ISO, why you shouldn’t bother with it, but you have to

I thought I would get right in there with only my second post and if anyone actually ever reads this, upset some people. Mostly I want to upset 2 groups of people firstly ISO themselves and anyone who works in the ISO certification process and secondly, anyone who actually takes their ISO certificate seriously. Let me explain.

As a principal of continuous improvement ISO 9001 is great, all the features you need to create a quality management system that demands systematic measurable improvements are there. It is written right there in the documentation. I know this because I read it and when I read it I was impressed. Honestly and deeply. The same goes for the ISO 14001 requirements. ISO have obviously (and as you would absolutely expect) spent a lot of time thinking and structuring a set of standards that are applicable across many sectors, industries etc. Great you might think, here then I have in front of me a global standard which when I am certified to people will know I take quality and the environment seriously. Wrong.

The idea as I said is great, in practice it never works. Why? Well the certification process is a bit of a farce to be honest but that is the least of it. You pay a company to come and certify you… if you don’t get your certificate, what are you paying them for? Insulting your company? No. You will get the certificate no matter how little you care or your motivations for getting certified. And that is the core of the problem for ISO. Most businesses do not care in the least about continuously improving or in fact quality itself. They care about making money! Selling their products. In b2b industries where manufacturing is concerned ISO certification is a requirement to become a supplier in most contracts. No ISO certificate, no business.

Before giving more examples let me reflect on a supplier we had once in China. I visited this supplier to perform a quality audit based on our own companies audit system. At the entrance to the door I noticed that it said ISO 9001 certified under the name of the company. This was in the day when ISO certificates were not common in China. During the audit, I casually asked how long they had had their ISO certificate, the answer shocked me “Oh, we have our first assessment next week, we haven’t been certified yet.” I failed them on their audit not for lying about the ISO certificate but for being absolutely rubbish. How the ISO assessors can sleep at night after awarding them a Quality certificate I will never know.

But you need it. You need it to be in business with your customers. We require it from our suppliers but we don’t (or rather I say shouldn’t) assess against it. We have a stricter more advanced framework we like to apply which has a lot more detail to support suppliers in developing themselves better.

So, what should you do if you want to improve and need ISO? Well don’t do what some companies do and have two systems one paper system for ISO certification and then one real system that you use daily. That’s pointless. I will go into more detail on how to manage this situation in a future post. The key takeaway I want you to get from this post is don’t be disheartened get ISO certification because you want a badge of continuous improvement not because you want to sell more stuff!

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