Who should lead the ISO 9001 Effort?

by John Sedlak - Vice President, COO

If your organization is already certified to ISO 9001, why did you do it? If you are thinking about or planning to get certified, why are you doing it? Typically I hear three answers to this question (ranked by frequency of response): A) one or more customers required us to be certified (mandates); B) we felt we needed a credential to open doors to new business (competition); C) to make our business more efficient and profitable (improvement).

Another question that solicits varying responses is, “Who is leading the charge for implementing and/or maintaining the ISO 9001 quality management system?” Responses (also ranked by frequency) include 1) the quality manager; 2) an implementation team; 3) the top executive.

The following table looks at these responses with respect to the benefit or results that an ISO 9001 initiative can generate:

What this table suggests is that the maximum benefit to an organization is realized when the top executive leads the effort. Conversely, the benefits are minimized when the quality manager leads the effort. Why do you suppose this is? 
The answer lies in cultural expectations and assumptions. For lots of reasons, mostly based on the way industry developed in our country, the responsibility for “quality” has come to be identified with the quality department, and often simply with the quality manager. To many, this makes sense. After all, if there is a quality issue, and there is a quality manager, shouldn’t he or she be responsible for handling it? And since ISO 9001 is a “quality” management system, surely it makes sense that the quality manager should lead the charge. The problem with this way of thinking is that everyone in the organization affects quality of product or service, not just the quality manager. And when everyone can influence an outcome, the most effective way to assure that it be positive is to have leadership for the process emanate from the top executive.

What does this mean, and how can it be done? To maximize the benefits of an ISO 9001 system, the top executive needs to:

  • Have a passion for the elimination of waste and the realization of improvement on an ongoing basis.
  • Have an understanding that everyone in the organization has an effect on these two areas
  • Recognize that, even though the word “quality” is in the title of ISO 9001, it is really an organization-wide endeavor that will most likely require a change in culture and attitudes.
  • Understand that a business system that is based on the requirements of ISO 9001 will provide benefits well beyond the up front and maintenance cost of certification.
  • Understand that any “improvement” tool (e.g., six sigma, lean manufacturing, Kaizen, SPC) will almost surely fail unless there is a solid foundation upon which to implement the new tool.

Does this mean that the top executive needs to be the leader of the implementation team? No. But it does mean that he or she must clearly demonstrate in their actions and words that the ISO 9001 process is important and that it has his or her full support.

How can a top executive demonstrate this? Here are a few suggestions:

  • At the very start of the implementation process, hold a company-wide meeting (all shifts) and let it be known in very clear terms that he or she is behind the process, what the major action items will be, who will be involved, what is expected of each employee, what is expected as a return on investment, and, perhaps most important, what will be monitored and measured to determine the extent of progress and benefits received. (This last part requires that some pre-implementation investigation be undertaken to determine where the organization ranks now relative to those areas that will be monitored or measured on an ongoing basis.)
  • Provide needed resources to achieve and maintain certification. Of course, the key resource is money, which is used to secure time, facilities, materials, and pay personnel. (Translation: budget for this activity.)
  • Incorporate the concept of quality responsibility among all executive staff members. Let them know that they will be held accountable for each of their areas when it comes to quality of product or service and on-time delivery.
  • Establish real-time measures for quality and on-time delivery. Make these just as real-time as your financial, production and inventory measures.
  • Incorporate quality accountability into all performance reviews and compensations systems.
  • Balance financial incentives associated with price reductions with actual cost reduction. Some examples:
    • Hold purchasing personnel accountable for the quality of purchased product and services, as well as rewarding them for obtaining lower pricing.
    • Hold product design personnel responsible for first-time-through success for all new product launches.
    • Hold process-engineering personnel responsible for developing robust manufacturing process that can be easily maintained.
    • Hold manufacturing personnel responsible for making defect-free product and delivering it on time. Don’t accept that “stuff happens.”
    • Provide those with quality responsibility sufficient authority to be effective. (A person has authority when they are able to make a decision that is binding upon the entire organization.)
    • MBWA: Manage by walking around. See for yourself what is happening. Stop and talk to various personnel in all aspects of the organization’s operations. Be sure to ask about “quality” every chance you get.
    • Hold periodic company-wide meetings (all shifts) at which quality issues and problems are discussed and reviewed.
    • Gain a solid understanding of corrective and preventive actions. Recognize that nonconformances are indications of profit leaks, and need to be systemically corrected. Recognize that preventive actions, including preventive maintenance, save money.
    • Understand that the quality manager is no more to blame for quality problems than the CFO is to blame for profit problems.

This list is, in fact, just a snap shot of the actions that could be taken if the top executive desires to change a culture from one of silo management and blame to one of process responsibility and improvement. If the change starts at the top, it has a very good chance of success. If it starts with the quality manager, it is almost sure to fail. And even if it starts at the top, but sooner or later gets delegated to the quality manager, the chances of success are diminished.

So, if you are a top executive, and you want to maximize your return on investment from ISO 9001 implementation, take a few moments to reflect on what your beliefs are relative to quality. If they are focused on quality responsibility throughout the organization, and you have incorporated this into your thought and action processes, the chances of success are high. However, if you are stuck in the mire of “quality responsibility rests with the quality department”, then you are probably wasting your organization’s money. If you are, re-read the bullet list above, and make as many of the suggested changes as possible. You’ll make more money and you’ll sleep better.

Good luck!