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Giacomo Elias:
A Conversation with
ISO's New President

by Virginia Shuey Vergani

We look upon ISO regulations as an
instrument for social development.

Delving into Giacomo Elias'  background, you feel the word is a misnomer. It's more like "frontground" because he is still actively engaged in many of the activities that fueled his rise to the top spot as president of ISO.

A mechanical engineer, Elias has been a physics professor at the University of Milan since 1975, spent a year as visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1985 and has served as president of UNI, the Italian standards organization, since 1985. He is also vice president of SINAL, the Italian national system for laboratory accreditation and a member of the boards of directors of Banca del Monte of Lombardy, the CEI (Italian Electrotechnical Committee), Quaser (a certifying body for the service sector) and Balzaretti (the Saint Gobain-Corning Glass group).

Author of more than 100 publications of a scientific and technical nature (and formerly the editor-in-chief of Engineers' Journal), he is also a registered journalist and speaks Italian, French, English, Spanish and German.


QD: Professor Elias, you have said that, as incoming president of the ISO, you're going to work hand-in-glove with the World Trade Organization to "mold a new concept of the quality of life, work, products and services, so that ISO norms will be an ever-closer friend of both companies and consumers."

Elias: Three years in a presidency is an absurdly short time to get things done. Current methods for producing norms are too slow and extremely expensive. You take a year to pass a regulation at the national level, five years to put it through at the European level and eight to get it accepted by the world.

People stay home from the meetings in droves because they can't afford to make the trip from Sicily -- or Bolivia -- to Milan. So the answer, of course, is the Internet. We at UNI have a big contract with the European Community to supply them with procedures I have invented for getting a regulation from the proposal stage to passage in a twinkling, and I hope to export them all over the world.


QD: What do you see as the major responsibilities of your new office?

Elias: Beefing up the contribution ISO has always made to the development of world trade and the growth of developing countries. An inordinate number of "developed" countries, engaged in activities that contaminate the environment, have moved these activities to countries where the farthest thing from their minds is the problem of pollution. Another reason for the mass transfer is the availability of cheap labor and, yes, child labor. ISO is bending over backward to spread the culture of reverence for life and the environment in India, Bolivia, Indonesia, etc., to head off the gruesome consequences of turning a blind eye to these abuses. We look upon ISO regulations as an instrument for social development.


QD: As the president of ISO, what do you plan to make your priority issues?

Elias: First, to strengthen ISO's relationship with each and every world organization that has anything to do with developing world trade. Second, to make the creation of regulations as fast and cheap as possible, thus making them accessible to all nations.


QD: As president of UNI, you are a leader in the effort to encourage quality standards in Italy. What did you believe quality stand-ads could do for Italy, and have your expectations been realized? Have ISO 9000 standards helped business in the European Union?

Elias: This mechanism of the quality standard is one of the fundamental ingredients in the policy of the European Community, which is targeted at opening a single European market. Everybody thinks that a technical regulation is a technical document. But, in reality, it's an economic document because it's tied to a contract between two parties. If the rule is too academic or too scientific and can't be understood by everyone, it's a flop.

As president of UNI, I am very satisfied with what quality standards are doing for Italy. Companies make their moves on the European market while fully respecting European Community rules. The process of getting ISO 9000 certification has enabled them to become far better organized, hence far more competitive.

As far as ISO 9000 helping business in the European Union, you must remember that it's a long process that involves a change in attitude. You can't expect the results, after 10 years of application of ISO 9000 norms, to be complete. It may take another 10 years.


QD: Some people have suggested that the quality revolution is slowing down. What do you think?

Elias: It is not a revolution. It's evolution and, as such, must pass through various evolutionary stages, each of which proceeds at its own pace.


QD: What issues do you see as being important to the international quality community in the 21st century?

Elias: The greatest challenge facing us is to get into one regulatory package everything concerning quality, the environment, work safety and the rational use of resources -- both human and otherwise -- all keynoted to a single philosophy.


QD: ISO 9000 is scheduled to be revised in the year 2000. What do you see as the future of ISO 9000:2000?

Elias: I'm convinced that technical norms are perpetually subject to revision. Applying ISO 9000 norms, for example, has always resulted in nonstop improvement in companies. The important thing is not to get too far ahead of the company's cultural level, so that, in our zeal for revision, we make it impossible for them to apply ISO 9000 norms.


QD: How will industry-specific standards affect the future of ISO 9000?

Elias: These sectorial standards are nothing but an application of ISO 9000 to certain manufacturing sectors. The beauty of ISO 9000 norms is that they are so general -- so universal -- in nature that anyone can use them, from a grocer all the way up to the management of General Motors. Of course, both the grocer and GM interpret the norms according to their specific needs, which is where regulations like QS-9000 and AS9000 come into the picture.


QD: There has been a great deal of speculation regarding the future of QS-9000. It has been rumored that ISO and the Big Three cannot agree on the Big Three's inclusion of ISO 9000 in the next revision of QS-9000. What's the status of ISO 9000 and QS-9000?

Elias: I can only speak for ISO 9000: If anything in either QS-9000 or AS9000  can improve on ISO 9000, we are all for it. Of course, specific parts of QS-9000, which only concern the automotive industry, cannot be included because we would then have to include all the specific parts of all the world's industries, thus ruining the universally applicable character of ISO 9000.


QD: How do you view the future of ISO 14000? Do you think the standard will be as far-reaching as ISO 9000? Is it needed in developed countries with strong environmental laws such as Western Europe and the United States?

Elias: The future of ISO 14000 is very bright because all countries -- even those with strong environmental laws -- are taking it very seriously. It is spreading like wildfire and will probably be added to ISO 9000. A committee is working on that right now.

But the number of companies certified to ISO 9000 has surpassed 120,000, and ISO 14000 certifications are increasing. This may mean that, in the future, companies may have to get certified first for quality, then the environment, then safety, then energy saving and so on, with no end in sight. As ISO president, I intend to get all these aspects of corporate management under the roof of a single norm, so that a company can handle them all with a single certificate. I think I can get this done in five years. In fact, you can bet on it.

As for the third part of your question, the confusion of terms like law and regulation is one of the biggest misunderstandings that we must contend with. At one of our last congresses, for example, someone proposed creating an ISO norm regarding safety, and it was voted down because everyone said it was a legal matter. This was a big mistake because safety in the workplace may be a legal issue, but it's the job of a technical norm like ISO 9000 to tell companies how to apply the law. ISO 9000 doesn't tell companies how to get -- and keep -- a budget in the black, nor does it tell them how to make a product. It tells them how to behave in order to be successful.


QD: Are there any new standards on the horizon that will affect the quality community as profoundly as ISO 9000 has?

Elias: There will be plenty of revisions of ISO 9000 norms to adapt them as closely as possible to the evolution of the situation, but I see no reason why they should be replaced by new ones.


About the author

Virginia Shuey Vergani writes for a number of Italian and American publications, and is a regular contributor to The Informed Outlook.


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