This book was brought to my attention by my friend Willem Top who also refers to it in his own work. I managed to find the book for a mere 2 Dollars on Amazon, so cost shouldn’t stop you reading this critical take on one of world’s most famous (or should I say infamous?) standards. I’ve read the 1997 edition (ISBN 978-1-86076-042-2); there’s also a newer, presumably updated version from 2000 which is only titled “The Case Against ISO 9000” (ISBN 978-1860761737).

The author works as an occupational psychologist, researcher and management consultant and uses some of his (negative) experiences with ISO 9000 and research into the effects of the standard on quality and production in this book. Before we get into the contents we should address a couple of nuances and points of criticism with regard to the book:

  • It deals with effects of the old Standard (1994 version, or even the one before). In the meantime there have been at least two updates and the PDCA cycle has been incorporated in a better way. But much of the criticism stands even after those, especially with regard of the implementation of the Standard.
  • Examples and cases in the book are taken from UK companies. Many of the phenomena discussed in the book I’ve also observed in The Netherlands and Norway, but UK culture (which in my experience is extremely procedure oriented) leaves a distinct mark on the cases.
  • The author has chosen a position and he argues from that position. In several cases he should have made a stronger argumentation or at least have tried for a more balanced and less colored pro/contra discussion (in essence the third Chapter, “In Defence Of The Standard” is NOT true to its title). Several arguments are merely anecdotal and where he could have made a strong case he only scratches the surface. One example of this is when he refers to World Class companies, but never properly explains what these are (from the context I sense that he talks about HROs, even though there is no reference to Weick’s work in the ‘Recommended Reading’ section), what characteristics these have and how these compare to the common ISO 9000 features.
  • Sometimes the book is a bit repetitive, taking up previous arguments once more without really adding to them. Better argumentation or a more balanced view would have been beneficial to resolve this.

To sum up the message of this book in one sentence would boil down to something like that it’s basically a matter of belief, not facts, that ISO 9000 is beneficial for your company and that it has little to do with real quality. In fact, the author is convinced that adopting ISO 9000 leads to sub-optimization and that another direction is necessary if one wants to achieve quality, performance improvements and customer satisfaction. So far no evidence has been delivered that ISO 9000 actually improves quality or performance. At best ISO 9000 can help making business processes more transparent by documenting them (and though this clarification point to obvious opportunities for improvement), but as the various cases in the book show usually the number of procedures, need of documentation and external assessment lead to waste and sub-optimization instead of improvement. There is of course the known saying that “compliance with the Standard does not guarantee product or service guarantee”.

Quality is defined in the mind of the customer who perceives the organization and its services/products as a whole. The contractual point of departure of the Standard is one of opposite and not one of cooperation. Arguments about who is right or treating someone according to a procedure will seldom be perceived as a positive thing by customers, and as the author several times remarks: customers who are not satisfied vote with their feet.

According to the author the philosophy of the Standard is grounded by “quality by inspection” and “command and control”, which makes sense when looking at the origins which was a way of how to prevent bombs from going off during production in the factory during WW2. The solution for the specific problem then is not necessarily the solution to increase quality now, but that’s how the Standard (and BS 5750 before it) has come to rise.

One argument of the book is that ISO 9000 cannot lead to improvement and change because it doesn’t challenge the existing command and control philosophy of managers, but it only confirms it by enforcing the idea that work is to be divided into management (“plan and decide”) and workers (“do”) roles. ISO 9000 takes as point of departure that work should be planned and then controlled according to the plan. Planning for quality sounds plausible, but it assumes many things: that the plan is the right plan; that the plan is feasible; that people will do it and that performance will improve. Paradoxically this approach often leads to poor decisions. It also leads managers to managing (i.e. tampering with) things so that they can meet the plan and their ‘numbers’, creating further sub-optimization, greater variation and a less reliable process. According to the book ISO 9000 prevents organizations taking opportunities to improve performance which they otherwise might have seen. It’s interesting to see that continuous improvement is an element that only came into the ISO 9000 standard after the 1994 update.

The Standard also lures organizations into doing things that do not add value and creates waste by doing two jobs: the work itself and then write about it to document the work so that auditors can do their jobs. The fear of being ‘caught’ during an inspection (assessment, audit) leads to negative effects like going through the moves and actually making more errors, or covering over errors. Also the demand of government and companies that their suppliers have to be ISO certified coerces many companies into something their neither want nor need, but sees them doing whatever it takes (including “buying a quality management system” and cheating) only to fill a demand. The focus of an organization wanting to improve quality and competitive position should be on learning, not be on compliance. Or as it says towards the end of the book: it “leads to people behaving in ways which value procedures over purpose (whether they like it or not)”.

Methods of control implied by the Standard demoralize people - to be told that a third party (because it’s assumed that people generally cannot be trusted to control and improve themselves) is the judge of one’s performance is positively de-motivational, even more when that third party is clearly incompetent and/or uninterested. Also in most cases work procedures are imposed on the workforce - quality is done TO them, instead of WITH them. One correspondent is quoted saying: “If you give someone something to do and there is no value to it, they lose interest in it”. Additional the way procedures are imposed on people may be seen as an affront of their competence or ‘common sense’. To control performance by controlling people’s activity is a poor way to manage.

The Standard encourages managers to think of ‘quality’ and ‘business as usual’ as separate and distinct because it doesn’t include business management and therefore the standard’s requirements are often seen as separate from day-to-day operations of running the business. Thereby quality is seen as something ‘extra’ rather than a different or better way of running a business.

Another interesting observation is that when you set a standard (e.g. by implementing a procedure) without understanding of the current performance you may create problems including when the standard is below current performance then people will slow down to work in accordance to the standard (worsening performance) and when the standard is too high and unachievable in terms of current performance then people will cheat and do whatever is necessary to avoid being ‘caught’ or ‘fail’.

A major part of the criticism is directed to assessors - the quality auditors who audit companies for their certification/registration. These assessors benefit by keeping the ISO 9000 myth alive and their work has a major negative influence on performance because a lot of non-value work is done because of them, like a lot of documentation that is only created to make things traceable and checkable for auditors. What’s even worse is the implicit power that they have and which they can wield after a minimal training and without any real understanding of production, processes or even quality. One important advice from the book is if you really have to do ISO 9000: be careful in what assessor you select and work on your own interpretation of the Standard and do not rely on consultants or assessors.

As the book says: “the whole idea of independent evaluation takes us away from where the focus ought to be, i.e. that WE know how we are doing, that WE can build in methods for improvement and WE can work with our suppliers/customers to continually improve performance. Assessment via a third party is, of itself, a potential barrier to learning and improvement”.

As an alternative for ISO 9000 the author delivers Deming’s way of ‘doing’ quality: by seeing the organization as a system and understanding variation and managing this. ISO 9000 does not do this because the Standard starts from the presumption that it is of value to work to procedures which are documented, showing how work is done and inspected. This may be true in some situations, but not always. ISO 9000 encourages management to believe that adherence to procedures will reduce variation. Instead it often amplifies variation because it neglects to understand what customers want, how the organization is working (what goes on, and why) and what it needs to fulfill the demands of customers. Instead of delivering a prescription (which the Standard does) Deming delivered a way of thinking which leads to learning and improvement. The systems view is important because it looks at the whole and not only at the parts. Improving the parts can make the parts better, but lead to a sub-optimal system for example when the parts meet their goals at expense of each other. This applies also to the cooperation of suppliers and customers as illustrated by the difference between how some Japanese companies were not interested in ISO 9000, but in quality: “efficiencies can be gained by working together, not by the strong coercing the weak”. This alternate approach to quality will also imply that leaders “roll up their sleeves” and get out into the work processes where they can learn how the organization creates value (or can improve).

Just to round up, one interesting observation one can make is that one quite often can replace the word “quality” by “safety” in this book and come to the same conclusion… This is especially true for a remark in the first chapter where the author observes that “criticism was received as an indication that you were not a supporter of the quality movement” which is exactly the same what happens when one tries to challenge a couple of established safety myths like “All accidents are preventable”.

I’d like to close with one more quote from the book that is also often heard in a safety context. It could be elaborated more upon in the book, but I leave it for now just as something to ponder upon and food for thought: “When quality professionals discuss the problems of influencing others (as they see it), they argue that management support is required to overcome people’s intrasignence. It is to compound the same error. To argue that the quality department’s credibility is greater when management support is stronger is to argue no more than “people will behave if they are coerced”. It would be better to focus on why people behave as they do in the current system for, as we have seen, it is usually the system which influences their behavior”.