WebconslHow to Select an
ISO 9000 Consultant

The client should be vigorously involved in
and dedicated to the project before the
first consultant walks through the door.

by Clyde Pearch


Since we started our company in 1995, many of our clients have successfully applied for and registered single and multisite business and industry locations to ISO 9000, QS-9000 and related quality system standards. Forty more are currently on their way to certification. This wide experience has given us a solid idea of the characteristics necessary to be a successful ISO 9000 consulting and training organization.

 Perhaps the most important single factor is strong, committed clients. Every client we've worked with understands this from the beginning of the process or comes to understand it before successfully achieving registration.

In fact, the client should be vigorously involved in and dedicated to the project before the first consultant walks through the door. Selecting the consultant team is one of the most important decisions an organization makes in implementing a quality management system. The experiences of these organizations reveal many of the issues and principles involved in selecting a consultant team.

After Webb Chemical Service Corp.--a 35-year-old, privately owned chemical distributor based in Muskegon, Michigan--determined that ISO 9002 ideally suited its needs, the company set about selecting a consultant to guide it through the registration process.

Webb Chemical understood this was a critical decision. "Chemical distribution is a complex, highly regulated business," explains Webb Chemical Quality Manager Don Adams, who led the ISO 9002 initiative. "Much of the material we handle is hazardous. No one required us to be ISO 9002-registered, but we believed the standard would improve our internal systems and enhance our credibility with customers and others in the industry. We didn't have the resources in-house to achieve registration on our own, so choosing a consultant was a critical decision for us."

Webb Chemical followed a rigorous process. "We developed an evaluation form to screen consultants," recalls Adams. "It included such criteria as manpower availability, knowledge of distributors in or out of our industry, knowledge of quality standards, proximity to Webb Chemical, training programs they offered and, of course, references and background.

"We rated each consultant on 10 to 12 criteria. By the time we made our selection, we had looked at 10 different consulting organizations that we'd identified through referrals, trade magazines and word-of-mouth. We whittled these 10 down to four, then made our final choice."

 Such a reasonable and professional selection process should have produced a good result. Unfortunately, it didn't.

 "We worked with the consultant for three months, even though we could see in the first couple of meetings they weren't going in the direction we wanted," says Adams. "But it was new for us, so at first we thought maybe we were the problem.

 "They were coming from an automotive industry background that worked with manufacturers who were after QS-9000 registration. But that approach didn't fit us. We're a distributor, not a manufacturer. We were seeking registration to ISO 9002, not QS-9000, which requires the use of statistical tools that didn't apply to us.

"The consultant had great credentials and a great automotive manufacturing background, but it either couldn't or wouldn't switch gears to deal with the distribution business. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is cut your losses, and that's what we finally did. Before setting a new course, we re-evaluated the effectiveness of our ISO team as well as the consultants. We made changes in both areas."

Learning from experience

Learning from this experience, Webb Chemical had much better luck with its next consultant organization. "We've accomplished more in four weeks than we did with the other organization in three months," reports Adams. "This time, we made sure the consultant we selected understood and was committed to ISO 9002. We also made sure the consultant had experience with other distributors, not necessarily chemical distributors."

Although Webb Chemical may have been particularly unlucky in choosing a consultant, its experience should sound an alarm. Even with considerable screening and due care, it's quite possible to get a mismatch between consultant and client. In Webb Chemical's case, this resulted in considerable loss of time and money. But it could have been worse.

Webb Chemical's original consultants might have succeeded in installing the system they wanted. As a result, the company could have been stuck with a quality management system that didn't suit its needs, didn't improve its processes and, ultimately, would have been self-defeating.

High stakes

The registration process isn't a trivial matter. In its fourth annual quality survey, the Automotive Industry Action Group reports that respondents who registered to QS-9000 experienced an average 6-percent savings in their first year, as well as a 48-percent improvement in defect rates, a 38-percent improvement in on-time shipping performance and a 23-percent increase in market share. Because QS-9000 consists largely of ISO 9000, any organization committed to improving its processes by implementing an ISO 9000-based system, as is the case with Webb Chemical, can expect significant bottom-line results.

Thus, in selecting a consultant team for ISO 9000--or for any of its industry variations, e.g., QS-9000, TE Supplement, AS9000 or TL 9000--mismatches should be a foremost concern.

Although QMSs can be structured similarly, they will always vary from one another. The QMS at one company may help drive change and growth; at another it may be irrelevant or even counterproductive. In the same way, no two consultants are alike. It makes sense to choose the one that best fits the organization's structure.

Driving the process

But the real value of a quality system doesn't depend on the consultant or the registrar; it really depends on the organization. To get the most out of a QMS, the organization must play an active and responsive role in supporting the process. This should begin when choosing the consulting group.

Like the Webb Chemical experience, CHEMCENTRAL Corp., another chemical distributor, recognized the importance of selecting the right consultant. However, CHEMCENTRAL--a billion-dollar-plus company with 32 sites--followed an even more rigorous selection process.

Prior to launching its QS-9000 initiative, CHEMCENTRAL spent a year studying the issues and activities involved.

"We weren't driven by external demands or requirements," says Ken Jaggers, vice president of compliance and quality, who leads the organization's QS-9000 effort. "We had a strong verbal tradition that we felt necessary to document to keep up with accelerating growth and industry expectations. Also, we were confronted with accelerating customer expectations for improved quality.

"After a year of analysis, we decided to pursue QS-9000 registration. QS-9000 is more demanding than ISO 9000 in that it incorporates statistical tools to determine opportunities for continuous improvement. Initially, there was debate about whether we could be registered to QS-9000 because it was designed primarily for automotive suppliers, not chemical distributors. But we persevered and did an analysis learning that the companies we studied with the QS-9000 process in place were achieving more return on their investment."

After visiting a number of companies, CHEMCENTRAL narrowed its search to 10 consulting groups and 10 registrars.

"We had definite ideas about the way we would structure our activities," explains Jaggers. "We didn't want to layer our quality system as a separate management level within the organization. We wanted to integrate quality and the drive for improvement into all of our activities and not keep any areas outside of it. This meant that we put a premium on flexibility. We didn't want a consultant with a turnkey solution. To CHEMCENTRAL's executive management, a certificate was less important than a system that improved quality and produced bottom-line results.

"We also looked for people with knowledge of the chemical industry and chemical distribution because QS-9000's complaint procedures would have to reflect our nonmanufacturing distribution environment. We also required a consulting group that could coordinate their and our efforts with the registrar so that everyone would work from the same page."

During the year, CHEMCENTRAL interviewed each consulting group under consideration five or six times. Toward the end of this process, it narrowed the field to three. To make the final decision, the company asked each consulting group to perform a gap analysis that showed the gaps between CHEMCENTRAL's quality system and the QS-9000 system it wanted.

"We observed the consultants in action," relates Jaggers. "We watched their communication with our people. Some people were autocratic, domineering and, in many cases, didn't communicate well.

"The decision was made by our local people. We had a meeting with our general managers and headquarters and branch staff that had undergone the gap analysis. They shared their experiences and then made the call."

So far, the process has been a success. Corporate headquarters and four sites have been registered. Four more sites will be registered by June 1999; five have been targeted to begin the process in July. The long-term goal is to have all sites registered where it makes economic and business sense to do so.

First principles

The stories of Webb Chemical and CHEMCENTRAL illustrate how important the selection of a consulting group can be. Although their experiences don't reflect that of all organizations selecting a consultant, they do raise many important issues.

Organizations should consider the following when implementing a QMS:

Qdbullet Know yourself. Both Webb Chemical and CHEMCENTRAL studied themselves and the current quality system standards and processes that might apply to their situations. They thought long and hard about their philosophy, principles and needs, and the needs of their industry. This knowledge enabled CHEMCENTRAL to implement a multisite quality program that is already paying for itself. It enabled Webb Chemical, after an initial false step, to quickly get back on a productive path.

Qdbullet Take ownership. Many organizations, especially those that have been pressured or required to embrace ISO 9000 or QS-9000, tend to look upon it as a necessary evil. They are tempted to seek a consultant with quick and easy solutions. With such a system, an organization might get past the registrar once, but it's questionable whether it could survive continuing surveillance audits or improve the bottom line.

Qdbullet Stay efficient and effective. When investing in a piece of technology or a production system, an organization looks for the most effective product that will also be the most efficient. The same should apply to implementing a quality management system, whether based on ISO 9000, QS-9000 or another standard.

On the one hand, the fully implemented system should improve operations and revenues. On the other, system implementation should cause minimum disruption to operations, build on existing processes where possible and cost the least.

Qdbullet Be flexible. Webb Chemical and CHEMCENTRAL agree that it's important to find a consultant with experience in the organization's industry and, if possible, with its type of business, whether that's distribution, manufacturing or service.

However, they also emphasize the importance of flexibility. Webb Chemical's original consultant couldn't adapt to a nonmanufacturing environment; CHEMCENTRAL needed a consultant that could adapt QS-9000 to a distribution context and its own system, for which the standard had not been originally designed.

Flexibility was critical in both cases. To some extent, it's a factor in every situation because every company presents new challenges and new problems. Flexibility is also important in working with registrars because they need to accept all the client's and consultant's adaptations.

Consultants that are flexible tend to have experience in many industries and across different types and sizes of business. They will have worked with a number of different quality standards in a variety of contexts. A strong point is if they also are ISO 9000-registered; that's a sign that they "walk the talk" and can apply ISO 9000 in a service industry context as well as in other areas.

The ideal relationship between a consulting group and client is a partnership. It often begins with the consultant as a "senior" partner. As it progresses, the client becomes increasingly strong as the consultant moves into the background. Eventually, the consulting organization has worked itself out of a job.

About the author

Clyde Pearch is president and CEO of Eagle Group USA Inc., a consulting and training company based in Troy, Michigan. E-mail him at cpearch@qualitydigest.com .

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