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ISO 9000 -- A Contrary Viewpoint

by Norman J. Smallwood
The Core Team ®

Does ISO 9000 really contribute to product quality? Or, is it a government and special interest group intrusion into the conduct of private business?

The purpose of this article is to give another perspective on ISO 9000 -- the origin, application, promotion, and outcomes. Draw your conclusions on and make your decision about utilizing ISO 9000 with insights from "the rest of the story."

On a recent flight from New York to Athens, I met a senior executive with a Fortune 500 company that is recognized as the quality leader in its respective product line. In our discussion of several matters, quality systems and product quality were included. The executive commented that his company had recently acquired several European businesses that were ISO 9000 certified, but the product quality of these units was very disappointing. Further he remarked, "We don't engage in all of these highly-publicized quality programs -- our success is achieved by just focusing on quality."

In my own experience, I was recently asked by a major business located outside of the U.S. to help resolve a significant product quality problem. Upon arriving at the site, I was met by an unusually large quality control staff who first wanted to tell me about their ISO 9000 certification and their rigorous compliance to ISO 9000 standards. The cause of the quality problem was actually revealed in the initial discussion. The focus in this business was on the quality system, not on product quality.

Several years ago, I was asked by a U.S. client about the merits of ISO 9000 certification. My knowledge of the system at the time was limited to the promotional literature and rhetoric. Accordingly, I informed the client that I was not in a position to advise, but that I would become knowledgeable and then give my conclusions. Shortly thereafter, I attended an ISO 9000 seminar. After hearing about 10 minutes of seminar presentation, I experienced an "ah ha." Quite surprised, I realized that in fact I was completely knowledgeable and experienced with ISO 9000, but under a different name -- Procter & Gamble (P&G) Manufacturing Standards. ISO 9001 is essentially an exact replication of P&G's Manufacturing Standards system.

When the United States entered WW II, the War Department (forerunner to the Defense Department) was created to conduct the war efforts including the conversion of industry from producing commercial and consumer products to producing war materiel. Procter & Gamble and other leading companies were asked by the government to contribute their management talent to direct the War Department's materiel production activity. Consequently, the management methods being used by these companies were brought to, adapted for, and used by the War Department. P&G's significant contribution to the war effort is well documented in the books It Floats and Eyes on Tomorrow. The appointment of P&G CEO and Chairman Neil H. McElroy as Defense Secretary during the Eisenhower Administration is testimony to President Eisenhower's personal knowledge of and respect for P&G's WW II assistance.

Developed and implemented prior to WWII, P&G's quality system was used by the War Department during WW II and applied to the NATO military materiel production after WWII to achieve product uniformity. Subsequently, the NATO system was adopted by the International Organization of Standards based in Geneva, Switzerland as the basis for ISO 9000 (1). The British Government took a lead role during the Thatcher Administration to encourage ISO 9000 application in the private sector. In 1993, the European Community (EC/EU) officially embraced the quality system.

The U.S. Government has never intruded into the private sector quality system realm other than in areas involving public safety and health and the Baldridge Quality Award. Quality system content and application have been a matter of individual enterprise choice driven by the marketplace. The EU marketplace is now committed to the ISO 9000 quality system; thus, to successfully conduct business in that marketplace, certification and compliance is practically mandatory.

In the October, 1996 issue of INFORM, John Surak gave a clear and concise description of the ISO 9000 content and certification process. No further elaboration is needed in this article other than to emphasize the key attributes.

ISO 9000 is a process standard for planning, controlling, and documenting activities affecting product and/or service quality. From my P&G Manufacturing Standards exposure, I am both a believer and practitioner of the system principles. The product quality track record we established following these principles has been second to none.

But, I have serious reservations about any government mandated quality system and a quality system that requires certification by external agents. In the long term, such a system can and, from a historical perspective, will likely deteriorate into a bureaucratic morass, become an impediment to competition, and lead to wholesale mediocrity. In the food processing industry, the U.S. has achieved the most diverse, most plentiful, highest quality, lowest cost, and safest product line in the world. It has been accomplished by highly-competitive free enterprise without any mandated quality system other than FDA and USDA regulations.

ISO 9000 covers the essential needs to produce a quality product and/or service, is logical, and is quite simple. Companies who are earnest about utilizing ISO 9000 are perfectly capable of unaided installation and maintenance of the system. If that capability does not exist, then the system will not be robust and of any significant value. Use of outside resources, in my opinion, adds little value other than obtaining certification if that is needed for your specific marketplace. In most cases, certifiers are not available who have sound technical knowledge of and operating experience with your particular business. To gain real value from the certification process, the certifier should have those credentials.

While the quality system employed is important, actual product and service quality are determined by the competence of the total organization. Being ISO 9000 certified does not and is not likely to ever denote organization competence. Thus, the claim that ISO 9000 certification reflects the likelihood of high-quality output is, in my view, invalid. The proof is in the product and/or service actually delivered.

What determines organization competence? Vision, wisdom (knowledge integrated with experience), integrity, discipline, and open, timely communication are, in my opinion, the vital determinants of competence. These attributes cannot be certified. They can only be demonstrated by actual performance.

While ISO 9000 (P&G Mfg. Stds.) is a sound quality system, it should not be viewed as the only possibility or the best possibility. What contributes to progress and success is the freedom to innovate, choose, and change -- an open system. Mandated ISO 9000 closes the system. Changing the ISO 9000 standards is undoubtedly an arduous task -- much of the world is involved. Anyone familiar with the revision process for FAO CODEX Alimentarius Commission standards can understand the problem of making change at the world level.

Whether it is the quality system, management system, or any other system, capable management charts their own unique course. Promising new ideas are originated and/or recognized, evaluated, and integrated into the existing systems as appropriate. Capable management has the wisdom to comprehend that there are no panaceas and does not dive headlong into each new fad that comes along. Too often, quality systems are applied as another bureaucratic layer over organization structures that are already excessively multilayered, compartmentalized, and bureaucratic (2). In such an operating environment, the sound quality concepts are lost or seriously diluted. The recent TQM (total quality management) fad is a good example.

For businesses involved in international trade, ISO 9000 certification may be required by some customers or in some marketplaces. Fortunately, in the case of the U.S. marketplace, there is for the most part still freedom to choose.

In Europe, government mandated quality systems were strongly promoted by quasi-private groups with close government ties. These special interest groups had a vested interest in providing the ISO 9000 certification services once the mandate was established. For the past few years, these European groups have become allied with similar groups in the U.S. to promote ISO 9000 certification. Furthermore, they can be expected to lobby the U.S. government for mandating ISO 9000. If you share my views, make your voice heard by the politicians that this would be a counterproductive action.

In the ISO 9000 literature and rhetoric, there is much emphasis about the value of the system to bring about harmony. Harmony between customer and supplier is certainly the goal. Customer-supplier harmony can be achieved through any sound quality system. From my perspective, there is disadvantage in harmonizing the quality systems of competitive suppliers. I want the freedom to continually work on developing a superior quality system that will enable me to harmonize with my customers better than my competition -- like P&G had the freedom to develop the Manufacturing Standards quality system and gain a competitive advantage over sixty years ago. This point is eloquently articulated in Freeman Dyson's ideas about diversity (3): Diversity is the greatest gift ---. The preservation and fostering of diversity is the great goal which I would like to see embodied in our ethical principles and in our political actions.


1. Johnson, P.L, ISO 9000 -- Meeting the New International Standards, McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, 1993.

2. Smallwood, N.J., Quality Management Systems, unpublished paper for clients, 1994.

3. Dyson, Freeman, Infinite in All Directions, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1988.

Note : This paper was published as a commentary article in the American Oil Chemists' Society magazine, INFORM (February, 1997, vol. 6, no. 2).

© 1996 The Core Team ® ISO 9000-Contrary Viewpoint

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