The Quest for Clarity

Eschew obfuscation," the bumper sticker read. I noticed it while eschewing slow traffic in the fast lane on my drive into work.

At the office, I realized the phrase had caught my attention because it was not only clever, but it also seemed so germane to many current events. Case in point: the high profile accounting scandals in which executives deliberately created confusion and hype about their firms' financial health.

This relevance extends to several issues facing the quality world. As we all know, following quality principles and practices should provide clarity and focus--but it's not always that simple, is it?

For example, there is much confusion, consternation and even controversy over ISO 9000:2000. The deadline to transition to the revised standard is only 15 months away, and it's difficult even to get a clear picture of how many organizations have made the transition, how many may be planning to but are putting off the change (and causing concern that the resources of auditors, certification bodies and registrars will be strained in a last minute crunch) and how many may be letting their certifications lapse for good.

In "Should You Transition to ISO 9001:2000?" (p. 58), several experts and users of the standard share their opinions on why the transition is necessary and beneficial--or why some organizations aren't playing along. For this topic, finding consensus or clarity is no easy feat. (We can't even find consensus on whether certification or registration is the correct term for the use of conformity assessment.)

Supporters and developers of the new standard say its process approach and focus on quality management principles are significant improvements over previous versions. Others say complying with ISO 9000:2000 means more work, documentation and headaches, and that their managers don't see a return on the investment (ROI) of time or cost.

Is what's clouding the picture the possibility that standards--and quality in general--are at a crossroads? Some people believe standards aren't going away, but the increasing popularity of sector specific ones may be affecting the usage of general standards, such as ISO 9000. Likewise, top executives may not be killing quality programs completely; they're likely looking for ones that show a healthy ROI and help protect or improve their companies' financial status, especially in times like this.

If anyone can disperse the clouds of confusion and doubt, it's quality professionals, with their arsenals of tools, practical experience and data. The trick is to customize your approach for the situation and tailor your message to the audience. Bumper stickers are optional.

Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

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