Weasel Words

The ISO9000 Quality Standards were developed by the international quality community through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO TAG176). In the development process, any wording perceived as restricting trade or prescriptive was eliminated through the consensus vote process used by ISO TAG176. That is why the Standard uses ambiguous terms like “the supplier”, “as appropriate”, “defined intervals”, “timely”, and “consideration.” This language is used in the Standard to establish what is to be done without telling how to do it.

At times, this may create a dilemma. One company has said, “Defining these requirements will tie us to things we may not always be able to do. We want to make ambiguous statements so we can operate freely.” The use of ambiguous wording in procedures or work instructions is sometimes called “weasel words” and do not clearly describe what is to be done.

The use of weasel words results in a two-fold problem. If the requirements are not clearly defined, the people performing these activities will not know what to do. Additionally, auditors will not be able to determine if the system is in compliance during an audit.

Whenever possible, clearly define the ambiguous terms used by the Standard when writing procedures or work instructions. These documents tell auditors and people within the company the who, what, when, where, and how to do their jobs. After using clearly defined terms, it may be discovered that they are too restrictive. If this is the case, change the procedure or work instruction through the document control system to more accurately describe the activity. Effective use of the document control system is a sign of continuous improvement.

There are times when it is appropriate to soften well-defined terms. For example, in ISO9001 requires the performance of management reviews “at defined intervals” must be addressed. Care must be used when choosing the wording in order not to be tripped up by creating unnecessary restrictions. Stating that management review will be performed “quarterly” could be viewed as four times per year on a ninety day cycle. While the intent to define the interval for management review as “quarterly” is good, the ability to consistently hold a documented management review every ninety days may be difficult. By softening the interval for management to “at least annually,” once a year or more is acceptable. If for some reason an intended quarterly management review was not performed, the quality system would still be in compliance.