Checking off the box: Flawed attention to compliance stands in the way of improvement

Barb ClearyMeeting compliance requirements and standards is sufficient to meet objectives of injury and accident prevention, and assure the health and safety of all employees—right?

Health and safety consultant Dan Markiewicz says no, citing data that indicate that only 19 percent of occupational deaths are due to injury. The rest? Diseases such as circulatory impairment and cancer, which have nothing to do with OHSA or other standards to which an organization complies. 1 Keeping employees safe with workplace standards is not sufficient to keep them healthy.

Quality professionals have long recognized that simply meeting standards is not enough to achieve organizations’ quality improvement objectives. After all, standards are set, stable recommendations, and processes are fluid and dynamic. The “zero defects” mantra illustrates an extreme of this concept, for it implies that it is possible and desirable to invest in efforts that will secure this objective. Indeed, the costs associated with such a quest could ultimately put an organization out of business entirely. That’s the ultimate in zero defects. Instead, quality professionals recognize that reducing defects is a worthwhile goal. The Lean Six Sigma initiative offers the objective of reducing defects rather than eliminating them.

What about other standards? Is it possible to conform to ISO standards, for example, without achieving quality in processes and products?

We all know the student who has managed to have “A’s” in every subject, and who has not really mastered the content of any. Or the employee who has all 5s on 1-5 performance scales, and yet who is known for missing targets or alienating colleagues. A perfect score never guarantees a perfect employee.

When conformance itself becomes the goal, the point of improvement is missed entirely. Standards are in place to support organizations’ efforts at process improvement and satisfaction of customers, but although they may be necessary to keep a focus on this improvement, they are far from sufficient to guarantee it.

One of the misdirections that a focus on compliance can take is the sense of satisfaction that employees feel when standards are met. This may be seen as a kind of smugness: We’ve made it; no further worries. In fact, improvement is a continuous process, not one with a single target point. The Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle of Deming and Shewhart demonstrates this; once an improvement has been standardized in this cycle, building on that improvement with a continuous PDSA cycle, including ongoing data collection, begins again, to assure that other improvements may be forthcoming.

Standards are to be seen as tools, not end points, if the good of the customer is to be considered. Improvement is a lifelong journey. And as Steve Daum, PQ Systems software engineering director, says, “When you give someone a recipe, it can become a substitute for thinking. They can get too focused, maybe too obsessed, with the recipe, and forget to occasionally taste the food.”


1Markiewicz, Dan. “We’re blinded by compliance bias,” Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, February 2017, p. 12.

2 thoughts on “Checking off the box: Flawed attention to compliance stands in the way of improvement

  1. The Article written by Ms. Barb Cleary is an excellent comparison of Compliance Vs. Improvement. It is very true that we are blinded by merely meeting the standards or regulations. Customers expectations are much more than just meeting the standards. Using Dr. Deming and Shewhart Statistical techniques for continuous improvement will not only delight customers but also reduced defects; improve cycle time & costs and provide a competitive edge in the market place.
    Naren, ASQ Fellow

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