ISO 9001:2015

Big Q vs. Little q

Does ISO 9001:2015 make the link?

by John E. “Jack” West and Charles A. Cianfrani

ISO 9001:2015, Clause 1—Scope provides a synopsis of the contents of the standard and can be summarized as follows:

  • To demonstrate the organization’s ability to consistently provide products or services that meet customer and applicable statutory and regulatory requirements, as well as the organization’s internal requirements.
  • To enhance customer satisfaction through the effective application of a quality management system (QMS), including processes for improving the system and the assurance of conformity to customer and applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.

The scope also states that ISO 9001:2015 is intended to be generic and applicable to all organizations, regardless of type or size, or product or service provided.

Notice that this international standard is—and always has been—focused on achieving customer satisfaction through the quality of the organization’s products and services. It focuses on what, for many years, has been called “little q”—the activities related to ensuring the quality of products and services provided to customers.

As time has gone by, quality leaders have learned that there is more to quality management than the activities directly related to products or services—namely, activities that are critical to achieving sustained outstanding product and service quality, and delighting customers. These additional quality management activities are called “Big Q.” As ISO 9001 has matured over the years, its requirements have come to embrace some of these broader concepts.

Little q and Big Q

Big Q concepts were identified many years ago by Joseph M. Juran. Understanding these concepts is a key to understanding how world-class quality management must be structured to achieve organizational sustainability.

Big Q is defined as strategically managing quality in all business processes, products and services as they relate to all relevant interested parties. On the other hand, little q describes attention to product quality with a much narrower scope, focused on the primary customers.

Sometimes, organizations use other words for Big Q, such as total quality management, continual improvement and Six Sigma quality, but it’s helpful to think of little q as tactical and Big Q as strategic.

This description of Big Q includes little q, but also includes organizational cultural matters and supporting administrative processes, which are not included in little q. While the Big Q ideas have been around a long time, many organizations miss the benefits that can be achieved through addressing Big Q processes.

Big Q is more evident in the current version of ISO 9001 (if in a subtle way). Several of the new requirements should evoke thought about an organization’s QMS in a way that enables sustainable success.

The concepts in ISO 9001:2015 that push the QMS toward a Big Q mentality are engagement of top managers, competencies of the workforce, knowledge and process management, as well as the notion of risk-based thinking, the importance of considering the needs of interested parties and the context of the organization.

Each of these concepts can be viewed narrowly by organizations if they are attempting to achieve certification only. From a management viewpoint, however, such a minimalist view is counterproductive. If the organization desires to be prosperous for more than a few years, a more strategic approach is needed.

What to do

First and foremost, top management must take an active role in articulating how the QMS should be crafted and deployed.1

Next, it must expand the organization’s thinking to consider its context and the role of interested parties beyond the end customer of the products and services. Top management can require the organization to define and deploy formal processes to understand the wants and needs of interested parties, and to ensure that these wants and needs are considered when ameliorating adverse consequences to the organization.

How has the organization considered, for example, the wants and needs of:

  • Subcontractors?
  • Suppliers?
  • Regulators?
  • Shareholders?
  • Employees?
  • Society?
  • Those experiencing an environmental impact?

The implications of strategic planning (which are inherent in ISO 9001:2015, clause 4.1, but not forcefully articulated) are important. Clause 4.1 can be complied with superficially with processes that meet its requirements. However, addressing the Big Q intent of this clause will enhance long-term sustainability. For example, does the organization have processes to perform a vigorous strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis as input to its strategic planning process? Does an ongoing strategic planning process even exist?

Similar questions can be raised about the effectiveness and robustness of processes that are (or aren’t) defined and deployed for the competencies of workforce, knowledge management, process management and measurement, and the use of data for analysis and improvement.

Is risk-based thinking applied daily? Do processes exist in areas that have a Big Q mentality? Or are the processes narrowly focused on the organization’s specific products and services? A narrow focus, while still meeting ISO 9001:2015 requirements, will not facilitate the organization’s achievement of sustained success.

The role of quality professionals

With the incorporation of so many opportunities to expand the breadth and depth of the organization’s QMS, quality professionals have an opportunity to expand the dialog with top management. ISO 9001:2015’s extensive list of activities for which top management is responsible gives quality professionals plenty to discuss with top managers.

Quality professionals must use these necessary conversations to promote Big Q thinking. The challenge for quality professionals, as has always been the case, is to speak in a language that resonates with top management. Quality professionals have frequently, and sometimes vociferously, complained that top management doesn’t listen.

Having been senior management, we believe that quality professionals haven’t learned the language of top management. The typical quality professional asserts that he or she understands that the language of top management is money, but often doesn’t structure the dialogue with top management in those terms.

Quality professionals discuss issues in terms of failure rates or customer complaints rather than the impact on revenue. It may not be easy to accurately equate a field failure to revenue, but it can be done. When top management hears about a revenue issue, you will have their attention.

Table 1 shows the difference between the language of quality professionals and top management. While you likely use the terms in the left column regularly, ask yourself whether you can intelligently converse with management on the topics in the right column.

Table 1

To better communicate quality issues with top management, quality professionals also can consistently frame issues in the context of Big Q, indicating the potential for lost market share or negative brand impact, or on organizational objectives.

They must become students of and knowledgably conversant on the content of the organization’s strategic plan so that every improvement recommendation aligns with strategic and tactical plans and objectives.

It also is helpful if quality professionals rigorously adhere to the principle, “In God we trust. All others shall bring data.” This means you should adhere to the quality principle of evidence-based decision making.

If quality professionals operate this way, the probability of their messages being heard improves, and the quality process will be more readily perceived as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

To enhance the engagement of top management in the quality process and promote Big Q thinking, quality professionals must practice these eight virtues:

  1. Talk with top managers in their language.
  2. Incorporate quality management into strategic and tactical planning.
  3. Embrace customer satisfaction throughout the organization.
  4. Embrace continual improvement throughout the organization.
  5. Take the objectives process seriously, with documentation, alignment and follow-up.
  6. Ensure that quality performance indicators are integral to performance reviews.
  7. Gather, analyze and act on quality cost data.
  8. Make the management review process an activity valued by top management.

These aren’t the only virtues for quality professionals to practice, but they are a good starting point.

When quality professionals practice these eight virtues and use meetings with top managers to continually improve the content and deployment of the organization’s QMS, implementing processes to comply with ISO 9001:2015 with a Big Q focus is enhanced and may even be fun.

As a quality professional, ask yourself: “Am I an advocate of Big Q or little q thinking?” If you’re good at your job, the sustained success of your organization will be everyone’s objective and everyone will know what to do to ensure the desired outcomes.


  1. International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ISO 9001:2015—Quality management systems—Requirements, clause 5.1.

John E. “Jack” West is a member of Silver Fox Advisors in Houston. He is past chair of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee (TC) 176 and former lead delegate of the committee responsible for the ISO 9000 family of quality management system standards. He is an ASQ fellow and has co-authored several ASQ Quality Press books.

Charles A. Cianfrani is a principal consultant for Green Lane Quality Management Services in Green Lane, PA. An ASQ fellow, Cianfrani is a U.S. expert representative to ISO/TC 176 and has co-authored several ASQ Quality Press books. He holds an MBA from Drexel University in Philadelphia and a master’s degree in applied statistics from Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Excellent! I used it in a stakeholders meeting to help them understand and team up in the QMS initiative, including high management,
thank you!
--Gicela Monge, 10-02-2018

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