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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

Which Standard Will You Select?

Accreditation doesn’t guarantee quality in an organization

Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 - 13:47

The menu has folded out into four sections. Each page has a picture next to the delicious option; however, I know the server will be taking the menu away from me after I’ve placed my order. I’m pondering how I can confirm that my order is the same as the picture. Perhaps I should ask if they have a quality system in place to guarantee satisfaction?


What other elements of this restaurant am I relying on? Does the kitchen clean its surfaces per the hygiene code? Is the refrigerator’s temperature set as recommended by the FDA to reduce the risk of bacterial growth? Has the food been sourced from ethically and environmentally conscious sources? Here comes the server. I’ll take the opportunity to ask him a clarifying question or two.

“Excuse me, could you possibly enlighten me on something?”

“Sure can, sir, how can I help?” says the young man with terribly fashionable and precisely shaped facial hair.

“I’m wondering if you could tell me if your restaurant has ISO 9001 certification.”

Before finishing my sentence, an explosion of pain and adrenaline pulsates in my shin. Fighting the heartbeat of nausea, I see a look of confusion on the server’s face and anger in my wife’s eyes. I realize two things at that moment: Mentioning ISO 9001 could be meaningless to nonquality folks, and my wife has the accuracy of an NFL kicker to precisely and powerfully put her shoe through my leg. I’ve embarrassed her again by letting my inner quality beast loose at an inappropriate time.

I’ll start off by saying I’m not a fan of ISO 9001. I’ve probably limited my career by stating this, but when you explain ISO 9001 to a nonquality professional, do you experience the dead-in-the-eyes look? The issue for me is not what the standard’s original intent was or what its initiators were trying to achieve, which I think is honorable and admirable. My problem concerns what the standard has turned industry into.

If you’re unfamiliar with ISO 9001, it is essentially a specification, developed with contributions from countries from all over the world. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), located in Geneva, is a collaborative bunch of people who set out guidelines for commonality and standardization for our modern global economy. Without ISO, many of the items in your home or business wouldn’t exist, so I’m grateful for ISO’s work.

ISO 9001 is only one of the many standards in the ISO library, but this document scopes out the minimum expectations for a “system” that can provide some level of quality for an organization. I’ve used the word “minimum” for a reason. If your company becomes certified to ISO 9001, it doesn’t necessarily mean it instantly becomes a quality company. Having a certified quality system is no guarantee that problems go away, although there are some people who believe that’s true. This is where my ISO 9001 problems start: confusing certification to a quality system standard as a mark of guaranteed quality.

Due to this confusion, we have customers telling their supply chains they must be ISO 9001-certified. They must be on an approved list. We have certification auditors granted with powers that make Lord Voldemort look like a weakling. We have companies going through the motions of achieving certification, and consequently gaining nothing more than a shiny, hologrammed memento, presented in a cheap plastic frame at a reception.

If the idea was to standardize, through ISO 9001, the best practices of quality organizations worldwide, then I’m all for it. I like standardization. I like to be a satisfied customer. However, ISO 9001 certification can cause so many odd repercussions that my belief in its ability to standardize for a common vision has eroded. I know this viewpoint will not win many over, but I’d like to consider some alternate standards or specifications that could also help companies achieve quality. Where should we start looking? My recommendations are as follows, and they are in no particular order:

The law. This is a vast area and also the quickest route to shut down your business, should you fall on the wrong side of the law. The challenge in complying with legal requirements is in their interpretation. Beyond interpretation, the dilemma is which law to prioritize first. I would say if there are any moral concerns within your business about employees, the environment, or the community, then legislation that addresses these topics would be a good hunting ground. For example, health and safety laws are there for a reason, and if the data in your business show you’re hurting your employees, you can expect a visit from a governmental health and safety inspector, along with a fine on your financial manager’s desk.

Your customer. Sometimes your customer will help you by providing detailed expectations. These might be engineering drawings or requirements listed on the purchase request. At other times your customer could be ignorant about your requirements. Therefore, taking a step closer to your customer to ask for clarifications may help. You might have to develop an understanding of their requirements in your company’s language. I like to use the critical to quality characteristics (CTQC) technique. I’ve used this in the past to get a much better understanding of customer requirements. World-class companies use this a great deal to stimulate continuous improvement and innovation, and to overcome the problems of why they are not achieving customer requirements.

Your suppliers. You have selected these groups of people to support you with products or services because they are probably experts in their fields. Perhaps you can get something from them—a better understanding of your standards or of the specialty area they are in. Recently I facilitated a workshop with a supplier and received the feedback that my supplier wanted to understand why certain features on our engineering drawing had such tight tolerancing. Not an unusual request, but as a customer, we never put into context for the supplier why we ask for that tolerancing. Explaining that it went into an assembly and the feature was critical in the performance of the device helped the supplier understand why the part is designed that way. As a result, we all took actions to define new standards so we can work together better in the future.

Industry codes. In every industry I’ve worked in, I have come across numerous codes. These can be a collection of best practices, lessons learned, or a formal requirement that has evolved to support compliance with a legal framework. In many ways, industry codes are a collection of best practices from very complex processes. I like these because they tend to be written in the language of the industry. Sometimes they eventually become international standards, absorbed into the ISO family or some other system.

Awards and competitions. Not all of these will help improve quality. Many awards are superficial and require at most completing a form and submitting evidence. However, the better awards that require your business to be checked by an outside party, someone who will take a thorough and detailed look at your performance, will help. Learning from failing to win an award is a useful step in the process of continuous improvement. The Baldrige Award is a process, not just an award application, that each contestant goes through. Simply going through the Baldrige program has been beneficial to many companies. If I had the choice, I’d rather go for a supplier that has won the Deming Medal or Shingo Prize over a supplier that is ISO 9001-certified.

Your business. Within any business there’s always the “way things are done around here.” But how are we to define this? Have you ever wondered why one operator may produce better products than another? A brilliant statistician I learned from many years ago once told me about a tire factory he worked in. The factory produced retreaded tires and through analysis discovered that one operator produced less variation. They studied what he did and wrote down “his” favored settings on the machine he operated. They did this with the idea of using the same settings across the factory, defined in a standardized procedure. When they tried this out, they found that variation actually increased. After further investigation, they discovered that the control knob was broken on the star operator’s machine, so whatever setting he dialed made no difference. The factory then standardized the machines: less variation resulted in better tires. I like defining standards in your own business. It’s comparatively easy, everything you need to do is at your disposal, and you get tremendous gains from doing this, much more than if your objective is to become ISO 9001-certified.

Your competitors. This may seem like a mad idea, but research and development of new technology can often outpace the development of standards in your industry. But by working in collaboration with your peers, you have an opportunity to share resources and develop common standards for mutual benefit.

International standards. Well, I’ve already weighed in about ISO 9001. What I prefer to do with this category is speak to the people behind the standards. These folks are often a great source of knowledge because they tend to be experts in their fields, and they can usually express the concepts in a language anyone can understand.

Let us always set our standards high. If our current standards are easy to achieve, then we must question if they are really worth it. My personal philosophy is that everything is broken or wrong: Even if something is good today, I want to do my best to improve it tomorrow. This is the only standard I have.

If you’re reading this in the office, I ask you to stand up, open your office door, and shout out to your colleagues, “Our standards are failing us!” See what reactions you get. Assuming you aren’t hauled off by human resources for doing this, start talking to your colleagues about what your company needs to do to raise the bar.

Finally, please give me feedback about this article. You’ve taken the time to consider my writing, and I need your help to raise my standards. If you know of an ISO writing standard, please tell me. My man-cave wall is bare of hologrammed accreditation certificates.


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.


Select as many standards as possible....

I agree with ISO 9001 as a simple start point and holding a certificate may not directly equal quality.

After that, one must start with company culture and management support, then the more standards the better.

A portfolio of standards such as ASME N stamp certificates, PED Module H certificate, TPED certificates, Maritime certificates (Lloyds, BV, DNV,..), ATEX, CSA UL are required to effectively compete in a global marketplace.

These multiple standards as contributors and individual facets of a total quality system help assure quality.

Ken Kaniecki


I also agree, but.........

Hi Paul,

Always enjoy your articles!

 I was working in the UK while the ISO Standard was being written, prior to its original release. So, I have been involved from the early stages of the Standard. I was also a Registered Lead Assessor for many years, working for Registrars as a subcontractor. I have observed as the Standard has been prostituted to its current state, and resigned from my Lead Assesor role because I was being pressured to recommend companies for registration, when I felt (and the objective evidence proved) that they were incapable of consistently satisfying customers' requirements. So, I can certainly agree with the comments made by yourself and the other contributors.

However, having worked with many companies all over the world as a consultant, I have learned a basic truth: Any system, of any kind and for any purpose, is dependent on the people using it. The source of the system, even "The Law", will not ensure compliance with the system. Compliance will only occur IF the users understand and "buy-in" to the system.

The leadership of an organization has the responsibility to ensure that the employees fully understand the system - what it is, what it is supposed to ensure, why it's importamt to the company's future (Share the strategic plan!!!!! There IS a strategic plan, right?!!!!), and most importantly of all - why they (the employees) should care (What's in it for me?).

Now, all of this "Charm School" stuff takes time and money, which most companies don't want to "waste". So, they force the new system down the throats of the employees and are fustrated when it does not produce the results that were advertised.

ISO 9001 is not a silver bullet - there are none of those around. However, I do feel, and have demonstrated through empirical results,that it is a useful tool (one of many) that are available to the process improvement practitioner. And, like all tools, it must be used properly.

Hear ! Hear!

I am 100% with you on the ISO 9001 certification.  All too often, the certification is an expensive ticket you punch, with mariginal business results.  The entry fees are the travel costs and dining costs for the auditors, the ticket gets you into customer's door named qualification requirements. 

There are several elements, in particular, I find trying about ISO 9001, and its automotive analogues (guess which industry I work in):

1)  The automotive industry required all suppliers to earn various certifications.  All suppliers, whether they had a sustained record of excellence or not.  The argument might well have been that excellent suppliers used the methods embodied in the standard, so what was the big deal?  The big deal, of course, was the imposition of excess cost and the creation of a marginally valued added industry (ISO/QS Certification).

2)  The certification became the entry requirement for new customers.  The customer would ask:  Does your company have xxx certification?  If not, what is the plan to obtain xxx certification?  This requirement froze out new suppliers, with potentially new and innovative products and services, from breaking into markets they would have well served.

3)  What evidence was produced to demonstrate that xxx certification improved the quality of products and services delivered to the automotive market, and it resulted in better vehicles sold to customers.  Was there convincing evidence that obtaining the certification was the difference maker?  I may be jaundiced, but  I think the tone of my question indicates what my opinion might be.  If I had evidence, I might be convinced otherwise.

I think customer ratings provide the best feedback and quality certification.  If your customers believe you have a valid quality system, and the evidence supports it through low defect rates, high customer satisfaction rates, on time delivery, etc.  then you have a quality certiciation that matters.

I am not alone

I see I am not alone in my dislike of the ISO Standards.  I find they are only as good as the registrar and auditors, and the overall organizations commitment to their documented system.  If ISO were a series of benchmarks of what an effective quality system consited of and were a guideline for achieving a robust system than maybe they would be worth the effort going into them.

So long as registrars are in the profit making business ISO is worthless in my opinion. I have encountered registrars that would certify a compost heap if the compost heap paid their fee.  Having been thru ISO audits I question their value at no point do I see the audit truly audit and evaluate the entire organizations commitment to quality and customer satisfaction.

I have also been thru the Malcom Baldrige Process as a tool to drive organizational excellence, used for this purpose with the entire organizations commitment gaps in the systems can be identified and addressed and the process improved.   The difference between ISO and Baldridge is that one is an ongoing process for improvment and the metric is measuring the improvement the other is an audit/certification process with the goal of catching non comformances and less on improvment.


This is very true in manufacturing and healthcare

I've been in ISO-9000/9001 or QS/9000 factories that were putting out terrible quality. They were following procedures as written, but the procedures were bad. Often, people get told they can't update the procedure (or improve quality) without getting out of compliance with the "quality management system." It's crazy. Maybe ISO wasn't supposed to be that way, but it's a sad reality in many companies.

Now, healthcare in the U.S. has accreditation from the Joint Commission. In many of the major healthcare quality catastrophes (the big stuff that makes the news, as opposed to the low grade errors that kill people every day), you'll find that the offending hospital had just been recertified by the Joint Commission.

No assurance of quality!!!

Preach on

Well done Paul, I totally agree.

The other ISO 9001 related quirk I constantly come up against is our employees' habit of referring to our quality system as "the ISO system", which unfortunately gives the impression (even if unintended) that it's something we HAVE to or are being forced to do, not something we WANT to do.

Continual improvement is a culture, and from my experience it takes companies a while to develop that way of thinking. But by focusing on regulatory, customer and supplier requirements as you've outlined, we can begin to help our employers (and fellow employees) move in that direction.

Quality standards

Your article reiterates what I have been telling my organization for a long time - what we do are our tried and true best practices; they were not invented to satisfy the requirements of ISO 9001. My pet peeve is that many people, as in Sean's organization, refer to our quality system as the ISO system or talk about "ISO processes". They are OUR processes and they do not exist to satisfy ISO 9001, although that is certainly a beneficial by-product.

ISO 9001 is the beginning, not the end, of a movement towards quality. All the other inputs or "standards" you refer to are equally valid inputs but none stands alone. We must consider all the inputs to produce "quality". And, it is up to us to continually measure whether or not we continue to get a quality result, and if not, we need to change our quality system. Getting the certificate does not mean our work is done and certainly does not guarantee an end result.