In each of the three cases we find evidence of ISO 9000 registration damaging organisation performance. In the first case the damage was palpable. In the second and third it is pertinent to note how they were ‘moving away’ from the worst aspects of the Standard. By implication, these activities had caused sub-optimisation. And worse, the work associated with the Standard blinded the managers to the real opportunities to improve quality and productivity.
In every case it was observed that third parties (assessors or consultants) were responsible for leading the organisations to act in ways which undermined performance. Furthermore, in every case registration to ISO 9000 involved considerable time and resources.
If the best that can be said for ISO 9000 is that it has features which organisations learn to move away from, it would serve organisations well to move away from it quickly.
To satisfy ourselves of any causal relationship we need an underlying theory that explains (and thus predicts) what will happen. The ethos of ISO 9000 is one of control. Control of work through adherence to procedures; the establishment of procedures which are assumed to affect quality of output; and control through the use of internal and third-party audits. It is an ethos which was established in the first Standards in response to a crisis. It is an ethos which may have solved the problem of its time but which now has become a problem itself.
The quarantine procedure discussed in case 1 illustrates how the control ethos leads to ‘just in case’ controls. The same thread is found in the other cases, it is assumed, a priori, that documentation and control of people’s behaviour in procedures will ‘prevent’ problems. Yet there is no evidence to support this view. However, such a focus leads to people behaving in ways which value procedures over purpose (whether they like it or not). It is easy to see how registration can lead to demoralisation and nil learning.
We would argue that ISO 9000 is a step in the wrong direction, not a first step on the road to becoming a quality organisation (as is so often argued). Any of these three cases could have made great strides in improving quality and improved performance in a much shorter time. ISO 9000 registration blinded them to their opportunities and, what’s worse it led people to assume they had ‘done quality’ when nothing could be further from the truth.
Are these cases unusual or unrepresentative? Not in our experience. As we stated at the outset, every organisation we have worked in which is registered to ISO 9000 shows evidence of activity which is damaging economic performance and is present because of the perceived requirements of the Standard. We have yet to find an organisation which is registered to ISO 9000 which does not show such evidence. Given the nature of the thinking (about control), one would predict that any organisation registered to ISO 9000 would have evidence of sub-optimisation, through the establishment of inappropriate activity (‘doing things right’, according to the Standard) and/or through lost opportunity (not doing the ‘right thing’, according to the needs of customers and the business).
To those who would claim that these cases are unrepresentative, we would ask: How many cases do we need to study to confirm or deny the proposition that ISO 9000 is damaging economic performance? In other words, how many more cases like the three reported here would be necessary to establish that we have a serious problem? We are confident that these cases are representative of the experience of registering to ISO 9000 (indeed we have discussed these observations with hundreds of managers and have yet to find one who is a keen supporter of the Standard – the support comes from those who make a living from it). We would argue that ISO 9000 registration predictably leads to the types of consequences reported here, because of its inherent theory of quality.
If UK plc were a quality organisation and its product the quality Standard, on the basis of what we know about the impact of this Standard, we would ‘stop production’ now.