Eliminate ISO 9000?

So I'm driving down the street the other day, and what do I see? Stenciled in huge letters, taking up most of the back side of the 18-wheeler in front of me, are the words: ISO 9001 certified. I had to look hard to even spot the name of the company -- a local paper supplier -- which was written in much smaller letters on the bottom of the truck's back door.

I'm not sure how much it meant to the soccer mom in the minivan next to me. I do know that when businesses start trumpeting their ISO credentials on the company big rigs, it's surely a sign that in the corporate world, at least, the ISO religion is coming of age.

This started me thinking about a conference session I attended at the recent American Quality Congress (AQC) in Denver. The speaker was Scott Dalgleish, vice president of manufacturing at Spectra Logic Corp., a Boulder, CO, maker of robotic computer tape backup systems. Dalgleish, an ASQ certified quality manager who has worked in the quality profession since the late 1980s, is not happy with the direction that the quality movement has taken in recent years. And he sees the ISO 9000 family of standards as the primary negative influence.

Among other things, Dalgleish contends that ISO 9000 misdirects resources to an overabundance of paperwork that does almost nothing to make products better, while fostering complacency among top management and quality professionals alike. The recent conversion to the 2000 version of the standard has only made things worse, he says. While ISO 9000:2000 has almost no effect on how good companies operate, it requires huge amounts of time for document revision that could better be spent on real quality improvement, he believes.

ISO 9000 is not all bad, Dalgleish concedes. It provides a strong framework for a good quality system that has helped many companies. But it also focuses attention on areas that are easiest to audit, while ignoring others where improvement is needed, he thinks. And the standard's yes/no approach provides answers that are often too simple for complex quality questions, he says.

According to Dalgleish, the most dangerous thing about ISO 9000 is the certificate you hang on the wall. It spawns an attitude among top management that "we made it, and the journey is over," which runs counter to continuous improvement.

Dalgleish knows that his opinions are controversial. But by speaking out, he hopes to help spark a quality revolution. And he proposes a solution to the problems he points out. Namely, that if companies need a standard to organize their quality systems, they should eliminate ISO 9000 and substitute the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria. The Baldrige criteria evaluate a company's quality system "based on its level of excellence, vs. the pass/fail criteria of the minimally challenging ISO 9000 standard," he argues.

There's a lot more in Dalgleish's AQC paper, which is available from the American Society for Quality (Milwaukee) as part of this year's conference proceedings. If your company has an ISO certificate hanging in the lobby, I'm sure you've got no plans to take it down. But whether or not you agree, you may find some of Dalgleish's ideas thought provoking. And for now, at least until you read this paper, you may want to postpone that order to stencil ISO 9000 on your company's fleet of trucks.

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