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What’s the Value of ISO 9001? January 25, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Quality, strategy.
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Earlier tonight I called in to listen to a presentation given at my local American Society of Quality (ASQ) chapter meeting about some of the changes in the ISO 9001 specification in the new 2015 version. I thought the speaker did a great job. He’s a consultant who makes his living helping companies become ISO 9001 certified and preparing for audits. He highlighted the differences in the new version of ISO 9001, and provided some useful tips about how to prepare for the updated requirements.

I don’t think he intended to do this, but he also made me question the purpose of ISO 9001 certification, and specifically whether it’s worth the time and money and effort.

It might surprise some people to learn that ISO 9001 certification does not require proof that the company actually produces quality products or services. It means that the company has documented processes that govern their design and delivery of products and services, and that the company can produce evidence that the processes are being followed. It means that “you document what you do, and you do what you document.”

From what I can tell, there’s no judgment about whether those documented processes are indeed capable of producing quality, if they are used correctly. The implication seems to be that if business processes are consistently followed, variability will be reduced, and any reduction in variability must lead to an improvement in quality.

There’s some logic to that. I would agree that in most cases humans are the biggest source of variability, and we would eliminate many sources of error if we could just get everyone to follow directions and stop cutting corners.

But, as any trained quality engineer knows, there’s a difference between eliminating special causes to establish process control, and changing the performance of the process to establish process capability. A process that’s in-control and subject only to common causes may still fail to deliver the required level of quality performance.

ISO 9001 certification seems to be a necessity in order to do business today. Several years ago I saw a car repair shop outside Bangalore in a broken down building with a hand-printed sign advertising their ISO status. I’m not sure that public consumers care much about ISO 9001, but I don’t think a supplier can survive without certification. But, what does it really mean? It’s not enough. We must insist on more from our suppliers.

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