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by Pam Parry

Every service company says it wants to put customers first, but doing so and then having it verified by a third party is another story. In fact, it’s the story of ENLASO Corp., a leading provider of enterprise language solutions. This industry leader not only puts its customers first, it has also been documenting those efforts for a decade.

The nearly 40-year-old company recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its registration to ISO 9001. The certification covers the company’s two domestic offices in Boulder, Colorado, and Boise, Idaho, which employ a total of 40 people.

“Our ongoing ISO 9001 registration reflects our dedication to quality-system processes that provide our customers with consistent, high-quality localization services,” says Yves Lang, ENLASO’s chief sales officer.

“As a professional-services company, our customer deliverables require contributions from various disciplines,” says John Watkins, ENLASO president and COO. “Optimizing the quality of the contributions of each discipline requires the simultaneous collaboration of all of our professionals within each of those disciplines. Our quality-management system establishes processes that make that possible.”

ENLASO is a translation provider for several industries, including life sciences, medical, pharmaceutical, biotech, information technology, legal, financial, gaming, aerospace, automotive, advertising, and telecommunications. In addition to translation, the company localizes software, Web sites, marketing materials, technical documents, and more. When the company first registered to ISO 9001, it was one of the first to do so in its field.

The issue
ENLASO provides services to customers spanning the globe. Many of those clients require external verification of ENLASO’s quality management system (QMS) as a baseline for doing business. For example, it is paramount for clients in the medical-device industry to receive external validation of their vendor’s quality system for translation and localization services. Localization refers to design and translation services that enable companies to communicate accurately and effectively with people in a specific country or region. This service is particularly critical for medical-device companies because their devices are used for consumer products ranging from home glucose-monitoring systems to complex, multimillion-dollar machines used in hospitals. It’s imperative that all instructions and documentation are clearly understood by their customers. ENLASO therefore takes its verification of the company’s quality processes seriously.

“I come from a background in which we had adopted total quality management principles a long time ago,” says Watkins, who took over the reins at ENLASO three years ago, when the company changed ownership. “It is fundamentally the way I work. I like ISO 9001 because it’s almost like a carrot dangled on a stick in that it keeps everyone working together for a common goal--the company mission and the quality objectives.”

Certification to the international standard not only keeps employees working toward the quality mission, but also demonstrates to customers that ENLASO meets global best practices when it comes to quality management. ISO 9001 helps provide employees with tangible goals and processes for working faster, better, and cheaper, providing documented improvements and quality for customers.

To advance toward these goals, ENLASO uses cross-functional quality teams. The teams access every process area of the company, looking for ways to improve. For example, ENLASO has developed new desktop-publishing processes that allow it to outsource some of its publishing work offshore, cutting production time and costs. Quality is maintained by shifting the responsibilities from in-house desktop publishers to vendor management combined with quality-assurance steps that detect defects. Final defect correction is completed at ENLASO. The offshore work helped the company meet time and budget requirements more effectively while increasing capacity, all without affecting quality. Employees are able to work smarter by shifting low-end tasks offshore.

A further benefit of using cross- functional teams is that processes are developed by the employees who perform the work. This has a direct effect on training processes. If there is a change in desktop-publishing processes, publishers are actually involved in creating those changes while coordinating with other areas of their team, such as sales, project management, and engineering. The result is that processes are developed that take into account the requirements of the other functional areas of the company. Once the processes are developed, the affected functional teams are then trained together by the respective leaders. For example, the supervisors for desktop publishing, engineering, sales, and project management train their departments on the new processes.

The benefits
In addition to meeting customer requirements, registration to ISO 9001 has yielded benefits to ENLASO in at least four quantifiable areas. The greatest benefit is the ability to demonstrate to the world that its QMS focuses on customer service and that ENLASO is working to exceed customer expectations.

The company is able to measure the benefits of certification because of its relationship to its ISO 9001 registrar, BSI Management Systems. In the process of working together to prepare for audits, BSI recommended to ENLASO that it establish concrete benchmarks to measure the affect of its QMS. BSI pushed the company to quantify ENLASO’s effectiveness in serving its customers.

ENLASO established four pillars--customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, gross margin for services, and net profitability--as essential areas to measure.

Watkins says that ENLASO customers have always been happy with the company’s services. To make sure of this, as part of the QMS, the company implemented periodic customer-satisfaction surveys. The latest customer survey indicates that 95 percent of the company’s customers feel that ENLASO is able to meet or exceed all of its vendors’ expectations.

ENLASO did have a tremendous opportunity for improvement in the area of employee satisfaction. Employee morale was low because of multiple turnovers in company ownership, with three owners in the past several years. To rectify this situation, the company implemented an employee-satisfaction survey, and the results in 2007 were encouraging. According to the survey, 97 percent of the employees feel that they are treated fairly by ENLASO. Another 97 percent report that their supervisor understands them.

One question regarding work and personal life, and whether the company allows employees to balance the two, received a relatively low score. Just 70 percent of employees reported feeling a sense of flexibility in management to permit balance in their lives.

“We take that seriously and have implemented appropriate changes to address the work/life balance,” Watkins says.

As a professional-services company that employs a highly educated workforce, ENLASO management realized that it could give its employees some schedule flexibility without affecting the customer’s experience. One effective change was the implementation of a “work from home day” each week. Every ENLASO employee now has the right (and opportunity) to work one day from a home-based office, if they so choose.

“Approximately 90 percent of our production employees use this new benefit,” says Watkins. “It seems to have improved their view of the work/life balance while not affecting our productivity. In fact, they seem to be more responsive working from home!”

The company has also increased working-hours flexibility, providing flexible start/end times for the production staff so that employees can tailor their days. This allows them to have early-morning medical appointments, for example, without affecting their work day (or having to use paid time-off hours). Employees can now begin work between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and may leave any time after 4 p.m. The only limitations on flexibility are that employees must attend any required meetings and that customer needs must be fully met or exceeded.

The third area of measurement involves the gross margin for services provided. ENLASO measures the cost of providing its services against the revenue generated by sales. The gross margin that remains when the cost of services is removed from revenue is what is left to pay for general administrative costs and the final net profit. The company’s current target is to improve its gross margin to 40 percent. When it started measuring this pillar, the gross margin was 31 percent. Now it is 39.8 percent, 0.2 percent from the corporate target.

To achieve improvements in its project margins, the costs for providing services and the resulting income from those services were examined. By doing so, ENLASO was able to develop processes that allowed it to outsource some tasks and use a combination of vendor management and quality assurance to meet project needs. Practices applied to the desktop-publishing process were applied to some engineering processes as well, resulting in lower costs without affecting the quality of delivered services. “Through customer surveys executed under our ISO quality management system, we found that we had room to negotiate our pricing upward in some of our services,” explains Watkins. “This, too, increased our overall project margins.”

The last major area of measurement is the net profitability of the company. Watkins had to speak vaguely about that--ENLASO is a privately owned company--but the QMS has helped make the company “profit-focused,” with a net increase in profitability since the acquisition three years ago.

The system
What is unique about ENLASO’s system is that every employee does not just give lip service to the QMS; each one of them plays an integral role in its implementation and its maintenance. The typical corporate environment taps one quality manager to be responsible for the QMS, but at ENLASO, the QMS is everyone’s responsibility. The company achieves 100-percent participation through the use of cross-functional quality teams. “Nobody works in a vacuum,” Watkins says.

For example, the sales staff does not implement any quality process without involving the production and executive staff, and vice versa. By working with the other cross-functional teams of the company, sales is able to accurately reflect the entire project life cycle, including the work performed by engineering and desktop publishing. By sharing a clearly defined project life cycle, all production employees are on the same page as the sales people who sell that life cycle.

“This approach has created a tightly knit group, and, in effect, it is a way of ensuring empathy for one another among the employees,” says Watkins. “It works really well.”

Throughout the past decade, the QMS has evolved. Initially, the system was not understood by everyone. Now, with the involvement of everyone through cross-functional teams, the system is not only understood, it is also devised by the employees.

“Every employee at ENLASO serves on a cross-functional team,” says Watkins. “As a result, everybody has a voice in saying how things get done. This gives them ownership in our quality system.”

ENLASO’s quality system is essentially a combination of top-down and bottom-up management. Occasionally, the quality-coordination team pushes an issue down to a cross-functional team, but more frequently the cross-functional teams identify concerns before they become issues that affect customer satisfaction. Preventive action by the cross-functional teams has eliminated much of the need for corrective action reports.

“Instead of pushing a quality system down from the top onto the employees, the people push out and make the quality system, letting employees contribute to it,” says Watkins.

The registrar’s role
The external auditors have helped the company to improve its QMS. “We learn something about our system from every audit,” Watkins says. Even after a decade of ISO 9001, Watkins and his team find audits valuable. The company gets very few nonconformance citations because it has so much experience, and good observations come out of the audits that help the company improve.

In all the years of working with its registrar, Watkins recalls that he’s only experienced one “hiccup.” It occurred when an auditor left the company, and for about a month, communication with BSI was not what it should be. He called the main office, and BSI issued a corrective-action report and promptly fixed the problem.

“They handled it very appropriately, just like we would,” he says. “Every company has problems, but a good one can be measured in how it solves those problems.”

Reflecting on his ISO 9001 experience, Watkins adds, “I think it’s easy for people to think that their quality-management system is just a bunch of hoops to jump through. But to me, if you address the core areas of your company, then high-quality deliverables and customer satisfaction are achieved.”

About the author
Pam Parry, director of the public relations program at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, is a freelance writer who has reported on international standards for more than a decade. She holds journalism degrees from the University of Missouri in Columbia and the American University in Washington, D.C.