Interview with an EQUASS Excellence certified organisation

This article was originally published in the EQUASS 2013 Annual Report.

Interview with Helena Maria Mamede Albuquerque, CEO of APPACDM de Coimbra.

APPACDM de Coimbra, or the “Portuguese association of parents and friends of citizens with a developmental disability” of Coimbra is an organisation created in 1969that currently serves around 950 persons in the municipalities of Coimbra, Montemor-o-Velho, Tocha and Arganil. It provides such services as early intervention, a day care centre and kindergarten; a resource centre for inclusion; occupational activity centres; professional training; residential services and a medical rehabilitation centre. In July of 2013, their organisation was audited for the EQUASS Excellence level, and on August 12th 2013, was awarded with the EQUASS Excellence certification, with an overall average score of 72 (out of 100). This is the highest score ever obtained by a certified organisation since the introduction of the new EQUASS system in 2012. Ms. Helena Maria Mamede Albuquerque, CEO, provided us with feedback on their experience with the EQUASS Excellence quality level.


When did your organisation first come to learn about the EQUASS quality system for social services?

APPACDM de Coimbra became interested in implementing a system capable of being certified in the year 2000 before EQUASS appear in Portugal. In those days ISO was the possibility to consider. Though, due to financial issues it wasn’t possible. We have to remember that the problem wasn’t in the cost of the certification itself but mainly in all the investment in the consultancy process together with the construction of the entire quality system from the root.

A few years later in 2008, EU funding’s in the framework of Archimedes program brought the financial leverage for Portuguese organisations to implement and certificate a quality management system. Approximately at the same time, we became aware of EQUASS quality system from participating in a few presentation actions developed to introduce and disseminate EQUASS in Portugal. We started to study the EQUASS model internally trying to understand its added value and comparing it with ISO 9001.


At what point did APPACDM de Coimbra decide to start the process to implement EQUASS with the intention of becoming certified with EQUASS Excellence, and why?

In 2008 Archimedes gave us the possibility to choose between ISO 9001 and EQUASS and after debating internally these two possibilities the decision fell for EQUASS. For us it was the model that best corresponded to the services we provide and to the people we serve. A tailor made model for social services covering principles that we consider fundamental such as rights, ethics, partnerships, persons-centred, participation and comprehensiveness which are, in essence, EQUASS spinal column. APPACDM de Coimbra decided to start implementing EQUASS assurance in 2008 with the support of a team of consultants from CTCV of Coimbra. Those were times to learn from each other. In fact APPACDM and CTCV became partners in bench learning. APPACDM de Coimbra needed to learn about quality systems, processes and procedures and CTCV needed our knowledge and experience in social and rehabilitation services. It was, in our opinion, a profitable work for both.

After the assurance certification, we thought that we were ready for the next step. In our point of view we work with excellence practices since a long time ago and we felt that the place to be and the certification to obtain was, without a doubt, the excellence level.

So it was in the beginning of2011,again with Archimedes financial support and in partnership with the same consultancy agency, that we started to focus on the EQUASS Excellence demands, major differences and requirements when compared with the assurance level. Was then a beginning of a new journey, for which we felt prepared and essentially very motivated.


What were the biggest challenges that you had with implementing EQUASS Excellence in your organisation? How did you overcome them?

After being certified with assurance and maturing all the dynamics associated with our quality management system, processes and procedures, we thought that excellence shouldn’t be very hard to achieve. Well, we were right but also wrong about it. When we look from the perspective of achieving the level of excellence we quickly realized what would be our main difficulty.

Excellence certification is assessed through the evaluation of each one of the fifty EQUASS criteria, over three main vectors: Approach, Deployment and Results.

For APPACDM de Coimbra, the vectors concerning approach and deployment of each criterion would be pretty much easy to explain and develop since in our opinion we already worked in high quality levels for a long time. One of the great things that we felt during this process of writing the approaches and deployments was the internal reflection of what we do and how we do it, which proved to be a very interesting phase of the Excellence process.

The biggest challenge was indeed the Results column. For having a satisfactory performance in the Results vector we needed to present quantitative and qualitative key performance indicators (KPI). These should demonstrate a three-year positive trend and should be benchmarked with other organisations.

So initially we held several internal meetings, in order to find the KPIs that we considered most relevant and with which we could work. We carried out intensive work along with all directors, coordinators and other responsible with the goal of creating the first official list of KPI. After that APPACDM de Coimbra Quality Management Department held meetings with other organisations in the sector that where in the same demand. Here we need to emphasise that we didn’t wanted to perform benchmarking activities just to get figures to present. The main goal was to do real bench learning and benchmarking meetings in order to obtain concrete added value for our organisation and end up with internal bench-action activities. As we say, we needed to exchange practices with others in order to find and implement the best of these practices into our organisation. At the same time provide to other organisations added value for them with our own practices and results.

This work was developed in two main streams. A more restrict group with a few organisations that we considered excellent in what they do and were at the same phase of the Equass excellence time schedules. The other was a more comprehensive group within FORMEM, where discussions and presentation of best practices took place. The results obtained from these two streams became our final KPI figures which resulted in a great management tool for us and of course for our Excellence application.

What differences has the EQUASS Excellence implementation brought to APPACDM de Coimbra, and the way it operates?

Based on a SWOT analysis supported by quantified results we were able to redefine the policies of our organisation. When you look at quantifiable and reliable data you are in a position that facilitates the adjustment of your guidelines and orientation to what really matters in terms of management. Also when we look at other organisations benchmarked results we are capable of understanding witch areas we need to improve and further develop. The excellence level also empowers the organisation to an internal reflexion involving all the intervenient leading us to a deeper work undertaken in partnership with all stakeholders.

Excellence automatically impels and guideline you into key indicators asking the organisation to monitor them consistently. This constant analysis of trends revealed to be a factor of capital importance for measuring and promptly correct deviations in issues that before Excellence were not properly considered.

Basically, requires the organisation to create management methodologies much more focused on continuous improvement of services and result orientation, never forgetting the focus on improving the quality of life of the person served.

Has the EQUASS Excellence certification benefited your organisation? If so, how?

Internally, we can assert that the Excellence level reflected in the increment of organisational responsibility, awareness and accuracy. Financially speaking, there is no direct gain from an excellence certification. It would be a mistake to think that a certification would bring more money just because that was never APPACDM de Coimbra’s main goal. We must understand that the financial gains come from the actual improvement of organisational management. A management focused on quantitative and qualitative results provides us with crucial data for a much more operational and careful management and this reduces costs, streamlines processes and saves us time and money.

One of the vectors of our stated vision is to be an international reference in the field of rehabilitation of persons with intellectual disabilities. Clearly this Excellence certification, obtained with distinction, catapulted us to achieve that vision. Now we are constantly asked by national and international organisations to develop projects, visits, exchange of experiences and practices, among many other things. We clearly notice that we are seen as a reference in our area of ‚Äč‚Äčintervention. This recognition elevates the name and image of APPACDM de Coimbra and at the same time exponentially increases our responsibility, impelling us constantly to continuous improvement, which more than a habit, has become an acquired addiction to our organisation.

What advice would you give to a social service provider organisation that is considering starting the process of implementing EQUASS Excellence?

Don´t hesitate and go for it. As we already mention in the previous points the benefits of an EQUASS excellence certification, reflects not only at an internal management level as well as in the inherent quality of the provided services. The active involvement of employees and customers is highly empowered by fostering the spirit of togetherness, teamwork and motivation.

At the same time, this certification brings up the organisational image, which as we all know is becoming increasingly important in social difficult times like these.

When an organisation develops excellent work in any social area, that organisation is capable of achieving an Equass certification. In our opinion the main concern should be in having a good consultancy partnership and also internal committed staff. The excellence certification is a process that needs to be done with time, coherently and consistently thought out and above all, very well cemented so that the final outcome may fully correspond to the expectations.

Coimbra, 25th of June 2014


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