Easy as 1, 2, 3, (4, 5)

A simple visual aid can help keep important information at hand

by Deborah Rindfuss Ellis

At one time or another, we have all used mnemonic devices or memory aids. These are the short rhymes, cute sayings or visual cues that help us recall various facts we would ordinarily need to Google to jog our memory.

Many of our memory aids were learned in grade school or high school. They have stayed with us, tucked away in our long-term memory for years. For example, in an effort to improve our spelling aptitude, we all learned this catchy phrase: “I” before “E” except after “C.”

Visual memory aids are also very useful. For example, we can use our five fingers to remember the five major sections of the ISO 9001 standard.

Thumbs up

Start with the thumb. Think of this as the strongest of the five fingers. It is the broadest digit and is absolutely critical to providing total hand function. Try lifting any object without the thumb, and you will quickly discover it is nearly impossible.

Equate the thumb to the first major section of the standard—the quality management system (QMS). The QMS, like the thumb’s role as part of the hand, is a strong element and provides the foundation necessary for the other main elements to function well.

The index finger is a memory aid for the second major section of the standard—management responsibility. We often think of management as a directing body. As a result, many of us have images of executives pointing their index fingers as they clarify various issues. In addition, you can visualize a conductor leading an orchestra with an outstretched index finger.

In both cases, the pointed index finger can symbolize commitment, planning, direction, authority and communication, all of which are key components of the management responsibility section of the standard.

Stuck in the middle

Next, the middle finger can serve as a reminder for the third major section of the standard—resource management.

A review of the resource management section of the standard includes references to infrastructure or human resources. When you take a look at the middle finger, it is the tallest finger on the hand. Therefore, it can be a memory aid that represents the buildings and the employees inside them.

Then there is what many of us call the ring finger. The fact that most married people wear a ring—a man-made product—on this finger reminds us of product realization, which is the fourth major section of the ISO 9001 standard.

Small reminder

The little finger is the smallest, weakest finger. Known as the pinky, this finger must work harder than the others. Any guitar player knows that holding a string down on a fret with the little finger is quite difficult and only becomes easier as it is strengthened through practice or improvement. Thus, the littlest finger reminds us of the fifth major section—measurement analysis and improvement. 

As with all mnemonic devices, however, there are exceptions. After all, along with the rule of “I” before “E” except after “C” comes this addendum: or when sounding like “A” as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”

Our five-finger visual aid works well for organizations in certain countries, including the United States. But each finger may have a different meaning in another culture, so the system would need to be adapted to fit.

Deborah Rindfuss Ellis is the president of DRE System Improvement in Buffalo, NY, an adjunct professor at Buffalo State College and an ISO 9001 principal auditor. She earned a Ph.D. in higher education leadership and policy from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Ellis is an ASQ senior member and an ASQ-certified quality engineer, and she received the ASQ Century Club Award for sponsoring more than 100 new ASQ members.

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