Sears, Roebuck and Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Sears Holdings Corp., has something to brag about other than its long life as one of the largest retailers in North America. After an eight-year effort, the company registered its product repair centers' and in-home service's quality management systems (QMS) to ISO 9001.
Sears offers a range of home
merchandise, apparel, and automotive products and services through more than 2,400 Sears-branded and affiliated stores in the United States and Canada, which includes about 926 full-line and 1,100 specialty stores in the United States alone. Sears is the largest national provider of product repair services, with more than 14 million repairs performed annually. Headquartered in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, the company has about 201,000 employees in the United States. In 2006, Sears will celebrate its 120th anniversary. (More information on the company is available at www.searsarchives.com.)
Sears has always maintained a strong commitment to quality in its products and services. In keeping with this commitment, in 1998 the company decided to register all of its product repair centers to the ISO 9002:1994 quality management system standard (which has subsequently been replaced by ISO 9001:2000). By the end of 2002, all of the 32 carry-in service centers were registered to ISO 9001. Once the repair centers were registered, Sears turned to the in-home service side of its business. About 10,000 Sears technicians repair one of every five appliances in America. By the end of 2005, Sears had 383 locations under the scope of its ISO 9001 registration, including all six in-home regions. The company's 48 districts have their own certificates.
Sears sought ISO 9001 registration to enhance its organizational process compliance. The company wanted a consistent process for improving customer satisfaction and enhancing service capabilities. ISO 9001 implementation played a large role in assisting with process standardization across the company.
ISO 9001 is often associated with the manufacturing industry, and one major hurdle Sears had to overcome was communicating the value of a QMS within a retail and service environment. The company had to convince its associates that a QMS was more than a passing fad and worth their efforts.
ISO 9001 is an international standard designed to help organizations implement a QMS. It provides systematic processes and procedures for corporate operations. The standard mandates the compilation of a quality manual to ensure consistent application of procedures and periodic system audits, both internal and external. Thus, ISO 9001 provides a framework for large organizations such as Sears to implement a consistent, cohesive program across geographic lines and throughout a multifaceted business.
Sears continues to reap numerous benefits from its ISO 9001 registration, but the organization decided not to view this accomplishment as simply a cost-savings program. Instead, Sears sees ISO 9001 as a fundamental tool that provides the company a safe base for continued improvements.
"Not all benefits are tied to money," says Cris Shale, the company's ISO 9001 program manager and a RAB-certified lead auditor. For example, Sears has made dramatic improvements in calibrating the tools used for repairs and service calls. Although the company had calibrated some of its tools prior to implementing ISO 9001, the standard requires 100-percent tool calibration for safety purposes. Not only does Sears have an expansive program for calibrating its tools, but it has also opened and registered its own calibration lab to ISO/IEC 17025. This move minimizes calibration costs and expands third-party business opportunities.
Another significant benefit of ISO 9001 involves the company's handling of refrigerant. Sears works with Freon and other hazardous materials, which could pose a serious environmental violation if not handled properly. As part of its ISO 9001 efforts, Sears improved its existing
hazardous-materials program by implementing a comprehensive program on refrigerant handling.
ISO 9001 encouraged an overall awareness in the field about Sears' operations, and this helped associates comply with statutory and regulatory requirements. "I think everybody in the organization knew we needed to be compliant, but ISO 9001 has helped us understand that compliance also makes good business sense," Shale says. "But once we actually implemented a quality management system and really took a look at what requirements are out there for state, local and each of the individual areas where the facilities are located, we were able to bring the compliance piece to the forefront. We're beginning to make a positive impact in terms of what the facilities are doing, and making it easier to remain compliant."
Wheylan Rector and Becky Hollifield, ISO 9001 compliance implementers, said ISO 9001 boosted morale among Sears' associates. The standard also helped Sears' efficiency in completing repairs. For instance, in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, carry-in facility, the average daily completion rate for repairing lawn mowers or other items doubled from four or five to eight or nine per repairman as a result of ISO 9001 implementation, according to Rector.
Hollifield, former district operations manager in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that ISO 9001 boosted morale among Sears' associates there. Sears gave associates a voice in how to implement ISO 9001, and that empowered them. The Charlotte facility is cleaner, better organized and has reduced waste. Hollifield helped to implement Sears' first QMS at the Charlotte facility. Customers there understood what ISO 9001 meant; Hollifield would often see customers stop and look at the facility's ISO 9001 sign and say, "That means Sears is a quality company."
As part of the service industry, Sears faced another challenge in implementing ISO 9001 nationwide. Manufacturing facilities operate within a four-wall environment where processes can be controlled. In Sears' case, the company has only 32 carry-in repair centers within the confines of a building; the rest of the operation is "virtual," with service technicians driving to customers' homes to repair appliances. Standardizing the QMS among so many individuals in the field represented a challenge as well as a tremendous opportunity.
"Our representatives drive on four wheels every day," says Dennis McQueeney, Sears region operations manager for the mid-Atlantic. "You can't not address that."
Sears uses wireless technology, a centralized routing system, and cell phones for tracking and helping techs with quality control. The company has succeeded in implementing ISO 9001 in the field by diligently documenting the processes, staying on top of training and working with management teams. One key to successful implementation was bringing technicians to central locations for training. Educating them about the QMS was integral to making the system work with thousands of technicians across the country. In the beginning, the workforce saw ISO 9001 as just another task or more work. But as QMS education demonstrated how consistent processes could make a difference on the front lines, ISO 9001 became a "way of life rather than additional tasks," according to Sears officials. "Trust the system" was the basic message to all employees.
In addition to training employees, Sears also initiated a technological innovation in 2003 that helped with quality control among the various field technicians. The company invested in a satellite technology called the Sears Smart Toolbox. The toolbox links technicians with Sears while they're in the field, providing them with a centralized database containing their daily service schedule, directions through a global positioning system and a catalog of parts. Technicians can use online schematics to identify problems while at a customer's home, eliminating the need to return and thereby lowering transportation and labor costs.
In addition to the SST, Sears has implemented a new process (as part of its QMS) in which technicians call customers prior to the appointment to make sure they're home. Before registering to ISO 9001, Sears technicians often wasted gas, time and effort driving to homes only to discover that customers had forgotten the appointment. The new procedure requires the routing team to verify the appointment, thereby reducing the number of wasted trips.
Sears' district office in Houston has improved its technician recall rate because of the QMS. The recall rate is the percentage of times service technicians must return to customers' homes for a second time within 30 days. Before the SST, the recall rate in Houston was about 12 percent. In 2004, Houston service technicians made more than a quarter of a million service calls, with a 9.3-percent recall rate. In 2005, the rate dropped to 7.9 percent.
"There's been a twofold improvement," reports Randy McDonald, district operations manager in the Houston office. "All carry-in repair centers are ISO 9001-registered and have processes that have improved their level of work. As we accept merchandise from customers, our processes have enabled the repair center to perform repairs at a more efficient rate than in times past."
Tony Prince, district support manager of the Nashville, Tennessee, district, cites similar success with the new ISO 9001 process implemented in 2005 for a repair call when the customer isn't home. As a result of this new process, return calls in the Nashville district fell from 3.06 percent in 1994 to 0.45 percent in 2005.
"This may not seem like much, but when projected over about 225,000 completed repairs for our market, the savings in all resources is remarkable," Prince says.
"We no longer refer to how to do things from memory; we prefer to learn how to do things by looking them up on the database," says Tony Davis, district service general manager in Houston. "I think there's a difference of discipline if you look at it in that scenario, and that's going to continue as we get better and better."
Sears technicians have also improved productivity in the field because the retailer's QMS has helped to reduce variability in the types of tools each technician brings in the repair vehicle. ISO 9001 gave Sears an opportunity to ensure that all technicians have the appropriate tools to complete their work in one day.
ISO 9001 has been instrumental in helping to standardize the manner in which technicians record field observations. This is important for solving certain types of problems, such as an appliance or part malfunction, customer abuse or an accident. To ensure consistency, technicians use a special tool kit for recording the event, including a disposable camera and standardized forms.
"From a quality standpoint, I think ISO 9001 puts us a step above the competition," Davis says.
Sears began to review the business of Sears Home Delivery in early 2005. Its goal was to gain a perspective on how to improve ISO 9001 implementation to effectively engage all areas and levels of Home Delivery associates from the beginning of implementation. It has successfully developed a model that allows for integrated implementation between process owners and the ISO 9001 compliance team. This step toward continual improvement has identified opportunities to strengthen the company's QMS from a cross-functional standpoint while leveraging knowledge from all areas of business expertise.
Sears Contractor Services Group is also part of the current focus of ISO 9001 implementation. This organization provides service to Sears' customers in areas where no technicians are available and is responsible for managing the company's contracted service providers. Registering the Contractor Services Group will take Sears' QMS to another level of standardization, and the company is excited that its QMS will touch all service providers representing the company.
In 2005, Sears tapped BSI Americas as its third-party registrar to gain a fresh perspective on its ISO 9001 efforts. By the end of 2006, Sears' target for the new businesses is to have all 150-plus facilities brought under the current scope of registration.
Cris Shale would like to recognize the members of Sears' ISO 9001 compliance team for their efforts in implementing the company's QMS. The company's accomplishments wouldn't have been possible without them.
• ISO 9001 compliance implementers--Chuck Burland, Diane Bouton, Don Munn, Lonnie Sickler, Randy Tuggle, Michael Wilging, Robert Easton, Wheylan Rector, Steve Reese, Jahna Hudgin, Becky Hollifield and Steve Rosengarden
• Documentation and database support--Cecelia Ellingsen, Nancy Mueller, Tiffany Anderson, Henry Martinez and Diana Johnson
• ISO 9001 program manager--Jeanna Carlton
• Director of ISO 9001 and compliance--Irina Shulman
• Director of programs and processes--Norm Buchanan
Pam Parry is president of Parry Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, and the director of the public relations program at Belmont University. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Parry has been a freelance writer for nearly two decades.