The quality manual

Say what you do, and do what you say.

Unknown (attributed to an ISO Quality Assessor)

Yes, you do need a manual, unless you can think of a better way. A manual helps new employees get up to speed more quickly. It also helps more experienced ones remind themselves of procedures they are unsure of. It’s up to the company what it covers though, subject to the quality model in use. Something has to happen if it’s in the manual. But things can be done even if they’re not in the manual.

Be flexible

People sometimes complain that manuals

  • Don’t reflect actual working practice
  • Prevent flexible responses to customer needs
  • Inhibit innovation.

If any of that is true of your manual, it needs looking at. If the procedure for changing the manual is onerous, start with that!

If the manual doesn’t reflect actual working practice, change it. Of course, first of all you have to work out whether to change the manual or the working practice. So check out if there is a good reason for the way the job is actually done or whether it is in fact bad practice.

One-off flexibility can be covered by a manual. It may be difficult to specify how you should react in any circumstances. On the other hand, the manual could allow variations in practice where the normal procedure would be inappropriate. Of course, the individual might need to document their reasons, and that could be a bug-bear, if the documenting procedure is itself onerous. If it is, get it changed.

What’s to stop your manual having a procedure for innovation? Then you’d have to do it! Seriously, when people complain about the manual in that respect, they are usually more concerned with the system for changing the manual than with more strategic innovation.

There are basically two options here: either have a good effective procedure that supports innovation, or don’t have a documented procedure at all. Remember, just because something is not in the manual this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!

What should go in a quality manual

Manuals are simply a means of recording how to do a task so that people can refer back to it, to enable them to do it consistently in that way, and for other people to have that knowledge too.


Like everything else, this depends on need and on the model you are using. The manual should certainly address those processes

  • Which are critical to business success
  • Where consistency is important.

It is also worth recording any procedures that may occur so infrequently that people have to work them out afresh each time, such as aspects of an annual planning system.

But it is important to remember that not everything needs to be documented. It might, for example, be difficult (although not impossible) to document some creative procedures. It has to happen if it’s in the manual, but if it’s not in the manual, it can still happen.


Again, it’s impossible to be prescriptive. The level of detail you record will vary according to need. The key issue is to what extent it matters exactly how the thing is done, and to what extent flexibility is useful. For example, you might want to be very detailed in the procedure for the emergency shut-down of a nuclear power station, but simply provide a framework for making travel arrangements or dealing with a customer.

It depends how important you think it is that 3.5 minutes after serving food that the server asks the diner ‘Is everything all right for you?’ And whether you tell the server what to do if the reply is ‘no’!