Managing and ensuring quality – both sounds important. And they are. But what exactly is the difference between the two areas of responsibility and what is the relationship between them? The terms quality management and quality assurance are often equated and used synonymously. But that is not quite right.
Every company wants to operate successfully on the market. Success is achieved when customers buy the product and recommend it to others. When do customers do this? Exactly – when the quality of the product meets their expectations. Everyone expects quality and hopes that they will not be disappointed by the product or service. If we want to achieve this goal, we cannot avoid two essential fields of activity: quality management and quality assurance.
It’s a bit like driving a car: when we get into our car, at best we already have a destination in mind and know where we want to go. When a company is founded, it also does so with a goal in mind: success. If a company wants to operate successfully on the market, it focuses on delivering quality. This claim is also anchored in the corporate culture. It makes it its primary task to understand the needs of customers and to meet their expectations of products and services. The first customers are quickly enthusiastic, remain loyal to the new product or the company and recommend it to others – the company’s success is already in sight. However, in order to be able to maintain and further expand this success in the long term, the idea of quality must be reflected in the behavior, attitudes and activities of all employees and in the processes of the company. Quality must not only be desired, but also lived.
When we get into our car, we know where we want to go. The only open question is how to get to our destination. Nothing could be simpler: we quickly ask our navigation system. Quality management is very similar, although a bit more abstract. It involves developing a kind of roadmap – i.e., specifications, processes and rules – for creating products or services with the best possible benefits for customers. ISO 9000 defines quality management as follows:
Quality managers have the big picture in mind for the company and always keep their eye on the goal of “quality”. This can only be achieved with a systematic approach throughout the entire value chain – from dealing with customers’ wishes and requirements, through manufacturing, to servicing the products delivered. In addition, transparency about specifications, rules and, above all, about goals, meaning and purpose for everyone involved is an important success factor for quality. The key to this is quality management practiced by the entire company. The starting point for this is a quality management system (QMS). What it means to operate a QMS and under what conditions a QMS will be effective can be found in ISO 9001 – some say “normative requirements”, others “it is a guide on how to do it well”. ISO 9000 explains the term like this:
A quality management system is therefore not an IT solution, but rather a system. It is a system that ensures that the individual processes – especially the value-adding processes – mesh smoothly with one another. To achieve this, a process-oriented alignment of the company from the customer’s point of view is virtually indispensable. Satisfied customers are of fundamental importance. However, a quality manager must not disregard other “interested parties” under any circumstances, because their expectations must also be taken into account. In addition to standards, regulatory requirements from laws and political ordinances that govern our social interaction are also relevant in this context.
To ensure that everyone involved in the company knows exactly what needs to be done and when, the QMS must be suitably documented. On the other hand, everyone in their role needs feedback and transparency about whether the processes are running as planned and well, where risks or even opportunities arise, or whether there is potential for improvement. After all, striving for improvement is one of the principles of quality management. The QMS therefore not only provides orientation internally, but also ensures transparency for (potential) customers, because it shows how the company works. Quality management is responsible for the QMS, monitors its effectiveness and ensures continuous optimization – with the aim of avoiding delays, deviations from specifications and incorrect results.
But what is the difference between quality assurance and quality management? Let’s take another look at our example: we are sitting in our car and have started the navigation system – it shows us the way to reach our destination. We drive off. On our route, the navigation device is exposed to a wide variety of situations: it has to function perfectly despite the blazing midday sun on the windshield and bumpy potholes on the road we are driving on. It constantly recalculates the route – and becomes our reliable companion. What applies to the navigation device in this context can be applied to any product. Customers should get what they expect: a functional, fault-free product. In quality assurance, various methods are used to achieve this. According to ISO 9000, quality assurance is a
Quality assurance ensures that all requirements and specifications relating to the product or the manufacturing process are met or – in other words – assured. In addition to customer requirements, this also includes internal company or regulatory requirements, e.g. from standards or laws.
To this end, preparatory and monitoring measures are established which, in the form of control loops, ultimately ensure that quality can be produced and lived. How exactly does this work? It depends. On what kind of products we manufacture: whether as individual parts, in small or large series, with what vertical range of manufacture and what industry specifics need to be taken into account. In any case, there are a number of proven quality methods and techniques that will be useful. These include, for example, failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA), statistical process control (SPC), or the 8-step problem solving method (8D). Who does quality assurance? Everyone. Everyone in the company works on quality and on meeting any requirements and expectations. Everyone does their part to generate the confidence in quality required by “interested parties” and by the standard.
To summarize: quality management and quality assurance are different fields of activity that build on each other. Strictly speaking, one cannot fulfill its purpose without the other. And all in all, it is not just about QM and QA. Rather, it is about the management of quality throughout the entire company. The responsibility for this does not lie with the quality manager alone, but with the company management. Such a management system with quality should ideally be systemic, so that it can be lived and developed credibly by everyone. After all, quality is everyone’s business – regardless of whether a digital premium navigation system or perhaps just an analog map shows us the way to quality that inspires.