Instructional balance: The Yin and Yang of today’s quality management system

Implementing the proper ISO 9000 compliant quality management system requires the preparation, issuance, and control of immense quantities of command media, including procedures, work instructions, and checklists.

By Lee C. Bravener, Vice President, NQA, USA, Acton, MA March 1, 2001

Implementing the proper ISO 9000 compliant quality management system requires the preparation, issuance, and control of immense quantities of command media, including procedures, work instructions, and checklists. ISO 9001: 1994 asserts that you are compelled to “prepare documented procedures…” This requirement is true; however, it is too often misunderstood in practice.

Further review reveals considerable insight into the intent of the standard to provide a balanced approach to instructional guidance. The standard states “…the range and detail of the procedure … depend on the complexity of the work, the methods used, and the skills and training needed by personnel involved….” These simple phrases carry much more weight and consequence in the process of establishing an effective quality management system than their few words would seem to dictate.

One of the recognized beauties of the ISO 9000 model is that it provides simple guidance concerning what must be addressed in a functional quality management system – without dictating how it is to be done. An ISO 9000 rule of thumb states that if the method does not seem right for the organization; then it probably should not be done that way. The key is discovering the right instructional balance between documented instructions and job training.

Also necessary to consider is the long anticipated ISO 9000: 2000. This new standard has significantly trimmed the number of “required” procedures specified.

Does this new phrasing solve the mystery of how many procedures you should have or how much training you will provide? Unfortunately, no.

This new issue of the standard does provide a much better understanding of the intent of the documented quality system. Nonetheless, the question remains for you to determine a proper instructional balance between command media/procedures and training.

Balancing act

At first, this question of instructional balance appears simple: Just decide how many procedures you think are needed based on the number of elements in the standard, and how much training you believe is necessary based on the education of the staff.

However, closer scrutiny quickly reveals a much more delicate and complex interaction. Too many unnecessary and restrictive procedures may hamper the proper use of the documented quality system or make it too cumbersome to be effective. On the other hand, too much training may be overly expensive or time consuming.

Too little of either or both may leave you with an improperly implemented quality system, or no system at all. Too much of both cripple the flexibility necessary for an organization to effectively deal with a rapidly changing business environment.

As an advisory, don’t be snared by the common trap of assuming that “highly educated” individuals need far fewer documented procedures and instructions then “less educated” personnel. For example, consider an airline pilot or NASA ground controller. Both employees use highly detailed checklists, procedures, and written instructions since their tasks are highly detailed, structured, and require consistent repetitive performance. At the same time they are expected to continually undergo refresher task training.

On the other hand, the assembly line worker relies more on structured training since the tasks are more time sensitive and performed in an environment not lending itself to the continual reference to written instructions.

It is expedient to perform detailed “training” in the organization’s laboratory procedures, regardless of the employees’ “education.” This approach shows that any one element in the mix is insufficient to define the organization’s instructional balance. More accurately, all factors must be duly considered to establish the ideal mix of documentation and training.

In the very early stages of the quality system development, and possibly the most crucial concept to grasp, is to determine the proper equilibrium between the quantity of documentation developed and amount of training performed.

It is profoundly significant to resolutely pursue this proper instructional balance between the Yin of Documentation and the Yang of Training.


A review of the ISO 9000: 2000 family of standards provides some initial guidance toward the proper balance of instructional media. When these standards explain documentation as a media of “communication of intent and consistency of action,” they introduce an important aspect of the proper quality management system.

Likewise, the documents also recognize that the organization itself is the key to the type and amount of documentation necessary with the discussion. The extent of documentation is determined by the organization based on several internal issues. Even though the new standard defines training as the means of the organization to achieve a satisfactory level of competence of performance among its personnel and an awareness of customer needs, it falls short of drawing the important parallel with a defined balance with documentation. These issues most likely dictate the scale needed to determine that unique balance which satisfies the organization’s needs.

When seeking the proper and unique center of gravity between documentation and training, the organization must ponder various issues. These issues include those introduced in the ISO standard, and others defined by the business, product, people, and culture. Each point must be examined for its effect on instructional balance. Consider their intricate and complex influences.

Product/service provided

The product or service provides one of the most notable influences on instructional balance. If the product is highly complex and requires stringent conformity, a higher level of documentation may be called for.

If the product process consists of constant or repetitive tasks, perhaps training may be a better approach.

If the task requirements lean toward the individual reaction, or interpretation of changing, or presented conditions, the individual’s level of training may need to be higher in order to temper the “judgement” call.


The customer may specify, or even provide, a dictated level of training. It is just as common for the customer to stipulate and provide review and approval of command media used to provide the product.

Any organization that provides services or product to the government recognizes the Contract Data Requirements List. These requirements specify the type and format of procedures to be developed, and often approved, by the customer’s representative.

Personality of organization

The personality of the organization often dictates the accepted instructional balance. Many companies seek higher levels of documentation for purposes of consistency, but refrain from implementing such documentation.

The personality could be damaged due to perceived “restrictions” suggested by command media. The opposite can be found in the organization that “goes by the book,” but then may feel threatened, if the “book” is unavailable.

Nature and complexity of task

The complexity of the task may determine the level of training and/or documentation necessary. If a specific recipe for success is defined by a set of work instructions or engineering drawings, it is necessary to follow those instructions, often to the letter.

But if the success is dependant on the ability of the technician to interpret complex signals or situations, then the organization would be wise to continue to improve that employee’s ability to react, rather than wasting its resources on attempting to anticipate what may go wrong.

Atmosphere within organization

Expectations of workers and supervisors often dictate instructional balance. If the nature of the organization determines a higher level of expected documentation or training, to do anything else would be less effective. If employees anticipate detailed procedures, failure to provide these documents would likely raise levels of anxiety. The reverse is just as true.

For an organization to convert from leaning heavily toward training or documentation, to switch to the other side of the balance is a difficult task. To shift toward a more equitable balance requires great delicacy.

Cultural and social diversity

Effective communication, including documented procedures or task training between diverse cultures and social groups, requires careful and deliberate attention. Social or cultural interfaces that exist within the organization prescribe the levels and forms of instructional balance required.

It is also wise to insert feedback to ensure that the desired documentedor trained communication has occurred.

Regulatory issues

If regulatory requirements specify a level of training or documentation, then the only discussion must be directed at how best to meet these regulatory needs without violating any other requirements or demands of the organization.

The new version of the standard establishes that “management should ensure that the organization has knowledge of the statutory and regulatory requirements that apply to its product, processes, and activities.”

Physical and functional environment

Nature of the workplace strongly influences the selection of the instructional communication method used. If the workplace environment is unfriendly to the use of documentation or its electronic equivalent, the organization would rely heavily on training to communicate expectations.

The same is true if the functional nature of the task at hand (time or place constraints) dictate the balance toward training. These factors may be outweighed by task complexity, customer needs, or regulatory issues that require the organization to introduce appropriate documentation despite hostile conditions.

Technology utilization

Computers, cellular telephones, video conferencing, the web, and other technological innovations have initiated a massive shift in the qualifying factors that influence an institution’s instructional balance. It is possible to provide the technician with a set of detailed procedures, including supporting diagrams and illustrations, virtually at his fingertips, via a personal computer attached to the internet.

It is equally feasible to provide in-depth training via that same internet. Previously, it was not practical to provide documented procedures or training due to time, place, environment, or other factors. Technology makes this approach not only practical, but also preferable; and establishes new measurement and balances.

Organizational dispersal

With the introduction of the “virtual office” and the increased trend toward geographic dispersal of functional and operational activities, new demands are placed on the established balance of training and documented instruction. It is no longer the norm for a company to anticipate that training occurs in the classroom or one-on-one.

And, it is no longer a situation of having the locally situated procedure binder for quick reference. New methods, as well as balances, are now anticipated to address these possible circumstances.

Web-based training and electronic documentation are rapidly becoming accepted practice. This approach places its own influences on the instructional balance that may exist within the organization.

Lee Bravener has over 20 yr of experience in developing, implementing, and auditing quality systems in a broad range of industries to comply with various standards. He can be reached at 978-635-9256; fax 978-263-0785. The company web site is