Making The Grade

The road to ISO certification is paved with misunderstandings

By Lisa Bergson

I thought MEECO's quality policy -- "Done right or not at all" -- got straight to the point. But it doesn't comply with the requirements for ISO 9001, and neither does MEECO, my 35-person manufacturing company. After a dozen years of fits and starts, MEECO has not even completed the documentation needed for certification by the International Organization for Standardization in Geneva.

We've been hamstrung by employee resistance, ISO's changing requirements, and the cost of ISO implementation. Now, with a bloated software package and a consultant to guide us through it, we may finally be on our way.

ISO certification has come to signify companies with the highest-quality systems and controls. Certified companies must document any process that affects customers or products, then submit to annual outside audits. Most of our vendors, competitors, and customers are ISO-certified. Since we're not, we're often asked to complete lengthy forms detailing our commitment to quality.

It's not just competitive pressure pushing us toward ISO. When I took over MEECO in 1983, there were no records. Whole processes stored in my ailing father's brain had been lost. I've been a nut for procedures ever since.

In 2003 we reignited our efforts to become ISO certified, purchasing software designed to guide us through the ISO application process. Our director of engineering liked it, but he was about the only one who seemed to understand it. Our quality-control manager was making progress on it, but he left MEECO last year.

The turning point came in December, 2004, when we enlisted help from the system's sole consultant, Perrin Black, after a year in which we had been unable to afford her. She quickly quashed my quality policy. "You must include customer satisfaction and continual improvement in the statement," insisted the tight-lipped, fast-talking consultant. "That's part of ISO 9001 issued in 2000."

I saw little smiles play on my engineers' faces. To them, implementation had seemed like a lot of work for negligible reward. At ISO-certified companies, any change in procedure generates a new round of paperwork. "All of a sudden, everyone has to sign off on everything," carped one engineer, previously employed by an ISO recipient. "In the end everyone ignores it so they can get stuff done. What good is that?" Now, with Black insisting on "continual improvement," ISO was beginning to make sense to them.

Black charged ahead, approving my revision of our quality policy: "Our mission is to have the most satisfied customers in the instrument industry through continuous improvement." My management team was sold once I added two measurable objectives for the coming year. We would reduce warranty repairs by 25% and increase repeat business by 10%.

Black helped solve another problem, too. Turns out many of the software's redundancies are inventions of an overzealous programmer, not ISO mandates. Our main problem seemed to be that we needed a consultant to follow what the software maker's Web site describes as an "expertly guided, self-directed path."

Now, Black says our documentation is almost 90% complete. What remains are fairly straightforward tasks, such as production job descriptions. Next comes what she calls "the hard part": companywide training, document revision, and control. I'm convinced there's hope. Despite the obstacles, at MEECO and its sister company, Tiger Optics, ISO will be done right once and for all.

Lisa Bergson is president and CEO of both MEECO, a 35-person manufacturer of trace analytical equipment, and its spin-off, Tiger Optics

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