Feedback Tools in Laboratory Quality Systems
One of the new requirements in ISO/IEC 17025:2005 is to actively seek the feedback of laboratory customers and do something with it to improve the management system and the technical activities. Fairly ambitious words.
What does a customer feedback system mean to a lab? Or to any organization that is contemplating the use of an active feedback system? Simply put, it means that the organization has to implement some method of collecting data on how their customers feel about the services they use, the treatment they receive, the interactions they experience, and the expectations they take into their relationship with the organization.
Feedback is about perception
How do the laboratory customers feel about the service and the methods used by the laboratory to interact with their customers? How do they feel about the way the laboratory treats them, or whether their expectations are being met? From the way these questions are worded, it is clear that feedback is generally used to measure perception — customer perception of the laboratory, the organization, the laboratory staff, and the work of the laboratory.
Examples from an accreditation body
If ISO/IEC 17025 calls for this sort of activity explicitly, and CALA conducts assessments of laboratories against this standard, it might be useful for laboratories to appreciate how CALA has been acquiring and using feedback. Besides, how can an accreditation body ask labs to have feedback systems and not use one themselves?
Assessors and assessed labs are very familiar with the feedback provided at the end of an accreditation assessment activity. For this accreditation body, all laboratory responses to the site visit evaluation are collated each year into one document and submitted to the Board of Directors as part of the measurement metrics of the accreditation program. The 2005 collation resulted in a 16-page table.
Proficiency testing (PT) providers, CALA included, routinely ask members to comment on specific aspects of the PT program. Occasionally, as was done in 2004, this may include the holding of PT workshops to openly discuss issues of interest to the laboratories. More recently, CALA surveys of member needs have resulted in the implementation of a new PT scoring system while other results continue to tweak the implemented approaches.
The CALA Training Service also encourages members to make use of the web page (www.cala.ca) containing published feedback from other members who have previously taken training — the good and the bad.
Making use of the information received
CALA’s very visible methods of feedback are used to modify goals, objectives, approaches, and delivery methods within CALA programs and that is what ISO/IEC 17025 is looking for laboratories to do with their own feedback mechanisms. Feedback systems can deliver valuable information to laboratories in real time.
In good laboratories, feedback can have constant, appreciable, positive, and relevant impact on what is done and how it is done. This approach is in line with best practices in continual improvement and is the main reason why the 2005 version of ISO/IEC 17025 now includes a requirement for active acquisition of customer feedback.
What are the potential immediate effects of all this feedback on the organization collecting and using it? For a laboratory, it means increased use of current data to affect the direction and methodologies of the laboratory — and less use of “that is how we have always done it.”
Good and useful feedback mechanisms do not affect the underlying scientific method in any test or calibration, but they may affect the supporting procedures and the customer interaction processes.
Publishing feedback is only a secondary benefit
Feedback can also be used to import external support for the marketing of a laboratory and its services. However, organizations that collect, use, and publish feedback may be disappointed because most of their customers will never read or be influenced by this published feedback.
Such is also CALA’s experience. It may be surprising that customers rely so little on what other customers may have to say about the organization or the laboratory. For example, only one in 50 CALA Training Service participants admit to visiting the CALA training feedback site to review what others have said about us before they purchase training. So the real advantage of feedback is not the more obvious “pat-on-the-back” from customers. It is the contribution made to improving services and delivery.
Both CALA and member laboratories would express the same sentiment about providing service to customers if asked: “It must be high quality and it must meet stated needs.” Many feel it important to collect member feedback and make use of it. As a result of a change in the accreditation standard, we may all become a little more conscious of the usefulness and application of feedback in our own organizations, and perhaps seek the published feedback of those we buy services from.
J.E.J. (Ned) Gravel, P.Eng., CALS, CAE, is the Manager, Quality and Training for the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation Inc. (CALA). The association is a public-private partnership that provides services to over 380 member laboratories including PT services, accreditation, and training; www.cala.ca