Little Joy in Saluting This Standard

For our wares to be competitive in Europe, we need ISO quality-control certification. Simple in theory, daunting in practice

By Lisa Bergson

For weeks, I've put off writing a "quality policy statement" for my company. It's required as part of our preparation for ISO 9001:2000, the widely accepted certification for institutional quality systems. "We need it to complete the manual," our quality-control (QC) manager goads me. Writer that I am, I cannot seem to concoct the right words to invoke my two companies' approach to quality. It needs to be strong.

Just yesterday, I once again had to counter my operations director and engineering director, Calvin K. They wanted to reorder from a company that previously shipped us defective parts and tried to cover up. "We can't make our yearend goal unless we use them," my ops guy asserts. "We know how to fix them now." Dimly, I remember the phrase, "avoid rework" from a decades-ago "continuous quality improvement" training session.

"We're not going to buy from them," I say, seated in our library, my late father's photo looming behind me. "It's not only a matter of principle. They've cost us in the marketplace, and our customers expect us to find an alternative."


  Clearly, we need an unambiguous quality initiative. But, ISO may be too value-neutral to suffice. "Say what you do, do what you say," is the ISO mantra. Calvin's team rejects this philosophy, particularly, I might add, the fellow who spec'ed the defective component in the first place. (Call him "Chip".) "Chip finds it disheartening to be bogged down with forms," Calvin told me. "He doesn't believe in procedures if you don't see improvement."

I drop by to talk with Chip, seated in front of his computer. "I've had experience with ISO," he recalls. "We had it for six years at my last job. All it does is create more paperwork and slow down projects. All of a sudden, everyone has to sign off on everything. In the end, everyone ignores it so they can get stuff done. So, what good is it?"

The idea is that employees record all processes, develop measurable results, and submit to interim third-party audits verifying that their outfit does indeed follow said processes. Much as I have always embraced ISO for its potential to promote awareness and, ultimately, process improvement, I also find its implementation painfully stultifying. It can turn employees off, have no doubt. They tend to view these documentation marathons as just one more Dilbert-ian manifestation of management make-work.

Started in Geneva by the International Standards Organization, ISO has become a prerequisite for approvals required to sell into many European markets. We need it. So do most companies. Indeed, employees and management alike frequently see ISO solely as a marketing ploy. To Chip, "The only thing it's good for is opening up markets."


  I can't help feeling a bit jaundiced myself. The examples of quality statements our QC manager gives me are so pompous and vapid: "Everyone at the company is committed to product quality as well as quality throughout the organization. Management supports this policy and is fully committed to providing the organization with all of the necessary resources in order to achieve the goals of the policy, with the overall goal being complete customer satisfaction."

I want to write something that will speak to my people. I've been gratified by the way they're handling our third go-round since 1994. On both prior occasions, finances forced us to stop short of the final audit. (Between the consultants needed to guide you through ISO's ever-changing regulations and the registrar's fees for the preaudit and the certification audit, ISO can run $25,000, easy.) This time, finances be damned, I'm determined to see it through.

"We've completed our part," Borys M., our national sales director tells me, standing in the doorway of my cluttered office. He, too, views ISO, first and foremost, as a means to access Europe. "Otherwise, we're going to lock ourselves out of that market totally. Because we're not ISO-certified, I just had to fill out a 10-page form to get an order."


  When pressed, Borys, who has worked for me for 14 years, does see one other benefit to ISO. "When you have turnover, people get away from the procedures," he notes. "Now, if we get more consistency, it will improve quality."

Today, I stopped into the engineering department to see how Calvin and Chip were doing with the alternative to the faulty component. They were busy retrofitting our instrument to accommodate it. "Will it be done in time to ship this year?" I ask Calvin.

He thought for a minute before verbally calculating how long it will take to get some sheet metal back from the machine shop. "I don't see why not," he concludes, reclining in his swivel chair, yesterday's emergency apparently forgotten. Later, I give my husband an engineering progress report in the kitchen while we're heating up our takeout dinners. Leaning against the microwave, it comes to me: "Done right or not at all."

Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at and, or contact her at

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