Case against ISO


Faculty of mechanics

Department of industrial enterprises management

Written by Benas Rimša PIVm-3

Vilnius 2003
The history of ISO 9000
In the early 1979, the British Standards Institute published a series of
standards, known as the BS 5750 series, for use by manufacturing companies.
This was based on the more military product-specific NATO manufacturing
standards, although substantially modified for application to Quality
Management systems. This standard was enforced through assessments and
In 1987, the British Standards Institute revised the standard to include
service-providers as well as manufacturing companies. Additional
requirements on internal verification by the c company were added and the
standard was generally clarified and strengthened. In 1988, the BS5750
standard was adopted by ISO without changes and was published
internationally under the ISO 9000 name.
ISO standards are recognized worldwide. In Lithuania, as in many other
countries, a lot of companies seeks recognition according ISO standards
only for prestigious reasons – leaving quality management system control in
the second place. Ironical, but this is what exactly should ISO do – manage
company’s quality system, so it is a big doubt whether these standards
helps in reaching this ai im.

There are ten arguments in the case against ISO 9000: 
1. ISO 9000 encourages organisations to act in ways which make things worse
for their customers
The requirements for documentation are a major feature of the Standard;
they represent the Standard’s view of how one should g

go about checking
whether organisations do as they say they do. The means for improvement
usually lie elsewhere, but the documented system becomes the means for
organisational control. Inspection means independent control of work, the
‘philosophy’ of the standard is grounded in ‘quality by inspection’, but: 
2. Quality by inspection is not quality
Inspection increases errors, adds to costs and decreases morale:
In such circumstances one often finds that the ‘inspecting’ person does not
inspect everything, assuming that the ‘worker’ will have taken
responsibility. Both parties are caught up in the psychology of inspection
– each prone to assuming that the other will be responsible. It is a recipe
for increasing errors. Inspection of any kind always increases errors.
Quality should be designed in.
Rooted in the philosophy of quality by inspection, it encourages managers
to co ontrol their organisations in ways that actually undermine performance
and, paradoxically, damage quality. These methods of control are the reason
behind people’s dissatisfaction; they are methods of control which
demoralise people. 
3. ISO 9000 starts from the flawed presumption that work is best controlled
by specifying and controlling procedures.
This is why you find over-elaborate documentation, people having to do ‘two
jobs’ – do the work then ‘write’ about it. There is an abundance of
documentation that only exists so that an external assessor can do his or
her job. These methods ar
re preventing people making a useful contribution,
making them feel that the value of their contribution is, in whatever way,
defined by procedures. Despite what many managers have been led to believe,
to control performance by controlling people’s activity is a poor way to
manage. It is usually a fast way to sub-optimisation – it makes performance
That organisations inflict such pain and suffering on themselves is itself
a phenomenon important to understand. It is inevitable when the principal
reason for registration is coercion. Managers are fearful about what could
happen if they are not registered. The focus of management activity becomes
‘get registered to ISO 9000’. It is vital to them to avoid the consequences
they fear for not having it. Management, when focused in this way, does not
4. The typical method of implementation is bound to cause sub-optimisation
of performance
It does not start with performance, it starts with a view of the
organisation compared to a set of requirements. It is of course assumed
that the requirements will, when properly interpreted, have a beneficial
impact on performance.
The focus of implementation is to create documentation that enables
monitoring of the defined procedures. It is no surprise that organisations
get into the position where they ignore the documented procedures until
just prior to assessment – when there is an unholy rush t
to ensure
everything is in order for the assessors. And the assessment is often a
torturous experience. People do not like to be ‘caught out’ or controlled;
they like to be in control. To be told that a third party is the judge of
one’s performance is positively de-motivational.
5. The Standard relies too much on people’s and, in particular, assessors’
interpretations of quality
The defenders of ISO 9000 acknowledge that it suffers from ‘problems of
interpretation’ in the hands of those who ’know no better’. This argument
always points the finger at others – and if this were the only criticism of
ISO 9000 it would surely be enough to put a brake on the Standard’s
Quality (following Deming) teaches that you should manage what could go
wrong from a position of knowledge, not one of supposition. It teaches that
people need to be in control for learning, improvement and innovation to
occur; that customers should be treated how they want to be treated – after
all, the purpose of any organisation is to win and keep customers. However,
this is not what is taught by ISO 9000 and its entourage.
6. The standard promotes, encourages and explicitly demands actions which
cause sub-optimisation
Dictating how customers should be treated and over-bureaucratic
documentation are two ubiquitous examples. The requirements for control and
inspection are more pernicious forms of su
ub-optimisation. The consequential
de-motivation is, in large part, a natural response to being controlled.
And ISO 9000 starts, a priori, from an attitude of control.
The need for control explains the genesis of what has become the ISO 9000
movement. In the Second World War, if you wanted to supply the British
Ministry of Defence with munitions, you had to register to a standard on
which, ultimately, ISO 9000 was based. The intent was to prevent accidents
in the factories and it solved an immediate problem – bombs were prevented
from going off in factories. The approach was to document procedures for
production and ensure that they were followed through inspection. This is a
way of working which ensures that production meets specifications. It is a
method of control that ensures consistency of output. It solved a problem
of the time.
7. When people are subjected to external controls, they will be inclined to
pay attention only to those things which are affected by the controls
The main practical advantage of registration to ISO 9000 is that it enables
organisations to tender for business they might otherwise not get. This is
the reason managers are prepared to pay for ‘ready-made’ manuals and obtain
fraudulent assessments. It is a natural response to coercion, people
‘cheat’ – they do what they need to do to get by, to avoid the feared
consequences of (in this case) not being registered.
It is not people – workers or managers – that we should be controlling.
Quality teaches us that continuous improvement relies on controlling work
using methods of control different from those with which most managers are
traditionally familiar. At the time that out munitions factories were
controlling output through ensuring that people worked to procedures, some
American munitions factories were improving output by reducing variation.
8. ISO 9000 has discouraged managers from learning about the theory of
Managers are easily persuaded of the benefits of having everybody working
to procedures. It appears logical and common sense to think that people
will do better if they are clear about what they have to do, and work is
orderly. But when this is true and when is it not true? ISO 9000 does not
help us understand the answer because it assumes that it is always true. It
starts from the presumption that it is of value to work to procedures;
procedures that are documented showing how work is done and inspected. ISO
9000 also provides the rules for inspection by others to make sure that
‘people are doing as they should’.

9. ISO 9000 has failed to foster good customer-supplier relations:
ISO 9000 reinforces an ‘arm’s-length’ view of management which, in turn,
has maintained top management’s ignorance about what ISO registration is
doing to their operations in day-to-day practical terms. Without such first-
hand knowledge, managers are unlikely to question either ISO 9000’s or
their own assumptions about how to manage. And this is the final argument
in the case against ISO 9000:
10. As an intervention, ISO 9000 has not encouraged managers to think
ISO 9000 represents further reinforcement of the idea that work is divided
into management and worker roles. It was the fundamental mistake of
twentieth-century management, for ISO 9000 continues the tradition that
‘managers decide’ and ‘workers do’. This tradition has led to means of
control – through adherence to procedures, budgets, targets and standards –
all of which cause sub-optimisation. It is a way of thinking about
management that began in mass-production systems and, throughout most of
this century, has been the starting point for defining the purpose of
This ‘command and control’ thinking. Changing our thinking about management
is the key to performance improvement. ISO 9000 does no more than encourage
managers to follow a recipe that, because of its antecedents, reinforces
the wrong thinking. The better way starts with understanding the
organisation as a system. It implies a completely different management

Analyzing these arguments you can come up with the various conclusions, but
perhaps ISO in business is just like democracy in politics – if you know
something better possible to introduce for human kind, please tell it.

Used sources:

1. Magazine “Nauja statyba” 2002 april.

2. John Seddon “The case against ISO 9000”




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