Covid-19: Box Ticking versus Delivery

Many of us will be going through the same thing right now: my partner and I live a way away from elderly parents – in our case our respective mothers – who both most definitely fall into the ‘most vulnerable’ category for Covid-19. Both are given support by regular visits from professional carers. So, quite naturally, we asked the care provider to send us over their procedures for minimising the chances of transmission of the virus to and between their staff and charges.

What we got back was a document which almost entirely described a process divorced from reality: that they’d carried out a risk assessment; that they were rearranging ongoing review meetings; that their HR adviser would attend staff meetings and that clients might be visited by people with whom they’re unfamiliar. Right. What of course was missing from that was any reference to the actual measures being taken to identify transmission chains and minimise infection.

So we’re now engaged in trying to winkle out of them just what they’re actually doing, whilst making our own plans to support the old girls over the next few months. We’re fortunate in that we live somewhere that’s inherently self-isolating and we have room to accommodate those in need. Others are not so fortunate and must be wrestling with the same issues, but with far less option to extricate the vulnerable from their situations.

It’s all very well having process, but when check-box adherence to that process takes precedence over delivery of the actual measures necessary we, I hope, can be forgiven for developing a deep sense of unease. 

The Degradation of ‘Quality’

Whilst it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the current pandemic, this wilfully blinkered hiding behind process (rather than focussing on delivery) has long been a characteristic of those who wish to distance themselves from the consequences of their actions. And there are few places where its more apparent than in the use of ‘quality systems’ – the formal frameworks for documenting organisational process and activities that organisations are so keen to use as a badge of the quality of their products or services, the pre-eminent international standard there being the ISO9000 suite of standards.

Used appropriately, a ‘quality system’ can be a very effective support for the delivery and monitoring of the outcomes that make products and services fit for purpose, and an organisation that focusses on delivery,  supported and documented by an effectively designed and adaptable quality system, has its priorities right.

But far, far too many people and organisations cannot see beyond a primacy of process over pragma, where documentation of that process is regarded as the be-all and end-all of quality. Their application of quality standards creates a detached bureaucrat’s delight: a self-referential ‘seeming’ of competence against which deniability of real world consequences can be assured. What is conveniently, and often intentionally forgotten, is that all any quality system actually does – even where applied – is consistently document the steps followed, not the fitness for purpose of the end result – you can produce complete crap, and continue to do so, but you might at the same time have the world’s most perfect quality system, but one that simply and meticulously records the fact that you’re producing crap. 

An organisation that does not effectively model process for exception cases, or simply ignores delivery in favour of ticking boxes, creates rigid and unresponsive models which prevent them from dealing with either outliers of need or changes to their environment that impact demand for their products or services. 

The outcome there for users of the service or product in question ranges from frustration, (ask anyone who has to deal with utility companies) to individual and mass death, whether that be from an epidemic or an air crash.

Starting The Rot

I happened to start my career at about the same time that BS5750 (the predecessor to ISO9001) was being introduced. At the time, I was working for a scientific software house and running an avionics software team at BAe, where a great deal of our time was spent (as you’d hope) on ensuring the completeness of specification, on the provability of our software against  that specification, on its consistency in delivery and on the reliable and consistent management of change into operational environments. In my youthful naivety, I thought the introduction of BS5750 would help provide a common framework for actual quality of delivery (the word ‘quality’ there being a bit of a giveaway), and so got enthusiastically stuck into the process of developing the implementation.

Disillusion rapidly set in, as I realised that it was to be used, not as a support for delivery, but as a means for the abrogration of responsibility for delivery. I’ve since been involved in a number of projects for the development of quality systems and, in all but a small handful, have found myself an uncomprehended voice in the wilderness, crying out for the primacy of quality of delivery over quality of process documentation – the latter being the systems that merely document what should be and is done, regardless of its incompetence.

This consequence of well-intentioned frameworks like BS5750 and ISO9001 was to give a name to that tendency to give primacy to the dogma of process over fitness for purpose, thereby allowing organisations to hang their hat from the name of quality, when in fact they’ve reduced their ability to respond to new challenges in an effective and proportionate manner.

Closing the Gap

This is a time of global crises, both real and imagined, and we will only succeed if we roll up our sleeves, listen to the experts, define what’s needed and get stuck in. Only then should we update our documentation to reflect that, and in such a way that it creates transferrable lessons to those who have to face the next wave of crisis, whether it’s dealing with the explosive growth of a pandemic or addressing the slow burn apocalypse of climate change. But the act of declaring identification of a process as itself victory is – inevitably – a recipe for defeat. 

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