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Ajith Kumar

Quality Insider

Tottering Quality Management

Sometimes fools rush in

Published: Monday, July 31, 2006 - 21:00

The concept of total quality management (TQM) rose to prominence more than two decades ago. There were many reasons for it, the most important one being the European Union’s move to allow imports only from companies with ISO-standards certification. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) rose rapidly from anonymity to become a household name in the corporate world. All types of business and organizations started seeking certification of their goods and services to keep up their exports. Unill then, "quality" was at best a desirable attribute and only Japanese companies paid any attention to it as a policy. The rush for ISO-standards certification changed all that. Many good changes resulted from it, but many more unwanted tendencies surfaced. Two decades later it may be a useful exercise to review the issue. Did ISO-standards certification bring about any desirable change? Is it necessary to continue with it in its present form? TQM is tottering, and drastic steps by ISO are required if the good effects of the quality movement are to survive.

Erroneous concepts
There are two aspects to Quality Management: Quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC). Ever since the advent of mass production and assembly lines, QC has been an integral part of industry in the developed world. It sounds thoroughly logical to have someone or some system to control the quality of items produced in mass quantities. Systems and procedures for QC vary from industry to industry. Nondestructive testing (NDT) of items, even if done on a random basis, is good for the product and the user. It’s no surprise that the concept of NDT caught on and developed into a full-fledged engineering activity on its own. There’s absolutely no dispute about the need to have various levels of certification in this field to maintain the quality of products.

It is the deceitful cousin QA that’s suspect in the eyes of industry observers, especially in the services sector. We all know that it’s possible to take any horse to the waterfront, but it’s always up to the horse to drink. Quality in an organization is of a similar nature. We can have perfect systems and procedures for quality, but if the employees aren’t willing to follow, the whole system will fail to deliver. All companies in the services sector are victims of this syndrome. When the quality movement started, some shady agencies deceived their clients by promising that a quality assurance system, quality certification and a quality assurance manager can ensure quality of the output. A QA system is as good or bad as the quality of those who implement it and no company with substandard employees can provide standard services, even if there is an ISO standards-certified QA system and an expert QA manager in place.

The most significant development in the rush for quality has been the unprecedented growth in the number of certification agencies. From a few international players, the number has grown to hundreds the world over. The initial few had a bountiful harvest when the rush started and that provided an ugly model for numerous businesspeople to try their hand at a low investment-high return business opportunity. That most of the new certification agencies have their principals in Europe, and it was the European Union that triggered the quality juggernaut, makes the whole exercise suspect.

Redundant managers
The main beneficiary of this erroneous concept of QA has been a set of professionals masquerading as QA managers in ISO standards-certified companies. These impostors first descend on the victims, which are desperate for ISO-standards certification, in the form of experts or consultants willing to assist in getting the initial certification. It goes to their credit that they do a useful job at this stage. In most companies, there will be a severe shortage of expertise to document the procedures they follow in a systematic manner. This vacuum is easily filled up by the ISO-standards “experts” and consultants. After marathon sessions with the employees, an acceptable and auditable quality system is set up. Then these quality consultants, sometimes in the form of a full-fledged company, spend month after month conducting mock audits, feedbacks and corrections, until finally the whole system is ready for offering to an accredited external agency for certification. It’s always up to these ISO-standards consultants to conclude their deal by "arranging" a smooth audit and certification per ISO-standards norms.

The dubious and redundant aspect of quality management starts here. To maintain the certification and withstand the periodic surveillance audits of the external agency, most companies are too willing to accommodate these consultants or experts in the form of a QA manager. Guidelines of ISO standards have made it easy for these "redundant" managers to report directly to the CEO to keep quality a high-level and independent function in the organization. That makes it easier for these climbers to stay on forever. Most of the time, their work is reduced to arranging "facilities" for the external auditors and "taking care" of them during the audits. That these efforts don’t necessarily contribute to the quality of the host organization misses the attention of the chief executives. In fact, they’re counterproductive and retrograde. In the long run, almost all such companies end up uneconomical thanks to their misplaced emphasis on quality rather than profit. Quality is meaningful only in a profit-making company, and all the efforts for it must subordinate the ultimate objective of making profit

Desirable changes
It’s time that the policy makers at ISO started thinking in terms of pulling their systems of auditing and certification out of the net of suspicion they’ve fallen into. There should be strict norms for authorizing certification agencies and stricter ones for the way they conduct business. Recertification and surveillance audits should be more frequent and conducted in a transparent and professional manner. The qualification and integrity of the auditors must be thoroughly scrutinized. More than a profession of its own, auditors must be chosen from peers in the industry itself. Those who haven’t done mending by themselves can never audit or certify a mender.

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About The Author

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Ajith Kumar

Ajith Kumar has varied quality experience and is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in intelligent supply chain networks at the University of Cambridge.