What is the difference between quality assurance and quality infrastructure? I was recently asked this question by a young colleague who has just started coordinating projects to promote quality infrastructure. The answer to this question is undoubtedly essential for every newcomer to quality infrastructure. Moreover, it is also a welcome stimulus to think more fundamentally about the relationship between these concepts.
First, the terms can be distinguished according to their application levels. For example, quality assurance (QA) and quality management (QM) belong to the company or organization level, whereas quality infrastructure (QI) refers to the level of an economy.
Let us stay at the organization level first. QA is the older term and is concerned with ensuring that an organisation’s end-product complies with defined quality specifications. In the early days of industrial production, entire departments were exclusively involved with measuring and quality inspection of end products. Moreover, QA is part of QM as defined, for example, by the ISO/IEC 9001 standard. QM broadens the perspective and ensures that all processes in an organisation function smoothly so that the overall system of products, processes and the organisation in its environment are continuously improved.
In addition, QM today focuses on knowledge and possible risks and opportunities. Targeted knowledge management, which determines the requirements for knowledge, makes what has been learned and recognised transparent and identifies gaps. For instance, staff and employees must be retained, promoted and protected as the most critical resource. In addition, risk management aims to identify possible dangers and opportunities in advance and counteract or use them accordingly. If an organisation correctly assesses its opportunities and risks and aligns its actions, this contributes to its long-term success.
In summary, QM deals with all processes within the organisation and the interfaces to the outside and improves the organisational process. In contrast, QA controls and ensures the quality of the final product. Ultimately, a company needs product-related quality control, process-oriented quality assurance, and systemic quality management.
QI, on the other hand, is located at the inter-company level. Its components are metrology, standardisation, accreditation and conformity assessment. Technical regulations and market surveillance are also included. Together, these components form the system of national QI. Most countries in the world have a more or less developed QI. In analogy to the physical infrastructure, QI provides the basis for operational QM and facilitates international trade through the mutual recognition of QI systems.
QI services have characteristics of public and private goods. For economists, public goods are those where there is no rivalry in consumption (i.e., if one person uses the good, that use does not reduce the benefit to other people) and where individuals cannot be excluded from using it. An example of this is the traceability of measurements to the International System via the National Metrology Institute. Traceability is available to all companies through an unbroken chain of comparisons and is made publicly available.
At the same time, conformity assessment services such as laboratory tests or certifications of products and management systems – and the calibration of measuring instruments themselves – are private goods. In these cases, rivalry exists, and use is regulated by price. However, if QI and conformity assessment systems are newly set-up, it may well make sense for the state to subsidise the services to become accessible to all SMEs.
|Level||enterprise level||economic level|
|QI services||QI service users||QI service provider|
|Organisation||Use within an organisation||Several organisations work together|
|Logic||Private sector logic||Public task/ public good character|
|Mastermind||Quality experts (“Quality gurus”)||International organisations and QI experts|
|Community||Quality societies (AQS, DGQ etc.)||INetQI, national quality councils, international development cooperation|
The QM and QI systems are closely linked. Companies need QI services for their QM. A central linkage point is the certification of the QM system itself. The certification body demonstrates its technical competence and independence through accreditation according to ISO/IEC 17021-1:2015. The auditors of the certification body check, among other things, whether the company’s measuring instruments are calibrated by a laboratory accredited according to ISO/IEC 17025:2005 and whether they can thus be traced back to the international measuring system. The same applies to the other conformity assessment services such as laboratory testing, inspection, validation and verification. For the import and export of products and services, it is again necessary that the accreditations are internationally recognised via Mutual Recognition Agreements. The QI bodies are suppliers, and the companies are consumers in the market of QI services. The conformity assessment bodies play an intermediary role.
Although QM and QI are closely related, they have their communities and professional organisations. For the QM field, the American Society of Quality (ASQ), the German Society for Quality (DGQ) and similar associations in other countries are essential competence networks and lobbyists for quality. These societies emerged during the “quality revolution” after the Second World War, which is closely linked to the work of the “quality gurus” Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran in Japan and the subsequent spread of quality thinking in the United States, Western Europe and later in the rest of the world. The quality societies are learning and exchanging platforms for quality experts and have been instrumental in shaping the development of QM.
In contrast, QI professionals organise themselves predominantly within the individual components. International organisations for metrology (BIPM, OIML), standardisation (ISO, IEC and ITU) and accreditation (IAF and ILAC) are important forums. In addition, there are international development organisations involved in promoting QI, such as the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), whose specialists and experts are closely networked through project work. The QI organisations and their supporters work together in the International Network for QI (INetQI).
At the national level, there are national quality councils in some countries and projects and events in which the work of a QI system is coordinated. There are also regional networks such as the Pan-African Quality Infrastructure (PAQI) in Africa and the Quality Infrastructure Council of the Americas (QICA) in Latin America and the Caribbean.
What QM and QI have in common is the interest in promoting quality culture? In this respect, the exchange between the two communities should be in the interest of both. For QI to develop demand-driven, its protagonists need knowledge about QM developments. Conversely, quality professionals also need to understand how QI works to use it to improve their systems.
What experience do you have with the exchange between QM and QI?
How can the synergies of both systems be strengthened?
DSQ, History of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Qualität (German)
Sommerhof, Benedikt (2021) The Development of Quality Management in the 20th and 21st Century; in: Pfeifer, T/ Schmitt, R. (eds.) Masing Handbuch Qualitätsmanagement, 7th Revised Edition. Hanser, Munich, 16-39.