify and map processes (administrative, organizational, operational)
  • Determine how processes are interrelated (that is, identify and map cross-cutting activities that span organizational boundaries)
  • Plan for operations and control of these processes, recognizing that the conditions and specifications for control of each of the processes may be different from one another,
  • Plan for dynamically allocating resources to accommodate the demands of the operations and control of these processes,
  • Apply systems thinking and describe the environment that your interdependent processes are embedded within,
  • Identify mechanisms to measure, monitor, analyze and continuously improve the processes in the context of the organization and its environment
  • Establish an Action Plan for proactively deploying the QMS through the organization, and
  • Ensure that Records are kept that track compliance to the QMS and changes that are made to the QMS itself.

Where Do I Start?

The July 2003 issue of Quality Progress [2] included all of the following under the banner of “quality systems”:

  • ISO 9001
  • Ford Motor Co.’s quality operating system
  • Lean
  • Six Sigma
  • Lean and Six Sigma combined
  • systems thinking
  • complexity theory
  • the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria, and
  • combinations of methods and unique approaches.

But the full article didn’t answer the question of “Where do I start?”

So in 2008, some collaborators and I proposed a general approach to determine what quality systems should be used, if any, what methods to apply to which processes, and how to select appropriate quality tools.

[2019 Note: There are a lot of people asking for more guidance on how to start a quality system from scratch, when (and if) to buy software for various parts of it, how to assess ROI, and how to phase deployment for optimal success. I’ll address that this year… stay tuned.]


[1] Cianfrani, Tsiakals, & West (2001). ISO 9001: 2000 Implementation Guide. Milwaukee, WI: Quality Press. AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is an AWESOME BOOK!!! Totally explains all the aspects of ISO 9001:2000 that a manager might need to know to understand how it all fits together, and it's much lighter than my laptop. Caveat: In 2019, I now prefer Hoyle's ISO 9001:2015 Handbook.

[2] "Multiple Choice: What's the Best Quality System?" Quality Progress, July 2003, pp. 25-45.

[3] Radziwill, N. M., Olson, D., Vollmar, A., Lippert, T., Mattis, T., Van Dewark, K. and J.W. Sinn. (2008). Starting from Scratch. Quality Progress, September, p. 40-47.

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