Compliance has been commonly defined as doing what you are told to do, and in simple terms this does prove to be correct, however when it applies to our industry and the overarching quality management realm, its definition is far more complex. One of the key traits to compliance is the fundamental basis on legality, a standard, or requirement in which legal channels may pursue their enforcement or application through jurisdictional channels or authorities. This legal foundation of course implies the second key trait of compliance, which is that it is a requirement or expectation that is externally applied upon a person(s) or organization. The complexity lies in who has the authority or right to impose such a legal expectation, a category that can encompass a broad range of situations and entities. A common example of an expectation of compliance comes through the widely applied Occupational Health and Safety standards that mandate the treatment of workers and the rights and responsibilities of both employees, employers, and even the general public in relation to safety at the work place. This standard is enforced by Occupational Health and Safety officers employed by the government that authors the standard, an entity that has the capability to enforce the legal obligations to this regulation upon any person(s) or company that is found to be in non-compliance with the regulation.
Conformance on the other hand is seen as the voluntary adherence to do something in a recognized way. Conformance is widely applied in every facet of life in and out of the workplace, cultural norms and social expectations of how to act are a widely applied form of conformance, and the exercise of rebelling against or challenging these is at its most basic form, a non-conformance. The spirit of conformity when it applies to quality systems and their application comes from the desire to improve and better the processes and procedures that a company may have in place to ensure consistent results when providing products or services to a client. Conformance comes from within, or from the bottom up, we choose to remove our shoes when entering someone’s home as a form of voluntary conformance to a widely recognized cultural standard, this standard may change in different situations or locations based on what is recognized as acceptable in that area, and isn’t imposed upon us by any external influence. To get everything in order, in alignment and cohesion, to create a status quo as an expectation for the operation of a company or application of a standard or process is the heart of conformity in our industry.
Why is there confusion surrounding this topic? When I chose to research the difference between the two terms I found a myriad of conflicting reports and viewpoints on the subject, arguments and disagreements depending on the perspective of the author or the application of the term. In fact, in many cases sources would say that the terms are downright interchangeable, and that the disagreement in the usage of the term actually stems from the difference between standard “British English” and standard “American English” as so many terms or spellings fall to. Through investigation into the origins of the words and their applications across a wide berth of situations I was able to differentiate the difference and come to a conclusion because of one distinct caveat. “If someone mandates you meet the requirements of a standard or test method then conformance becomes compliance (i.e. your conformity is required in order for you to comply).” This very important distinction, and how it applies to the codes and standards that I am familiar with provides a clear difference that is easily demonstrated and repeated. For example, ISO:9001 is a commonly applied international standard for the structure and application of a quality management program. This standard is a matter of conformance when viewed in solidarity, a widely recognized way of doing something that a company or organization will choose to adhere to in order to better their own processed and procedures, and in fact improve the company as a whole. However, when we take this standard and apply it in conjunction with a matter of compliance such as a client contract. The conformance standard becomes a matter of compliance in itself. If we do not conform to the standard, we will not comply to the contract and could be penalized by law, an external force is implying this voluntary standard, making it an involuntary matter of compliance. Many companies deal with repeating similar situations within their industry in which contractual requirements are the norm, a standard such as ISO 9001 will be continually stipulated in contractual legal agreements making ISO 9001, in their eyes, a matter of compliance. Many other organizations choose to adhere to the standard as a widely recognized guideline, making it a matter of conformance. A second example of this phenomenon would be the instance of an owner operator producing or procuring a system of pressure piping. If the pressure piping in question falls within the defined scope of the jurisdictional authority’s code, e.g. ASME B31.1, then the production of that system to the requirements of the code is a matter of compliance. This standard is being externally applied by the jurisdictional authority to a legal degree. If that same company is producing a piping system that does not fall within the scope of the aforementioned code, but requests that engineers and fabricators use ASME B31.1 as a guideline for production, this code becomes a matter of conformance as it is being voluntarily adhered to from within.
In summary, the main difference between compliance and conformance is the source of the implementation of whichever guideline or standard is in question. Externally applied with legal ramifications is a matter of compliance, internally applied with voluntary adherence is conformance. But don’t forget that some standards of compliance can be conformed to, and some guidelines for conformance can become a matter of compliance.