Confidence Game

Standards should assure customers
of product safety, quality

by Dale K. Gordon

For the second time in my 55 years on this Earth, we are seeing a crisis of confidence. This stems from many factors, not the least of which has been the devastating and crushing recession of 2008 to 2009 and the very slow and painful global economic recovery we are witnessing.

The loss of confidence is understandable to more than a generation that saw nothing but unprecedented and unparalleled economic growth from 1992 to 2001, followed by a brief recession and growth again until 2007.

This was not the norm from the 1950s to the 1990s when we would experience a cycle of five to seven years of business growth followed by recession. Did we become too confident that growth was never-ending and the positive effects of that growth—low unemployment and high confidence in future prosperity—would continue on indefinitely?

Looking back, we have been here before. In a speech on the subject [of confidence] back on July 15, 1979, in response to a period of slow growth extending from energy shocks to the economy in 1973 that resulted in high unemployment and inflation, President Carter said (excerpted):

It [confidence] is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else—public institutions and private enterprise, our own families and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

These changes did not happen overnight. They’ve come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy.

We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate.

These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed. Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation’s life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.

Sound familiar?

Substitute the headlines of the last five years for the events mentioned in this speech, and it sounds strikingly current and relevant 35 years later.

So what is confidence? It has been defined in some cases as a state of being certain either that a hypothesis or prediction is correct or that a chosen course of action is the best or most effective one, versus the antithesis that confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy as those without it may fail or not try because they lack it and those with it may succeed because they have confidence rather than because of an innate ability.

More universally, however, we think of it as confidence in other people or forces beyond our control. Faith and trust are synonyms of confidence when used in this sense. In many recent examples we have seem multibillion-dollar financial organizations fail when the customers lost confidence in them. There are also organizations built solely on confidence that did not deserve to be in existence—think Bernie Madoff and other Ponzi schemes—even with supposed regulatory oversight.

Confidence, quality standards

What does this have to do with quality standards? The standards we have so carefully crafted and for which we have devised elaborate controls to ensure confidence in their application are experiencing a crisis of confidence.

Who are the standards devised for in the first place? They are devised not by the organizations in which they are adopted, but rather for the customers of the adopting organizations. The organizations have systems and controls in place that are supposed to provide products that are safe and conform to customer expectations.

Ever since the business community agreed on the ISO 9000 series of quality management system (QMS) standards 25 years ago, the organizations that adopt the standards have come to believe that if we show evidence that our operations meet these standards, we can give some confidence to our customers. This confidence is the knowledge that we have systems, processes and controls in place to ensure product conformance and continuous improvement in our operations.

The accepted method of demonstrating conformance to the requirements of the standard is an in-depth audit of the QMS by an impartial and competent auditor and auditing organization. It is the confidence in this system that we have come to rely on to retain the value of standards to our customers. If confidence is lost in this process then the whole effort becomes meaningless to the customer.

Just as with our confidence in the Securities and Exchange Commission to monitor and control some investment organizations or in the Food and Drug Administration to monitor and ensure a safe food supply, the reliance we have on our oversight system is only as good as the confidence the customers of our products have in the process.

Former President Carter’s crisis of confidence was in our ability to overcome difficulties in growing our economy. We again are seeing some lack of confidence in many of our institutions and businesses. Although the ISO 9000 standards are typically a business-to-business type of application, we are all consumers, and consumer sentiment has been lower—on average—in the last five years than in the preceding 40, according to the Conference Board.1 See Figure 1.

Figure 1

We have long asserted that to have each customer audit its suppliers in this global economy is neither practical nor a cost-effective use of resources. This is particularly true as we look at the depth and breadth of the supply chain from raw material or concept to the consumer product or service.

We thus have a process by which we hire an impartial third party to audit our QMS to grant us certification to show we are compliant with the necessary or appropriate standard. For our customers to have confidence in these certification bodies (CB) that are hired by our organizations, we required that they themselves be accredited by an official accreditation body that may or may not be tied to a government-controlled process of approval.

For these accreditation bodies to agree that the process of accreditation is equivalent from one location (country) to the next, the accreditation bodies have signed agreements and audited each other’s processes through a mutual agreement from the International Accreditation Forum (IAF).

There was a previous crisis of confidence in this process that threatened to undo the work that was done and the large expenditures made. Recalling in late 2000 and early 2001, the role of QMSs was called into question with the problems with Bridgestone/Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. Just a decade ago, the certification was debated. When money is involved and competency of oversight is in question, it can lead to a question of confidence.

Auditing improvements

The whole process still depends on one very important factor: a well-trained and competent auditor. Since 2001 we have made significant investments and upgrades in requirements for this auditing. ISO 19011, Guidelines for Auditing Management Systems, was created and promoted to improve this process along with the recently updated ISO/IEC 17021, Conformity assessment—Requirements for bodies providing audit and certification of management systems.

From the IAF down to each individual sector-specific scheme (aerospace, automotive, healthcare and many others), emphasis has been placed on the CB and auditor competency to provide more confidence in the system.

The certification process has been in place for more than 20 years now. Something I wrote in these pages more than 10 years ago is still relevant today—we have a mixed bag of results. There are many excellent CBs doing business today, and there are some that are not delivering what is being advertised.

Within the certification oversight process, there are still stories about auditors who have performed registration/surveillance audits with little knowledge of the organizations they were auditing, poor auditing skills or even incomplete or incorrect knowledge of the standards being audited. Those of us that are working to make the certification process better are continuing to do something about it. Feedback systems are in place, and product rejects/failure reports, customer complaints and overall company performance reviews are now often instituted as part of the certification surveillance.

The purpose of a certification audit and surveillance has always been to establish that the standard is being met and to assist the organization in identifying weaknesses in its systems. The outcome of the process should be some assurance (confidence) to the organization and its customers that the system is working and accomplishing its objectives.

The concern is that while the accreditation bodies are doing what is within their purview, they are merely sampling the process, as is done in an audit. It really is up to the customers of the service to demand the ability to have confidence in both the process and the results. This confidence includes the behavior, knowledge and competency of the auditor and CB. If the audit itself is not thorough enough to test the system, a complaint should be lodged first with the CB and then the accreditation body to assure a complete and thorough examination.

Bottom line: As users of the certification process, we must demand results from the process. We must assure ourselves and our customers that we have confidence in the registration system, and above all, we must to promote it as a cost-effective method of oversight that drives improvement in organizations and gives confidence to customers that the products and services from these organizations are controlled and delivered to the best of the organization’s ability.


  1. U.S. Consumer Confidence Index, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:U.S._Consumer_Confidence_Index.png.

Dale K. Gordon is director of supplier quality for Aerojet/Gen Corp, in Sacramento, CA. He is an ASQ fellow, chair of the SAE Americas Aerospace Quality Standards Committee (G-14) and has served on many writing teams for the aerospace series of standards. Gordon earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, MI, and an MBA from Butler University in Indianapolis.

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