Mailbag: Deeply Disappointed in ISO Attacks

May 1, 2003
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Dear Editor,

Your siren's call for the silent majority of ISO 9000 supporters to speak out has gripped my fingers with a compulsion to write my first letter to a trade magazine. During my 30 plus years as a technician, engineer and manager in industry I have resisted this frivolity but no longer can. I am deeply disappointed by the attacks on ISO 9000 coming from within the quality community, the primary gist of which seems to be that the standard is nothing more than an exercise in excessive documentation. The assertions often also say that the standard does not adequately foster innovation and customer satisfaction. This is an argument that attempts to shift the responsibility of individuals and the organizations they control to a few words on paper -- like blaming one's speeding ticket on the title to the car.

The fact is, every one of the 20 elements of the 1994 version and all five sections of the 2000 version confront the basic tendency toward chaos and dysfunction that exists in every organization. These tendencies toward dissolution arise from human nature itself, from our tendency to seek immediate gratification, to avoid looming discomfort, to unconsciously color and distort our memories, to bias our thinking toward what is familiar and toward what is our own. A constant commitment of time, money, material and interest is necessary for simple maintenance of the status quo, much more if the organization is to grow and improve in our modern market economy. It is a world where organizations are, without warning or predictability, bought, sold, downsized, added to, broken apart, fused together and in every other way constantly manipulated by people who are not involved in and have no understanding of the processes they are affecting. Often these changes involve profound challenges to the maintenance of process integrity. This is particularity true since these changes usually involve changes in staffing. The expertise of individual brains is then lost. When this occurs, the only efficient source of process information left is -- guess what -- DOCUMENTATION! All organizations are comprised of information and people first and foremost -- severe losses to either and the organization that remains ceases to operate effectively.

The principles incorporated into ISO 9000 comprise the internationally recognized basis for operating a business system. It invites the addition of other, more detailed and proscriptive systems or of less formal quality management procedures. Numerous other standards specific to the interests of particular industries recognize this by incorporating ISO 9000 word-for-word.

ISO 9000 explicitly states that the complexity and detail of documentation should be commensurate with the complexity and size of the organization. As with all human endeavors, there are some who will miss the point and go hog-wild, and there are others who will miss the point and do it only for show. Getting the point means taking the standard seriously while at the same time adjusting its provisions to the peculiarities of the business. Following the spirit closely and the letter loosely is what is called for.

The standard asks the organization to make a verifiable commitment to follow three simple rules:

Do what you say.

Say what you do.

Make it work.

The method of "saying" (documentation) can take any form of preserving knowledge that is sustainable (paper print, electronic print, photos, drawings, graphics, optical systems preserved specimens, stone tablets, etc.). What you "do" is to make a product and/or provide a service consumed by customers or clients. It "works" when your customers or clients continue to use what you offer. This is the spirit of ISO 9000.

I think it is ludicrous that people will reject a concept that simply asks them to build systems of their own choosing to address the inevitable failings of human nature. The desire to innovate, to satisfy one's customers and to win in the marketplace all stem from human nature as well. But, these critically important drives cannot grow in soil lacking the nutrition of conscious and explicit process control.

John H. Taylor
Saint-Gobain Universal Abrasives Inc.
Bensenville, IL

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