Remaining Relevant

How to ensure longevity for the world’s most popular standard

by John E. "Jack" West

ISO 9001 has become a well-established baseline for quality management worldwide. Some have even speculated that without it, globalization of world trade would not have been practical. This may be a stretch, but I believe ISO 9001 has been a major contributor to global commerce. The standard has become a common framework for conversation and agreement about supplier quality management requirements.

During the development of ISO 9001:2008, a key notion was to hold the line on new requirements. Little has changed in the fourth edition of ISO 9001, which was issued late last year by the International Organization for Standardization. This should not surprise anyone. As work was being completed on the 2008 edition, a number of major industries were in the midst of implementing ISO 9001. The time was not right for significant changes.

In some industries, however, the concepts embedded in ISO 9001:2008 have long been woven into the cultural fabric. In fact, I find that organizations large and small are using the requirements of ISO 9001 with little or no actual references to the standard itself. These days, I even hear ISO 9001-related questions from the mouths of angel investors and venture capital (VC) firm representatives at VC conferences where small companies pitch their businesses to get equity investment funding.

Stick to the basics

ISO 9001 has become the baseline—the expected minimum for effective management systems. Organizations across the globe have learned the basics of ISO 9001 and the ideas inherent in the standard, such as:

  • Objectives set with customers and improvement in mind.
  • Using design controls including verification and validation.
  • Operating all processes in a state of control.
  • Control of supplier-furnished inputs and outsourced processes.
  • Measurement, analysis and improvement of all aspects of the business.
  • Internal auditing.

These notions are accepted, understood and implemented with or without the actual use of ISO 9001 or its related certification processes. A great job has been done of teaching these ideas, and the concepts work well most of the time. The quality community can be proud of this accomplishment.

But, when the world has been taught well, it is time for the teachers—and the standard itself—to move on. Change is almost a necessity. Certainly, there will be new generations that need to be taught these basic ideas. But ISO 9001 is likely to remain relevant only if it is changed to include newer concepts that bring the latest value-adding features to users across the globe.

Without changes, ISO 9001 risks becoming irrelevant on the world stage. Of course, even without major changes, certification to the standard in its current iteration will continue for many years. But there is concern that ISO 9001’s relevance as a driver of worldwide quality control and improvement is almost certain to wane over time.

After all, the requirements in the last major revision of ISO 9001, which was released in 2000, will have been static for 15 years if a new version with updated ideals and requirements were to be published in 2015.

Any ideas?

So, what new ideas should be included in the next edition? First, remember that the baseline quality management document is not likely to include the latest ideas. But there are some fairly recent concepts that have proven useful and might be considered as part of a new baseline.

Many ideas have been discussed informally. They include:

  • A greater focus on results—ISO 9001:2008 requires establishment of objectives, and its scope (clause 1.1) is results oriented, but little else is said on the subject.
  • Strategic planning—Considerations of quality and the quality management system (QMS) in the organization’s strategic planning would seem to be a natural enhancement.
  • More focus on customers—It may be time to include more comprehensive coverage of customer-satisfaction measurements.
  • Coverage of innovation—Sometimes, the QMS is viewed as an inhibitor of innovation, but it needs to become a framework for positive innovation. Perhaps the next revision should describe how innovation is facilitated by the QMS.
  • Greater emphasis on the systems approach—Migrating from a very strong focus on the process approach to something that adopts concepts of the systems approach to management would allow inclusion of systems thinking and other related concepts.

The cycle continues

The ISO technical committee (TC) responsible for ISO 9001 (ISO/TC 176) is in the very early stages of exploring what changes need to be made in the next version of the standard. Formal work has not yet begun, so predicting its outcome is risky, but I think the revision process will take a while.

Some expect a new version as early as 2013. Based on the history of the standard’s development, however, I think it is likely to be closer to 2015. Consider the following timeline:

  • 1980: ISO/TC 176 is established.
  • 1987: First edition of ISO 9001 issued (seven-year development).
  • 1990: Beginning of parallel development process for the 1994 and 2000 revisions.
  • 1994: Minor revision issued (seven years after previous version).
  • 2000: Major revision issued, with the introduction of the process approach (six years after previous version).
  • 2008: Minor revision issued (eight years after previous version).
  • 2013-2015: Possible window for next major revision.

The work to produce an effective management systems standard takes time. The first edition, ISO 9001:1987, took about seven years. When ISO 9001:2000 was released, it was technically six years after the previous revision, but in actuality it took about 10 years from concept to reality.

In both cases, there were years of preparation required to decide what new concepts to include and—in the case of ISO 9001:2000—how to describe the process approach.

If you consider there are more than 1 million users with myriad potential user needs, it’s hard to see—given past development cycles—how the committee can develop a new version with new ideas and expanded requirements in less than seven years, even if the committee were free to develop it without other pressures from within ISO.

But there are other things that make the situation more difficult for the committee.

Standards align

The ISO Technical Management Board, the group that manages ISO’s technical work, has directed that a new vision be implemented for all ISO-developed management system standards that contain requirements. This includes ISO standards for other disciplines, such as ISO 14001 for environmental management.

The vision indicates that all ISO management system standards are to be aligned, and the current levels of compatibility among any existing management system standards are to be enhanced. This is supposed to be done by promoting the use of identical clause titles, sequence of clause titles, text and definitions. There will also be an effort to use as much identical text as feasible.

A joint technical coordinating committee is responsible for development of the common format (clause titles and sequence of clause titles), and it will likely drive the process of developing identical text in which requirements are the same. It is my opinion that this part of the revision process will detract from and diminish the work to develop and include new ideas in ISO 9001. As a result, there will be a significant number of issues to resolve.

So, what will be in the next version of ISO 9001? In a very real sense, it is up to you. A survey of users’ needs is being developed. When it becomes available, provide your input. There is also always room to participate in the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO/TC 176. For more information, visit ASQ Standards Central at www.asq.org/standards or e-mail standards@asq.org.

John E. "Jack" West is a management consultant and business advisor. He served on the board of examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award from 1990 to 1993 and is past chair of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO/TC 176 and lead delegate to the committee responsible for the ISO 9000 family of quality management standards. West is an ASQ fellow and co-author of several ASQ Quality Press books.

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