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William A. Levinson


Treat Standards as Servants, Not Masters

Make them work for you, and they won’t be costly, time-consuming annoyances

Published: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 - 12:23

Compliance is an unfortunate word in connection with standards because it suggests something arduous, unpleasant, costly, and annoying that one must do to “get the certificate.”

It’s true that organizations must meet certain requirements to register to a standard like ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and the new ISO 50001 standard for energy management systems, but treatment of the standard as a servant rather than a master puts it into a far more desirable perspective.

Another misconception is that the standards focus on documentation for its own sake. Documentation is important not for its own sake but to ensure standardization and knowledge retention.

Standardization goes back to the days of scientific management in civilian enterprises and even further back in military organizations. Armies were always looking for ways to shoot more rapidly than their adversaries, and any musket drill that achieved this goal was standardized in drill manuals that everybody had to follow. Motion-efficiency pioneer Frank Gilbreth, in fact, got many of his ideas by observing such drills. Concepts like takt time and Eliyahu Goldratt’s drum-buffer-rope production system echo military thinking, in which drums kept time to prevent anybody from getting ahead or behind while marching in step.

It is easy to imagine what would have happened, though, had armies relied on the memories of officers and noncommissioned officers to maintain improvements. Frederick Winslow Taylor meanwhile speculated that trade workers had discovered better ways to lay bricks, make shoes, or perform carpentry throughout history only to lose the knowledge when its possessors died or retired. Standardization prevents loss of knowledge and backsliding to inferior methods. It acts like a ratchet that prevents laborers from losing their work if the load they have been raising gets away from them.

All human progress depends on written records, and this is why ISO 9001 and other standards require documentation. It ensures not only that everybody does the job the same way, but also does it in the best known way. Fourth-tier quality records meanwhile prove that the organization does what it says, e.g., that gauges have been calibrated, parts have been inspected, and preventive maintenance has been performed. The phrase, “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen” is very applicable. Who would want to trust a gauge if he couldn’t tell whether it had been calibrated, or install a part in a complex assembly without assurance that the part had undergone all its required quality tests?

Treatment of the standard as a costly and time-consuming annoyance makes it exactly that: a costly and time-consuming annoyance. This means the organization’s primary goal is to pass audits, often through last-minute preparation to remove potential findings from the workplace. The organization goes back to business as usual when the audit is over, and therefore reaps few if any of the benefits its diligent application ought to offer.

The standard becomes a servant when the organization treats it as a framework or structure that ensures quality as described above. If gauge calibration and product traceability, both of which are ISO 9001 requirements, are reliable, then nobody has to worry about having to recall parts because they might not have been measured properly or because their required inspection and testing information is not available. If the organization performs closed-loop corrective action in response to quality problems, and this also is an ISO 9001 requirement, it should never have to worry about the same quality problem in the future. In this case, the standard prevents genuine costly and time-consuming annoyances like scrap, rework, customer complaints, and all the trouble that goes with them.

The ISO 14001 environmental management system standard and the new ISO 50001 energy management system standard further reinforce the “servant rather than master” concept. Henry Ford made enormous amounts of money by either avoiding environmental waste or by finding ways to process it into saleable products, and this was when it would have been legal for him to dump into the nearest river whatever wouldn’t go up the smokestack. Slag from blast furnaces was, for example, processed into cement and paving materials. Kingsford charcoal (originally Ford Charcoal but later named for E.G. Kingsford), which is still available today, was what became of wood waste that was absolutely unserviceable for anything else. Sale of charcoal, methyl alcohol, and other wood byproducts earned $12,000 per day in the money of the 1920s, or enough to pay 2,000 workers the relatively high wage of $6 per day. This suggests that diligent application of ISO 14001 and ISO 50001 can be enormously profitable today, and that organizations should embrace them as valuable servants rather than annoying and costly masters.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE, is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford’s Universal Code for World-Class Success (Productivity Press, 2013).


Treat standards as servants, not masters

Good article.  The history provides some context.

However, the assertion that written procedures "...ensures not only that everybody does the job the same way, but also does it in the best known way." is a huge assumption that, all too often, is not true. 

Yes, good management will ensure procedural compliance.

But, it can be a trap. It can lock organizations into a fixed method, and inhibit growth and change.

Better management will ensure procedures are reviewed and revised to match actual practice, and allow for continuous improvement.  This is management rarely encountered. 

Organizations need to find a balance between innovation and procedural compliance.  This is one of my basic problems with ISO 9000 systems; the standard has an underlying assumption of 'best practices', but fails to ask the question, 'best practice for whom?"