“”World class companies are rejecting mass-production thinking and learning how to manage themselves as systems””

John Seddon, Vanguard Consulting

People say I must be cranky to fight the ISO9000 bandwagon. People say 52,000 UK companies can’t be wrong. But look at why they did it: market-place obligation has driven up the adoption of a way of managing without proof that it is a good or better way of managing. The institutions, consultants and plethora of others who make a living from the standard won’t stop it, but managers will – especially when they learn there is a better way.

My research started because worried managers asked for my advice. In 1993 I conducted the largest ever opinion research, and the results showed we had a problem. I visited five of the minority of companies that claimed excellent results, and I found that this was not the case. In every instance I found evidence of new activity, put in because of the standard, making their performance worse. I have researched individual cases and have found 10 common problems; they add up to what one correspondent described as the biggest con-trick ever to be perpetrated on British management.

1.ISO9000 encourages organisations to act in ways that make things worse for their customers.

Contract Review has been interpreted to make it less easy to do business with organisations. Unnecessary bureaucracy means quotes take longer; just-in-case thinking leads to over-control of service agents. Contract Review may have been a solution for construction suppliers, where the idea started, but as a universal requirement it has caused widespread damage to customers’ perceptions of organisations.

2.Quality by inspection is not quality. Inspection increases errors every time. Quality reduces errors; it is a different philosophy.

3.ISO9000 has the flawed presumption that work is improved by specifying and controlling procedures.

That theory will control output, but that is all. Controlling output is not improving output – that takes different thinking.

4. The typical method of implementation is bound to cause sub-optimisation of performance.

Comparing an organisation to a set of requirements, especially when those requirements are unproven, is the wrong place to start if you want to improve performance.

5.The standard relies too much on people’s, and in particular assessors’, interpretation of quality.

Many will tell you it’s OK if you do it right; but what does right look like? I have looked at more than 50 organisations over the past 10 years and found they all had damage attributable to ISO9000.

6.The standard promotes, encourages, and explicitly demands actions which cause sub-optimisation.

The obvious results are worse customer service and the increased bureaucracy of inspection. Inefficiency and low morale are also common consequences.

7.If people are subjected to external controls, they will be inclined to pay attention only to those things that are affected by the controls.

8.ISO9000 has discouraged managers from learning about the theory of variation. If we had spent the same resources on teaching managers about the theory of variation our quality, productivity and competitive position would improve.

9.ISO9000 has failed to foster good customer-supplier relations.

The message is to get registered, which produces an arms-length, contractual attitude. A manufacturer in Birmingham summed it up: `We supply British and Japanese motor manufacturers. The British insist on ISO9000 and talk to us only if there’s a problem. The Japanese don’t care about ISO9000 and from day one of being a supplier they were working with us in our processes to improve what we were doing for them.’

10. As an intervention, ISO9000 has not encouraged managers to think differently. ISO9000 is just an extension of the command-and-control ethos that 20th-century management has established. World class companies are rejecting mass-production thinking and learning how to manage themselves as systems. It is a better way to run a business.

Sometimes I could throttle the cardigan-wearing types who have wrought havoc in our organisations and have presumed to label it quality. If managers don’t rid themselves of this dreadful disease, an economic jolt will wake them up.

John Seddon is an occupational psychologist and managing director of Vanguard Consulting. His book In Pursuit of Quality: The Case Against ISO9000 (ISBN 1-86076-042-2) will be published on 15 May by Oak Tree Press, price £18.95.