Why ISO should be on your radar
A fundamental role of public-sector procurement is selecting vendors and contractors that will deliver quality, reliability and integrity. In today’s unpredictable and dynamic marketplace, ISO 9001 certification is one way to help ensure that vendors possess such characteristics—and more.
While adoption of ISO 9001 is growing steadily, there are many who question its efficacy outside the manufacturing arena. These naysayers view the standard as inappropriate or of limited applicability to government operations. Their view sometimes is fueled by the misconception that the ISO 9000 family of standards has failed as an approach to quality management.
The belief that ISO 9001 primarily is an industrial standard is understandable, given that the International Organization for Standardization (which took the name “ISO” from the Greek word “isos,” meaning “equal”) was formed to develop and promote common industrial standards worldwide. However, unlike the majority of ISO standards, ISO 9001 is, in fact, a generic standard, applicable to any industry and to any type of organization—whether the organization is a business, nonprofit or government agency.
Simply put, ISO 9001 is based on a systematic, process-driven approach and strives to control and improve results in all types of organizations.
U.S. ranked sixth in certifications
Because ISO standards first took root in Europe, it’s easy to see why perceptions linger that ISO isn’t relevant in the United States. In truth, as of December 2005, ISO 9001 had been adopted by 161 countries/economies, to the tune of 776,608 certifications (according to an ISO survey of certifying organizations). As of December 2005, the United States ranked sixth worldwide in certificates (44,270—nearly quadruple the number reported just four years earlier).
Five of the top 10 countries by ISO certificate volume are not European. China is No. 1, while Japan is No. 3. The global trade implications, as well as the fact that ISO 9001 is increasingly a requirement for federal suppliers and contractors, are driving U.S. adoption.
ISO 9001 is not new in the federal arena. In 1997, the General Services Administration’s Office of Property Management—with a $1.5 billion budget at the time—claimed to be the first federal agency to become ISO 9000-certified. NASA and the Department of Defense both have cited ISO certification as an important means of improving quality and reducing the federal burden in quality system oversight.
In October 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration claimed bragging rights as the largest federal organization to achieve ISO 9001 certification (with national and international sites comprising nearly 6,500 employees). And the Small Business Administration Web site includes a link for ISO 9001 resources.
Quality—or just standardization?
Critics sometimes claim that ISO 9001 helps organizations consistently produce low quality. It’s true that ISO 9001 doesn’t ensure product quality. However, it does provide a systematic quality management framework, and it is grounded in eight principles that are common to effective quality approaches:
- Customer focus.
- Involvement of people.
- Process approach.
- System approach to management.
- Continual improvement.
- Factual approach to decision making.
- Mutually beneficial supplier relationships.
Like any quality framework or management tool, how ISO 9001 is applied is at least as important as the approach itself. Stellar blueprints don’t ensure a well-constructed building, and the world’s best wrench set doesn’t make a worker a master plumber. Many perceived ISO 9001 failures can be attributed to organizations that adopt the standard with a focus on marketability rather than on achieving quality, and to poor implementation of the resulting quality systems.
The keys to successful ISO 9001 execution are strategies that are common to other effective quality approaches. The foremost requirement is strong and sustained leadership commitment. Any organization achieving certification will need to make continuous quality investments in employee training, process review and refinement, and in frequent and meaningful customer evaluation and feedback.
Also, it’s essential to engage workers at every level, with more than pro forma ISO 9001 training. In numerous organizations, a well-implemented quality initiative energizes workers. Perhaps this is because a quality focus reinforces the importance of their roles, and affords opportunities for training and professional growth. Perhaps it’s because internal assessments and client evaluation are a form of direct attention and positive feedback. Also, it’s likely that a meaningful quality initiative is something that workers will view with pride—a means of professionalizing their work.
A final tactic for implementing ISO 9001 or any other quality strategy is to tie quality assessment and benchmarks to corporate and employee rewards. SoBran, for example, has a number of government contracts in which client performance evaluations directly dictate the incentive fee amount. In turn, this distributes the incentive fee to the employees who support each contract. The result is consistent increases in our evaluation scores and customer satisfaction.
ISO 9001 benefits
Companies that make effective use of ISO often cite improved quality in deliverables, reduced cost of production and shorter cycle times thanks to improved processes and higher efficiency. The benefits are similar whether the organization is focused on products or services. For service providers, this means improved employee morale, greater productivity and increased quality of service.
Many federal contracts are extremely demanding, in some cases with zero tolerance for errors. On a daily basis, engaging workers in a companywide quality initiative improves the performance of critical but sometimes tedious and repetitive tasks. For government programs, these effects equate to better ROI, faster results and improved quality, as well as heightened contractor responsiveness and ability to respond quickly to evolving requirements.
Independent research supports these anecdotal reports. For example, a 2001 Universidad del Valle de Atemajac survey of 711 Mexican government institutions that implemented ISO 9000 found that 77 percent achieved significant improvements in delivery time, productivity and customer satisfaction. If the approach can yield significant improvements in a challenging government environment, it speaks well to its efficacy among government contractors that enjoy far greater flexibility and adaptability in their management approach and quality system execution.
Another significant benefit often cited is how the standard frees government agencies and departments from providing oversight of contractor quality systems (or from telling industry how to do its job). ISO 9001 allows government agencies to focus on defining requirements and specifications—one of the central challenges in federal procurement—while freeing contractors to make optimal use of best practices.
In this age of information, government administrators no longer can rely on the command-and-control management techniques of the past. Government managers now must allow spontaneous ordering to take effect, and they must allow contractors to make real-time decisions, which enables contractors to react quickly and to maintain government competitive advantages. Above all else, ISO 9001 allows government managers to deliver a quality standard, or commander’s intent, and gives contractors the tools to realize this intent by their own means.
About the author
Matthew Sweatt is a business development professional for SoBran Inc. Sweatt has extensive experience in quality control and is the director of the SoBran SafeMail Center of Excellence. Sweatt has experience in a wide range of management techniques, including the laws of the U.S. Army’s self-organization and transformation. He can be reached at 703-352-9511, ext. 212, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.