How we tell our story

“If it Isn’t Written Down, then it Didn’t Happen” is a guiding principle of the quality profession.

There are four major types of writing in quality: instructional, informational, persuasive and transactional. When evaluated against the three major document types instructional is a functional document, informational is a report and transactional is a record. This is not to say that all transactional business writing should be considered a record, the traditional argument against emails in quality systems for example.

It is important to understand these differences as they require differences in writing style, format and grammar. An SOP (instructional/functional) is very different that an informational/report). When building your writing competencies it is important to remember these are different (with a common foundation).

We utilize reports in our quality systems (and everywhere else) to act, to communicate information, to capture work completed, to record incidents, to finalize projects and recommendations, and to act as an archive. A well written report allows the reader to easily grasp the content and, if applicable, make informed decision. Report writing is a cornerstone of a CAPA system (from incident identification to root cause through CAPA completion and effectiveness review), validation, risk management and so much more.

In short, reports are our stories, they form the narrative. And how we tell that narrative determines how we think of an issue, and how we will continue to thing of it in the future.

We tend to mix and match two modes in our report writing — Story thought and system:

  • Story thought emphasizes subjective human experience, the primacy of individual actors, narrative and social ordering, messiness, edge cases, content, and above all meaning.
  • System thought emphasizes 3rd-person descriptions of phenomena from a neutral perspective, the interchangeability of actors and details, categorical or logical ordering, measurements, flow, form, and above all coherence.

We tend to lean more heavily on system thought in quality,the roots of the discipline and the configuration of our organizations make us predisposed to the system thought mode. This means that over time, best practices accumulate that favor system thought, and many of our our partners (regulatory agencies, standard setting bodies, etc) favor the measurable and the reducible. However, by favoring the system thought mode we are at jeopardy of missing how human beings function in our organizations and how our organizations need to deal with society. And we make mistakes. Me make bad decisions. We fail to deal with the truly complicated problems.

It is time to learn how to utilize story though more in quality.

13 thoughts on “How we tell our story

  1. Hello Jeremiah,

    Your article is a thought-provoking analysis of the core types of quality-related communications (both written and verbal) used in industry (e.g., drug, medical device, R&D-based companies) to inform and guide others toward a shared goal – new product development, product improvement or maintenance of a quality standard. Well done and well said. Quality, after all, is the ultimate goal.

    I agree that it is important to remember that inherent differences exist among the four major types of quality-related communications (i.e., instructional, informational, persuasive and transactional) but all share a ‘common foundation’ (effective writing skills to achieve the primary goal – quality)

    I would take issue with part of your thesis

    (” …, by favoring the ‘system thought’ mode [vs ‘story thought’/anecdotal mode) we are at jeopardy of missing how human beings function in our organizations and how our organizations need to deal with society.”).

    I would argue that a well crafted quality argument always includes facets of the four writing styles, but vary in the emphasis on which communication ‘tools’ are used. Let me explain.

    The core or common foundation of effective writing begins with a stated goal that’s either stipulated to by all, or mandated by the organization. From that SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound), all quality communication should remind or inform the reader as to why the goal should be achieved (i.e., story thought tactic) and provide a generally accepted rule or standard (with criteria and metrics) that provide a framework to achieving that stated goal (i.e., ‘system thought tactic).

    Once criteria of an accepted rule (e.g., company policy, procedure, govt regulation, industry practice, etc) are enumerated, then you can either instruct the reader as to how to comply or conform, or present empirical evidence (facts) that either confirm compliance or refute it. This portion of the quality argument weaves both ‘story and system’ types of evidence to support your thesis and therefore, hopefully, achieve your goal.

    How an individual (receiver of the quality comm) function in an organization is generally based upon whether they determine policies/practices or adhere and implement them. Both functions are moot if quality-based communications is clear, supported by principles or goals that articulated, and based upon fact-based argument.

    In my opinion, when this common quality structure is not used, compliance or persuasiveness suffers tremendously. This leads to further communication and frustration. Ultimately quality is not achieved.

    just some thoughts……


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.