5 Apr 2010

Quality Management for Language Schools #1

Following my 'Learning from Big Business' theme, I have decided to post a series on Quality Management in EFL schools, specifically the ISO9001 in the EFL school where I am currently school manager and DOS.  This post explores a few basic questions:

  1. What is a quality management system?
  2. What is ISO9001?
  3. What is the relevance to EFL schools?
Future posts will look at implementing ISO9001, the 8 principles of quality management, the plan-do-check-act cycle and internal auditing.  So let's get started...

To introduce the ISO9001 and what it means for a company and its customers, I have found a little youtube video to help me explain: welcome to Daintee, Sri Lanka's only ISO9001 certified confectioner.

Oh, I forgot to say, the video is in Tamil, so you might not have picked up much.  But if you are (or used to be) a TEFL teacher you should have picked up the blatantly obvious visual clues:
  • Modern, process line production (not Old Granny Amirtha's cramped kitchen)
  • Quality is checked during production
  • Quality is worth communicating to your customers
  • Safe enough to give your kids
So, reading between the lines, we can see a quality management includes quality control, modern processes, quality assurance, and communication.

1. What is a Quality Management System?

A quality management system involves a company-wide commitment to quality and the continual improvement of products and services by monitoring and responding to client feedback.  But doesn't that all sound a bit too corporate for EFL managers and Directors of Studies?  We'll see...

While specifics vary widely from system to system and industry to industry, almost any quality management system (QMS) will revolve around 6 key elements:

You won't get anywhere without clear, achievable goals.  There must be a commitment to quality from the company's overall vision and mission statement to the actual business objectives and sales targets.  This has to cascade down to job descriptions, staff handbooks, meeting agendas, CPD plans, etc.

Any business activity can be described as a process with inputs and outputs; the output of one process being the input of another.  An output can be anything from a report or a single statistic to a trained employee or a new syllabus.  Re-framing your work around processes helps you look objectively at what staff do and how they do it, improving flow and efficiency.

Problem Prevention
We all know prevention is better than the cure; a proactive business operated better than a reactive one.  Some example activities include due diligence, risk assessments, planning, forecasting student numbers, accommodation supplier inspections, tracking market trends, market research, etc.  Problem prevention must be a key step in any process. 

Problem Detection
Detecting problems pre-delivery is very tricky in the service industry.  However, you can standardize responses to enquiries, implement approval procedures for progress tests, syllabuses, marketing literature, etc. Post-delivery you can more than rely on complaints, customer feedback, teaching observations, audits, spot checks, etc.

Problem Correction
While you can easily replace a product, you cannot replace someone's language learning.  A discount or a change of course or class or teacher may go some way to remedying the situation.  But quality management requires reflection on the cause of the problem and action to revise working practices to ensure it does not reoccur.  You must learn from your mistakes. 

Finally, what I think it the most crucial element in management: communication.  Without care and attention to communication (top-down, internal, customers, suppliers, partners, B2B, the public, all stakeholders) quality management is doomed to fail.  Employees will not care about it; policies will not be implemented; standards will not be maintained; and even if they are, your customers will not be listening to you.  You must remember, communication starts with listening.  

2. What is the ISO9001?

The ISO9001 standard (known simply as the 'standard') is a list of interrelated statements about what the company does.  It insists the business is oriented around the customer by analysing their needs and requirements, delivering the right products and services, monitoring feedback, responding to feedback, and, importantly, communicating with the customer about all such activities.

The standard has 8 sections, totalling 38 clauses with numerous sub-clauses, with the meaty ones being in sections 4-8 (the first 3 are almost impenetrable jargon).  They are:
  1. Scope
  2. Normative References
  3. Terms and Conditions
  4. Quality Management System
  5. Management
  6. Resources
  7. Product Realisation
  8. Measurement, Analysis and Improvement
There are 135 'shall' statements setting the norms of an ISO9001 certified business but as many of the shall-statements are phrased as "the organisation shall a, b, c and d" there are in fact 364 implied shall-statements, each requiring a response from the organisation.  That's a lot of standards to maintain! 

I'll paraphrase some examples to give you a flavour:

4.2 The QMS shall include a policy, objectives, a manual, processes, and records. 

4.1 The organisations shall:
  • determine the processes needed to operate their business
  • ensure adequate resources are available to meet the quality required
  • monitor, measure and analyse the products and processes
  • continually improve these processes
5.1 Top management shall commit to the QMS.

So there is a great deal of flexibility in deciding how each company, in its industry, and with its particular set of clients, meets the standard.  Whether they meet the standard or not is reviewed annually by an external audit with a very wide scope, covering anything from sales to customer feedback, health and safety regulations to marketing literature. 

The ISO9001 is a long-term investment, there is no fast buck to be made, and it requires a considerable top-down commitment.  It could be a complete overhaul of how a company operates, completely re-framing its daily business operation.

So why bother?  Well, the theory goes ISO9001 (or quality managed) companies:
  • Enjoy higher market share
  • Charge premium prices
  • Improve efficiency and cut costs
  • Achieve higher customer satisfaction
  • Enhance their reputation
  • Better train and motivate staff
If it works for a Sri Lankan confectioner, a Canadian military engineering software division and a Japanese fish market, the same results can be expected for an EFL school.

3. Is it Relevant to EFL schools?

For an EFL school in the UK, the 'British Council' marque is the only badge of quality with any currency.  The ISO9001 does not work well as a badge to stick on the company letterhead or website.  Although it is widely-known in Korea and Japan and perhaps among corporate clients, it is almost unknown to young university-age student from Europe and the Middle East. 

UK schools are regulated by the British Council (or ABLS or ASIC) and the UKBA.  Many schools also join quality associations like Quality English, EAQUALS and IALC.  Some may opt for Investors in People status or become LearnDirect centres.  Each organisation sets a mountain of standards and criteria that have to be maintained.

If you are the principal or DOS who has to deliver services and train staff to meet these criteria you might feel like you a competing in one of the world's largest jigsaw competitions!  The ISO9001 is one standard that will encompass all others and deliver the key objective: continual improvement

It is the continual improvement that makes it all worthwhile.  You can prove, over and over again, you can meet any external regulations and quality standards.  An EFL school will find meeting UKBA regulations much easier.  If you want to become a test centre, meeting requirements of test security and administration will be a cinch.  Applying for EU funding, a formality (well, maybe not, but you get the point).

A key difference between the ISO and British Council standards, are that the ISO are principle-based rather than task-based, so they are applicable in any industry.  That said, you might notice the most recent British Council handbook includes a new standard:

So all accredited schools might be heading a little closer to ISO9001 whether they know it or not. 

Next post: The Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle and Implementing ISO9001 in an EFL school


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