Using a wiki to implement a quality-management system | The problem | What's a wiki? | Implementation | Example: Geometrica Corrective and Preventive Actions (CAPA)procedure | Achieving ISO certification | Document control and process improvement | Conclusion | More on the use of wikis for quality management | About the authors:


Using a wiki to implement a quality-management system

Geometrica began using a wiki to implement its quality-management system (QMS) in May 2008. By February 2009, its QMS was certified in compliance with ISO 9001, and we wrote a first version of this case study. In it, we stated that "the approach of using a wiki to document a Quality Management System (QMS) may seem overwhelmingly obvious in a year or so, yet we are far from that today." That was three years ago. Although the use of wikis for QMS is still not as commonplace as we thought it would be, many other organizations have indeed benefited from this technology. And since then, Geometrica's wiki has grown to encompass an integrated management system, including project management, customer service, health and safety with certification to BS OHSAS 18000, and many other of our company's activities. We are now updating this article with additional knowledge acquired with our growing wiki.

The problem

Documenting a QMS is an intensive process for every organization, and Geometrica's case was no exception. Geometrica engineers, manufactures and builds domes and space-frame structures around the world, and although we were confident of our quality controls, our clients were increasingly insistent on ISO 9001 certification. Several policies and procedures already were documented in various electronic and hard-copy formats, but these documents had been developed unsystematically to respond to problems, client demands and training needs. We had no single approach or cohesive structure.

The company's first attempt at documentation followed the conventional paradigm: Once we decided to pursue registration, we formed a quality committee comprising the CEO, the vice president, the heads of operating departments, the quality manager, plus an external consultant. After a gap analysis, we intended to proceed in a sequential manner, preparing or completing documents: vision, mission, quality objectives, formal documentation procedures, followed by process descriptions, procedures and work instructions--all in the common ISO 9001 framework.

As we e-mailed back and forth word-processed drafts, edits, comments, discussions, agreements, disagreements, meeting minutes, etc., it quickly became apparent that this method was horrendously inefficient--and the job momentous. The process itself was a big part of the problem, with typos, conflicts between documents, clarifications and reorganization of information all requiring substantial editing, even for documents that were “complete.” Meetings dragged on to resolve even small wording differences. Even though, at this stage, there were only a few documents in the system, in some cases we would not make desired edits because of the difficulties of keeping track of the latest version of a document while more than one person worked on it, or simply because of the effort required to update everyone’s binder. We attempted to solve the problem by maintaining only a single copy of the documents on the server and in hard copy, but even these were hard to keep in sync.

In short, the letter and spirit of ISO 9001--enabling a management system--was lost in the in-box. At this point, we started looking at wikis.

What's a wiki?

If your exposure to wikis has been limited to using Wikipedia on the Web, it may be difficult to appreciate the power that a wiki can bring to virtually every facet of documentation and management systems. A wiki is a special website that allows anyone in the organization to edit content--where every change (and its author and time) is saved, and where related documents are linked. A wiki's advantages stem from key paradigm shifts:

Here's what you lose when you move to a wiki: outdated procedures pasted on walls, updates in e-mails, endless meetings, employee manuals that are never really up to date, document-control hassles and document nonconformities. What you gain is a system centered in the organization as a whole, not in a person or department. The whole organization can provide feedback and shape the documentation to balance personal belief or subjectivity. Documentation becomes what the organization needs--not what one individual or department believes to be the best.

Meister's brief but accurate description of a wiki is that it's fast and a good fit for Geometrica, where change, teamwork, efficiency and effectiveness are key values. Upper management expected Geometrica's ISO certification to happen swiftly, without slowing the work for our clients, and a wiki made it possible.

Many wiki engines are available. The most well-known is MediaWiki, which powers Wikipedia. But at Geometrica, we use ProjectForum for its ease of installation, maintenance and use.

Implementation

Some on Geometrica's quality committee initially resisted using a wiki: They were worried about vandalism, poor editing and lack of control. Objections came from ingrained perceptions about the necessity for sequential authoring-editing-approval-publication to ensure that, when a document is published, its information is correct, complete, permanent and authoritative. Another common barrier is the idea that only the head of a department should be able to change documents that pertain to his or her work.

The wiki destroyed these objections quickly.

The committee empowered all of its members, and later the whole company, to edit any document. The distinction between author and editor disappeared, as changes to documents appeared immediately in all company locations, including our headquarters in Houston, the plant and offices in Monterrey, and jobsites as far away as Spain and the UAE. The quality of the information improved and continues to improve, with most edits, for many reasons:

  1. Ease of access means that users check the wiki frequently to learn more or verify their knowledge.
  2. More people get involved with much less effort. In the "old way," either noncore people aren't involved or, if they are involved, they spend lots of time in QA process meetings that mostly don't relate to their work--a huge waste of time. A wiki allows noncore people to pay attention to just the bits they care about. Now multiply that time saved by the number of people in the organization!
  3. Ease of editing simplifies “minor” corrections and improvements that otherwise might be ignored because the errors were “tolerable.” The people who know a topic detect shortcomings and correct them immediately.
  4. The aggregation of many small corrections and improvements produces very significant changes: We call it "wiki magic."
  5. Information is not repeated. The ability to include and link to other wiki pages allows us to maintain information in a single location. Note, however, that this requires careful oversight of the system (informally known as "wiki gnoming"), as there is no built-in mechanism to prevent repeated information.
  6. Incentives prompt positive cooperation of wiki users:
    • Every user works for Geometrica and is identified by name and password.
    • All changes to the wiki, as well as authors and times, are logged. The information is available to all through a page-history link, and to the administrator by user or date.
    • Changes to any or all documents may be monitored by any user through e-mail or Real Simple Syndication (RSS).
    • One rule: No rules. Anyone can share ideas, discuss, comment, change, edit, copy and paste as needed, since the entire organization is working toward one goal. Everyone's skills and knowledge are welcome.
    • Reverting to prior versions of a document is easy and quick.
  7. As managers from different areas work together on wiki documentation, they create a multidisciplinary approach that enhances learning and interaction throughout the organization.
  8. In our implementation, we used a database of corrective and preventive actions based on the open-source “Bugzilla” software. Originally developed to debug software, Bugzilla is ideal for debugging documents, thereby complementing the wiki. Bugzilla helps capture the knowledge of individuals who would not normally contribute to the wiki, either because they do not use computers in their jobs or because they don't feel sufficiently confident about a change to make it directly on the wiki. Those individuals use the database to report nonconformities, which are then assigned automatically to process owners. The process owners then moderate structured, asynchronous discussions when required, discover root causes, and implement corrective and/or preventive actions right on the system (per ISO 9001 Section 8.5), but with hot-links to the affected documents for quick verification and audit.

In its first nine months, the Geometrica QMS wiki amassed 1,577 pages of high-quality documentation, containing more than 3 GB of data. Now, three years later, Geometrica's QMS wiki has more than 10,000 pages and serves 67 internal users. Computer tablets make the documentation available on the shop floor and construction sites. The median user consults the QMS more than 20 times each day. The system continues to improve, with more than 500 edits each week.

Example: Geometrica Corrective and Preventive Actions (CAPA)procedure

The wiki process is best illustrated with an example, and the history of our continuous-improvement procedure serves this purpose--in a pleasantly recursive way. These images are not intended to be readable, but show how the form and length of the procedure changes through time and wiki magic. A wiki page for this procedure was created on May 21, 2008. On June 15, it had been edited 15 times, and by October 8, 30 times. Then there was a furious spurt: 112 edits in the next eight weeks, for a total of 142 edits. This procedure is live and continues to evolve with the QMS, averaging a little less than two edits each week. But, as we experienced early on, these edits are clustered around instances of significant change in the system.

June 15, 2008, Edit #15October 8, 2008, Edit #30October 29, 2008, Edit #75
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November 21, 2008, Edit #121December 3, 2008, Edit #142January 28, 2009, Edit #150
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Achieving ISO certification

The central function of our wiki implementation was the ISO 9001 quality system. Once we shifted the documentation process to the wiki, it took nine months to complete the project. These areas of ISO 9001 compliance illustrate the great value of the wiki approach:

Document control and process improvement

"Availability at points of use" is required by the standard. That is often taken to mean "for consultation." The wiki certainly helps with this. But documentation is useful beyond consultation by operators, for example, for process definition and improvement. When a company first tries the process approach, it will find gray areas of responsibility or activity that often are cleared up, with time, by refining the documentation. This is what we mean by "process definition." And, as processes become better defined and documented, they reach a point when process improvements occur concurrently with the improving documentation. This is "process improvement." 

Documentation ought to be available at the points where processes are defined and improved, actually facilitating those activities. Improvements in processes and documents should be recorded; therefore, documents should be editable, which is precisely what a wiki offers. Beyond consultation only, a wiki makes documents available at points where possible improvements are evident and can be recorded.  Operators are particularly well placed to improve documents. And the wiki's mechanism for saving every edit works like a ratchet, allowing, in practical terms, only those changes that actually improve the documentation and the processes.

As processes improve, the volume of documentation increases. With conventional systems, the growing volume soon becomes unmanageable. This limits the level of detail that users may choose to document in such systems. But in a wiki, the ease of linking creates the small-world network of documents mentioned earlier, where related documents are a link away, and all documents are two or three links away. The reduction in complexity is astonishing. The manageable amount of detail is orders of magnitude larger, well beyond anything previously possible. This permits users to refine and improve processes to a level unthinkable with conventional documentation. Of course, achieving such refinement still comes through many small improvements. But this happens quickly, accelerated by the wiki's "ratchet" improvement mechanism.

Conclusion

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Structure's got QUALITY!

The need for this new paradigm is pressing. The business world is so different from that in which quality systems evolved decades ago. Today, we exist as a global village: We rely on cheap transportation and effective supply chains rather than economies of scale. We cross the world in hours and close business deals from China to Chile in seconds. Networks and telecommunications tie it all together. Isn't it the natural next step to base our quality systems precisely on these technologies?

Documentation is a tool, a means to achieve a higher purpose. Many organizations make the mistake of paying more attention to a document's format than to its content and purpose. They may buy expensive document-control software with a "built in" QMS manual, including flow diagrams, procedure pages, and work-instruction templates. But this type of software typically offers very little flexibility. The software automatically sends e-mails to all involved personnel when a document is changed and often adds bureaucratic barriers such as requests for authorization to publish a new version of the document. Such methods introduce friction and are almost as slow as using hard copies.

The bottom line is that a wiki simplifies compliance with ISO 9001 by embracing collaboration and maintaining well-organized documentation, which is the basis of knowledge management. All of the know-how of the organization resides in a medium where it is stored, improved, protected from vandalism--and can be used for education and training. With the benefits that wiki technology provides, it is only a matter of time before quality and management practitioners change their paradigms and adopt this powerful technology.

Geometrica completed its ISO 9001-2008 certification audit in early February 2009, obtained its certification through BSI, and has been successfully recertified annually ever since.

Oh, and this article was written--and improved--on the wiki, too.



More on the use of wikis for quality management

Geometrica pioneered the use of a wiki for ISO 9001 implementation and has written the following articles on the subject.

A discussion about this article is on-going at the Elsmar Cove.


About the authors:

Francisco (Pancho) Castano, PE, is the CEO of Geometrica, Inc.
Gerardo (Gerry) Mendez, has a Masters degree in Administration and is the CFO for Geometrica.
Linda Day is the principal at Day Creative, Houston