Have you ever been asked a simple question about something you do over and over again….a question you know you should have an answer for….but don’t?

It can be a frustrating realization.

I’ve been in hundreds of different businesses talking to thousands of different business owners, leaders, and employees about quality management systems – specifically ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems.

And I’ve always found it interesting how many people don’t quite understanding what a quality management system really is – even though they work within one every single day.

In fact, as I’m typing this, I’m one day removed from wrapping up an Internal Auditor Course in which I posed the following question to a group of about 30 students from different organizations – all certified to an ISO 9001 Quality Management System:

“So…who can tell me what a Quality Management System is”…..

…and NO….you can’t answer with “a system for managing quality”!

The answer I received:

[insert the sound of crickets]

So let’s tackle that today!

Keep in mind my friend, I don’t believe in over-complicating things and I tend not to speak in overly-fancy terms. I believe in starting out super-simple and building up from there. So please no hate mail from my beloved over-thinkers. We can get overly-complicated later!

So here goes…

The first thing we need to do is settle on three super-simple principles. It’s important that we come to the understanding of these principles because they’re the foundation for understanding everything else about quality management systems (let’s call it a QMS for now on, ok?).

WARNING: If you understand these three principles, you may never look at your business the same way again!

What is a Quality Management System – Principle ONE

All businesses, regardless of size, complexity, product, or service provided, are simply a series of processes linked together to produce a defined outcome.


Now, when I was first starting in the consulting world well over a decade ago, I would always get asked questions like: “have you ever implemented a QMS in ____________ type of business?”

“SO….Have you ever implemented a QMS in the XYZ industry before?”

And I would always answer honestly if my answer was “no”, but then I would explain this principle. Because once you understand this principle – that all businesses are a series of processes linked together to produce a defined outcome – the product being produced matters very little.

It’s all about the processes!

Take for instance this example of processes linked together to produce something int he manufacturing industry:

what is a quality management system exacmple

Now of course, all business are not built the same. In fact, most businesses differ in the key processes involved in delivering their products or services. But they ALL have key processes that must work effectively. And once you identify those…the rest is gravy.

What is a Quality Management System – PRINCIPE TWO

All processes convert something into…well… something else.

For example, cooking dinner is a process. The ingredients are the input to the process, and a cooked meal (hopefully edible!) is the output the ingredients are converted into.

ISO 9001:2015 process

To provide a more “business friendly” example: A customer purchase order may be the input to an Order Entry process with the completed Work Oder entered into the computer system being the output of the process.

ISO 9001 Sample Process

Makes sense, right?

If you’re still with me, say “YEAH”!

Ok…celebrations over….Let’s press forward….

What is a Quality Management System – PRINCIPLE THREE

Since the end-game here is to answer the question:

“What is a Quality Management System”.

It’s naturally a good idea to mention what a system is…. Enter Principle Three.

A system is a bunch of processes and activities that work together in a defined sequence and order. Think of it as a really big process with a bunch of other processes inside all working together!

This holds true for a Quality Management System as well. A QMS is a series of processes working together to deliver a defined outcome.

What outcome?

Well, the reason we implement a QMS is to ensure customer satisfaction, right?

And we ensure customer satisfaction by delivering a product or service that meets customer requirements, right?

So if the output of this system is something that meets customer requirements, what must we get as inputs???

YEP! You guessed it…..the Customer Requirements!

So just like the making dinner example…the input (or ingredients) is customer requirements, and the output (dinner) is customer satisfaction! Everything in the middle is the system we use to make it.

And that brings us to our definition….

Let’s break this back down from the top and put a nice bow on it….

  1. A business is made up of a bunch of processes
  2. These processes convert inputs into outputs
  3. A Quality Management System is a series of processes for creating customer satisfaction.

Therefore we can logically define a Quality Management System as:

A series of processes that convert customer requirements into customer satisfaction.

nd it looks a little something like this…

What is a quality management system example process

That’s it! Easy Peasy Pumpkin Pie.

But why is it important? [MUST READ THIS SECTION!]

Well… for years ISO 9001 and quality management systems in general have been considered the “pet project” of the Quality Control department. This is one of the big mistakes I talk about in my micro-course , The Five Critical Mistakes.

Looking at this definition above, we can see why this “quality department” perspective is insufficient.

Think of all the activity that takes place from the moment the customer requirements are received to the time it’s determined the customer is satisfied.

ALL of those processes along with the people and resources required to effectively operate are part of the Quality Management System. Operating as if the Quality Department alone can manage the QMS is why so many organization continually chase the system around like they are herding cats.

Instead, all employees and individual process owners should understand what a QMS really is, and why they are just as responsible for it’s success as the person to the left or right.

All the best,

Kevin Shabaar Smith

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