The book Traction by Gino Wickman presents a management system branded as the “Entrepreneurial Operating System”, or EOS®. Many companies simultaneously have to implement ISO 9001 to satisfy a customer or contractual requirement, or they may have implemented ISO 9001 first, and want to advance their QMS into something that aligns with EOS.
EOS aligns well with ISO 9001, although is missing a few critical aspects, and interprets some concepts differently. ISO 9001, meanwhile, is a more dated approach that limits a management system to worrying about product or service quality, and cares little if you go out of business pursuing those goals. Implementing one after the other is therefore likely to nudge you out of compliance with ISO 9001, or break the benefits of EOS by trying to remain slavish to ISO.
The trick, then, is how to do this without creating two competing systems, or some Frankenstein-style monster mashup?
First, let’s get this out of the way. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive summary of EOS or the Traction book. The only way to get that is to read the source material from the EOS Worldwide publishing group. They even have authorized, and certified, EOS “Implementers” you can hire. Oxebridge doesn’t implement EOS.
The overall EOS approach relies on a model of “Six Key Components”: Vision, Data, Process, Traction, Issues, and People. While typically presented in a circle, it’s not useful to think of these as something you navigate in a clockwise fashion, step-by-step. Instead, you might do them all simultaneously. Even the book Traction doesn’t really discuss them in a strict order.
The Six Key Components to track with key ISO 9001 requirements, as shown below.
It’s not a clean match-up, mind you. For example, the Key Component of “Traction” doesn’t have a clear analog within ISO 9001. Meanwhile, the Key Component of “Issues” reads like a mashup of ISO 9001’s requirements for corrective action and risk-based thinking, with some of ISO’s old “preventive action” requirements — now deleted from ISO 9001 — thrown in.
Let’s examine each.
It’s not a new concept to start any business journey by identifying a company’s “vision,” but EOS gets credit for laying out a more structured and practical way to do this. Driven by “Eight Questions” (management books borrow a lot from the Buddhist obsession with numbered steps), honing in on a “Vision” becomes much easier.
ISO 9001, meanwhile, clumsily flails about to achieve the same end in its “Context of the Organization” clauses, which Oxebridge has coined as “COTO.” ISO 9001 wants you to identify stakeholders, their issues of concern and requirements, and then use those to fine-tune your management system scope and processes. Here, using EOS makes achieving ISO 9001 much, much easier. Not only is EOS superior in providing a simple method for defining your “Vision,” the end result far surpasses the typical output of an ISO 9001 “COTO Exercise.”
What ISO 9001 users will find in Traction and with the EOS approach overall is that some ideas seem sequenced wrong. A SWOT analysis isn’t discussed until much later, during the Issues step, whereas it’s a common tool used to comply with the ISO 9001 COTO clauses. Again, however, if you stop thinking of EOS as a circular model that requires moving clockwise through it, then this — somewhat — resolves the discrepancy.
What’s missing from EOS, however, is any mention of “risk.” In ISO 9001, the COTO clauses set the stage for the later “risk-based thinking” approach in clause 6.1. In EOS, there’s no risk management discussed at all, and the “Vision” step makes no attempt to tie into identifying risks and opportunities. That comes later, as more of a holistic result the entire EOS approach, but you’ll have to use your imagination.
EOS suggests the use of a “Vision/Traction Organizer” tool, available for free download, which forces you to first identify core values, then a core focus, followed by a 10-year “target” and 3-year “picture.” All of that is fairly normal stuff, but EOS then pushes you further, prompting you to develop a more formal “1-year plan” listing goals for the coming year. An “Issues List” is then developed to capture potential problems.
For Oxebridge clients we still use our invention, the COTO Log, to identify the necessary thinking; this then moves on to identify and rank risks and opportunities. But using the Vision/Traction Organizer first is a great way to then develop the issues which can be ported over to the COTO Log. Once there, risks can be measured and ranked to justify why some issues don’t need immediate attention, and why others do. Better yet, there’s a way to make a new tool that combines the best of both, reducing redundancy.
Data + Process
The next two EOS Keys are “Data” and “Process”, and reveal a major weakness with the EOS approach. The authors suggest you first develop a “scorecard” of “activity-based numbers to review on a regular basis.” They then recommend that you “end up with five to fifteen numbers, hopefully closer to five.” In reading the book Traction in order, the book goes on to discuss “Issues” and then finally “Processes.” At no point does the EOS approach tie the “Data” to the “Processes”!
As a result, despite the garbled language brought on by the terrible 2015 version of ISO 9001, here the ISO standard far exceeds the EOS methods. In EOS, processes are things you do which you must then document. Then… nothing. While the book Traction presents an excellent defense for the practice of documenting process — needed in this new era where ISO wants to put us back into the Dark Ages of relying on tribal knowledge and verbal history — processes do not exist solely as a justification for writing procedures.
Instead, a company must identify its processes as part of the COTO / Vision work, since the processes have a tremendous impact on that. It matters, for example, whether you have an internal process for manufacturing or whether you outsource it. Next, any “system” — which EOS purports to be — is a set of interrelated processes. Measuring the processes determines the health of the overall system (when measurement is done properly, of course.)
Then we have a problem related to process measurement in the ISO 9001 standard itself. As I’ve written about extensively, older versions of ISO 9001 required “quality objectives” (much to the chagrin of Deming.) The 2000 version then introduced the “process approach,” and discussed measuring processes, but never combined this with the concept of “quality objectives.” In reality, your process measurements are your quality objectives! ISO 9001 has never corrected this flaw and keeps them as separate concepts.
So ISO/EOS users have to fix two problems at once; fortunately, it’s easy to do.
First, one must identify the company’s processes, and EOS provides some good guidance here. Once identified, you must then determine how you will measure the process through the assignment of textual “objectives” and supporting “metrics.” The Purchasing process may have an objective to “ensure the quality of suppliers we use,” with supporting metrics such as “reject rate on purchased raw materials” or “number of supplier corrective actions issued in the last 12 months.” By doing this, you’ve solved the EOS problem, and tied their Data key requirement to the Process one, while also fixing ISO 9001’sproblem of separating quality objectives from process measurements.
I call this approach “process quality objectives,” and it’s a cornerstone to the Oxebridge Q001 standard.
Wickman’s book Traction spends a lot of pages convincing readers of the need for processes and data, but ISO 9001 users are unlikely to need convincing. For us, this is already a well-established way of operating.
The placement of “People” in the EOS wheel model is highly confusing unless you — again — forget that it’s a wheel. EOS puts a lot of emphasis on the human aspect of the resulting system, and rightfully so. (Maybe trying to shoehorn EOS into a round shape was a bad idea.)
Tropes abound when EOS discusses “People,” saying that company executives succeed when they “surround themselves with good people” or putting “the right people in the right seats.” Hardly groundbreaking stuff here.
But, damn, EOS is not people-friendly about it. The problem with many of the “Management by Book-of-the-Month” approaches, as I call them, is that they are written by extroverts for extroverts; this comes across strong in Wickman’s book. When it comes to realizing you have the “wrong person in the wrong seat” the EOS solution is pure Game of Thrones: “that person must go.” No counseling, no retraining, no performance improvement planning. Cut the bugger’s head off.
Wickman offers a slight conceit, with a “three-strikes rule” that is as lame as it sounds.
EOS also relies on a fairly medieval rating method for humans, reducing them to plus and minus signs on a “People Analyzer.” Wickman admits “the concept was actually created by my dad back in the early 1970s for evaluating salespeople.” Yeah, I can tell, dude. One of his “People Analyzer” criteria is, literally, “Grow or Die.”
The People section of Traction is filled with this stuff. You want to “smoke out” the bad apples, and then drive them to “leave on their own.”
“Umm, okay,” as Alex Mendes says.
But, to be honest, maybe it’s needed? I have seen so many company problems that are caused by having the wrong person in the wrong seat, but company management can’t bring itself to jettison the bad performer. I know companies that are still hamstrung, decades later, because they are wedded to a bad apple. In reality, though, there are often other concerns in play: the bad apples may be related to the boss, or might have some other connection that makes it hard to get rid of them. Traction sort of ignores this, and operates in a perfect world where you can eject people at will, and fully-qualified people magically show up to replace them ten minutes later.
Here ISO 9001 doesn’t do much better. Instead, the standard shoves people next to other “resources,” like equipment, utilities and facilities. Every few years, ISO struggles with how to include in ISO 9001 a more Deming-ish approach to managing people that treats them less like machines, and every few years ISO dumps the effort and leaves its ancient thinking intact.
So on this note, both EOS and ISO 9001 fail miserably. A far better approach is to implement a “Just Culture”, but so far management system developers have been asleep on this concept. (It’s something we’re mulling for a future version of Q001.)
Having said that, it means they are equally terrible, and neither contradicts the other. If you implement ISO 9001’s barebones requirements, you’ve largely satisfied EOS, provided you occasionally throw a poor-performing dummy into a volcano.
The “Traction” component represents the greatest departure from ISO 9001. It is not only one of the most important components within EOS — it’s what distinguishes EOS from other such models — it is also the most likely to generate the greatest benefit. Within EOS, “traction” is a way to embed momentum into the company, so that improvements do not stagnate, and the company continues to push forward.
There is, perhaps, an analog here with ISO 9001’s clause 10 on continual improvement, but because the standard is so weak on the subject, it’s a stretch. As I’ve written elsewhere, the concept of “continual improvement” was added to ISO 9001 only to boost sales. Prior editions clearly delineated that the standard was intended as a contractual device, to be flowed down by large companies to their supply chain, as a means of establishing some minimum baseline for quality. ISO realized it could open up the readership of ISO 9001 if it expanded the “scope” of the standard, so it decided to rewrite history by claiming ISO 9001 was always about “continual improvement.” It then shoved some words in the standard to make this seem real, but those words are largely meaningless.
After all, if your highly toxic baby bottles kill fewer babies this year than last year, under ISO 9001 you’re technically “improving” and can still get certified. (Another problem that Oxebridge Q001 solves, by the way.)
So ISO 9001 might have a clause that includes the words “continual improvement,” but it gives no clue on how you might pursue that. In, in the end, ISO 9001 doesn’t care if you succeed or fail anyway. This is why a company that literally acts as a front for a heroin smuggling ring can hold ISO 9001 certification.
EOS, however, really pushes the concept of improvement, but branded as “traction.” It does this by developing a series of hierarchical meetings with pre-established agendas, each aimed at driving the momentum of a company forward. In this case, the sequence matters: you have to do the Vision, Data, and Process work before attempting the Traction stuff.
The downside: if you hate meetings, EOS is not for you. The entire success of EOS depends on the following:
- Weekly Level 10 Meetings – 90 minutes
- Quarterly Meetings – 8 hours
- Annual Planning Meeting – Two days
Wickman’s book doesn’t really tackle the reality that many smaller companies will struggle to stick to this schedule; as a result, EOS could be dismissed as one of those diets that promises dramatic weight loss, but actually requires hourly trips to the yoga mat to conduct 10-minute “plank” exercises. Many will argue it’s not practical.
The EOS method relies on the idea of a “90-Day World,” based on a theory that human beings don’t stay focused on goals for much longer than 90 days. With this as the heartbeat, everything else is built upon that schedule. All other meetings feed the Quarterlies” the annual meetings determine the goals, and the weeklies generate data. If a company can stick to this schedule, yes, you’ll see tremendous results. But it’s not for the lazy.
For this reason, I tied the “Traction” component to the ISO 9001 requirement of “Management Review.” Under ISO 9001, management review meetings are a dull slog, and rarely yield much of interest. My approach has always been to focus on process performance, using the management review (typically twice per year) to report on each process’ standing and objectives to top management, allowing them to course-correct the entire QMS if needed. Obviously, all of this is happening in real-time, daily, but the formal “Management Review Meeting” (MRM) forces top management to sit down and take account of it all.
It’s an easy shift, therefore, to simply adjust the MRM schedule and agenda to suit EOS’ strict meeting schedule. In fact, doing so will exceed the requirements of ISO 9001, and turn the meetings from boring “gottadoo” events into something that participants might actually look forward to.
The only downside is that ISO 9001 is so strict on the MRM’s agenda, some additional items must be discussed to comply with ISO 9001 which are not referenced in EOS. That’s fine, things like internal audit results can be tackled at the annual meeting, if they are not well suited for the quarterlies.
What this means in a practical sense is revising the management review procedure to adopt the EOS meetings and methods, and ensuring the ISO 9001 “management review inputs” are addressed.
Finally, EOS presents its concept of “Issues,” referring to problems that employees face in carrying out their assigned goals and objectives. The thinking that EOS brings here is fresher than that of ISO 9001, and the rough analogs to ISO 9001 would be clause 6.1 on “Actions to Address Risks and Opportunities” and clause 10.2 on “Nonconformity and Corrective Action.”
There are some intellectual hurdles, though. EOS only presents “Issues” as problems, meaning their idea tracks closer to “risks” and “nonconformities” which need management and mitigation in order to fix something. They have an overall negative connotation, meaning that EOS doesn’t really talk about “opportunities” in the ISO 9001 sense, and certainly not in the same breath as risks.
ISO 9001, meanwhile, made the incredibly bad decision to drop “preventive action” from its 2015 edition, causing widespread condemnation. Under the current version, ISO 9001 would only have you take “corrective” action after something bad has already happened. This is absolutely irresponsible, and much worse since decades of prior ISO 9001 versions already had well-established language on preventing problems in the first place. (ISO’s claim that “risk-based thinking” replaces preventive action is not only dumb, it’s outright false.)
So here you have to do some mental gyrations to merge up EOS and ISO 9001.
First, we have to fix ISO 9001 by putting preventive action back into the quality system, no matter what the standard says. Oxebridge automatically does this for all clients anyway. If you have a current “CAPA” system, this just means make sure you have both the “CA” and the “PA” portions in place. If you (sigh) already tossed out preventive action because ISO 9001 suggested it, you have to put it back.
Next, we also have to ignore ISO’s marketing that “risk is a good thing.” Instead, we rely on my “Uncertainty Battery” definitions where risk is “the negative effect of uncertainty,” and opportunity is “the positive effect of uncertainty.” Only uncertainty is neutral; the potential effect of that uncertainty determines whether you work to minimize it (as a risk) or maximize it (as an opportunity.)
With that in place, we can then follow EOS’ guidance on identifying and managing “Issues,” treating them as risks. This means that while you follow EOS’ suggestions for discovering Issues, once they are identified, you toss them into the COTO Log tool’s risk register. From there, it can lead to filing a corrective action (CAPA) if the problem requires a formally structured attack plan.
EOS calls for an “Issues List” which already exists, happily enough, in the COTO Log. One need only tweak it slightly to add some of the EOS details for sorting, but that’s about it.
EOS then spells out an “Issues Solving Track” which is largely the classic corrective action approach, re-branded. EOS breaks this into three steps: Identify, Discuss, and Solve. Under the Identify step, the problem is defined, assigned to someone, and a root cause analysis performed. Under the Solve step, a corrective action plan is developed and implemented.
The difference with EOS is the “Discuss” step in the middle. The intent here is to hone both the problem definition and the root cause analysis to make sure it’s good before moving onto the Solve step. Again, EOS really, really likes meetings. Overall, however, this is a great addition to classic CAPA, but might raise some concerns when CAPAs are filed for relatively low-impact problems, like documentation errors. What Oxebridge does here is to have a “toggle” switch that is invoked when an issue/nonconformity is first reported. If the problem is of a certain severity, then the Discuss step is required; if not, the Discuss step may be bypassed. The trick here is to use this judiciously.
So here, using an ISO 9001 style CAPA system works just fine, with some minor tweaks to ensure the EOS three-step method is addressed.
A concept raised in EOS, but which isn’t a standalone Key Component, is called “Rocks.” In EOS, “Rocks” are defined as “clear, 90-day priorities designed to keep [everyone] focused on what is most important.”
So Rocks are not quite objectives, and they’re not action items. In regular humanspeak, you might treat them short-term goals that support larger objectives and company initiatives. The purpose of Rocks is to maintain “traction” (momentum) by keeping people focused within each 90-day window.
The risk here is that Rocks can turn people into shortsighted chasers of short-term goals rather than big-picture visionaries. I’m sure Deming would have rejected them to some degree. So careful management of the Rocks and overall EOS system is necessary to avoid that; again, this is likely where hiring an EOS Implementer is useful, to get the full experience.
Within an ISO 9001 system, Rocks would appear in the Quarterly reviews, as well as your weeklies. They would also satisfy nicely the ISO 9001 requirement that employees be aware of their “quality objectives,” if you just think of Rocks as a way to interpret that requirement.
EOS and the concepts presented in Wickman’s Traction are interesting, and mostly fresh. Yes, it suffers from some 1970s baggage, but the problems in EOS can mostly be overlooked — assuming you’re okay managing your company through meetings.
Meanwhile, ISO 9001 has barely moved the needle since the 1950’s, still relying on dated concepts that the world has moved beyond a long time ago. So bringing EOS into an ISO 9001 system really helps bring things current. EOS + ISO also can move a quality management system from one created for pure, rote compliance to a cold ISO standard, and into something that really drives improvement and reflects the values and culture of the company.
If you need help implementing EOS, be sure to check the official EOS resources, including EOS Implementers. If you need help on merging your current ISO 9001 system with EOS, or vice-versa, send us a request.
EOS® is a registered trademark of EOS Worldwide. Oxebridge is not in any way affiliated with EOS Worldwide.
About Christopher Paris
Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001:2015. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.