With OFR emphasising the need for appropriate systems and controls, and market liberalisation driving a focus on consumer interest and service to clients, law firms may look to qualitative measures when responding to a changing marketplace. Tom Lee from Qualsys Ltd. considers the potential for quality circles to help the COLP and COFA.
What are Quality Circles?
Quality circles are teams, typically drawn from the same work area, who ‘investigate, analyse and solve’ work-related problems via regular voluntary meetings. They present potential solutions to managers, and participate in the implementation and monitoring of agreed solutions to ensure their effectiveness.(1)
How can Quality Circles help the COLP and COFA?
Outcomes Focussed Regulation (OFR) is a client focussed and flexible regulatory approach. Last year, the SRA presented their new Handbook as a shift away from prescription towards empowerment of firms to ‘implement the right systems and controls’ for their ‘clients and type of practice’, with greater flexibility creating a need for greater judgment.(2)
The SRA indicated that compliance with outcomes focussed requirements can be aided by consideration and monitoring of a firm’s work, governance, infrastructure and people. OFR also creates a need to ensure that systems and controls for identifying and managing risks are effective in the context of the firm, its client base and the activities it conducts.(3)
The Legal Services Board has described quality in the legal services sector as a multi-faceted construct relating to ‘technical competence, service competence (client care) and utility of advice (a service of quality)’.(4) Its chairman has expressed a desire to ensure equal commitment to consumer care and client care, with an acceptance that embracing ‘modern business ethics alongside those of the profession’ leads to mutual reinforcement by each set of values.(5)
Firms may find general quality mechanisms useful given the current focus on application of rules in their specific context brought by OFR, and the emphasis on provision of good quality services and client treatment to compliment technical quality brought by market liberalisation.
Several characteristics of quality circles may offer value. Quality circles take a systematic approach to problem solving, providing a practical basis for investigation of causes, identification of improvements, and trial of solutions.(6) They recognise the role of staff as key stakeholders who can work with supervisory facilitators and steering committees within a management structure to resolve problems and improve the standard of products and services to customers.(7)
Quality circles can be used in context as part of a wider initiative to leverage the type of improvement desired in an organisation. For example, in the defence engineering sector the Submarines Unit of BAE Systems recently implemented quality circles to review objectives as part of a business quality strategy to decrease the cost of quality failure by 30% between 2010 and 2011, increase customer confidence, and promote employee satisfaction through increased engagement.(8)
Quality circles should have appropriate arrangements informed by the structure and practice of their parent organisation.(9) Since many law firms already have embedded quality circle type groups (e.g. regular team meetings), they may wish to review their procedures and processes for receiving feedback, encouraging suggestions, and creating an open forum environment to maximise the value of existing arrangements.
Quality circles can complement non-voluntary groups concerned with improvement (such as those tackling compliance) where an appropriate structure to manage this relationship is instituted. Their applicability is unrestrictive, and may include ‘anything associated with work or its environment’.(10)
Quality circles are not a panacea for compliance or business efficiency. There is a need for firms to carefully consider their regulatory and business requirements. Instead, appropriately constituted quality circles can potentially support monitoring and realisation of improvement to benefit the business and its clients. If OFR is informed by a professional ethos of ‘having the ability to respond appropriately at all times’ rather than the need to constantly seek permission or prescriptive guidance, then voluntary feedback from those involved throughout the firm may prove useful.(11)
Qualsys Ltd. are an established provider of compliance software for various blue chip clients. They have adapted their EQMS system to help firms of solicitors implement compliance with outcomes focussed requirements.
(1) Department of Trade and Industry, Quality Circles: An Executive Guide (Booklet, 1992), 2
(2) Solicitors Regulation Authority ‘Outcomes-focussed regulation at a glance’ (last updated 10 October 2011)
(4) Legal Services Board, Approaches to Quality, a consultation paper Friday 12 March 2012
(5) D Edmunds ‘Quality and Standards in a liberalised market’ (Russell Cooke Forum, 10 May 2012)
(6) Department of Trade and Industry, Quality Circles: An Executive Guide (Booklet, 1992), 5
(7) Ibid. 3, 6
(8) The Chartered Quality Institute and the Chartered Management Institute, ‘The economic contribution of quality’ (Report, June 2012)
(9) Department of Trade and Industry, Quality Circles: An Executive Guide (Booklet, 1992), 3
(10) Department of Trade and Industry, Quality Circles: An Executive Guide (Booklet, 1992), 2
(11) D Edmunds ‘Quality and Standards in a liberalised market’ (Russell Cooke Forum, 10 May 2012)