ISO certification is just an expensive headache for those firms that don't work its procedures into their daily operations. But those that do make it a way of life reap the benefits.
June 1, 2002 by Andrea Aster
“It’s 75 percent beneficial, 25 percent stupid.” That’s how Frank Krauss describes his experience with ISO 9000 certification. Krauss Plastics, a custom injection molding firm in Woodbridge, ON, primarily serves the automotive industry. It has been ISO compliant for four years, on request from customers aiming to ensure uniform quality management standards from their suppliers.
For many plastics processors, like Krauss, the decision to pursue and maintain ISO certification is complex. On the one hand, one obvious benefit is that it’s a great marketing tool, an impressive, internationally-recognized seal of approval. If, however, the goal is just to get that plaque on the wall, and, if a plastics processor then fails to actually integrate and document ISO standards in daily operations, it can be more trouble than it’s worth. Scrambling to generate the extensive paper trail required for ISO’s rigorous annual audits is just one potential pitfall ISO veterans warn about.
Revised in 1994, then again two years ago, ISO 9000 aims to reduce waste and improve performance, by offering companies processes for evaluating and documenting crucial issues, everything from customer satisfaction to corrective action and paper flow.
Besides the heightened credibility accorded to being ISO 9000 certified, one key benefit is being able to keep better tabs on documentation, says Krauss. “In the past, if we wanted to check up on deliveries, we’d have to dig through invoices. Now we just look at our logs of incoming and outgoing documents.”
Likewise, because the new ISO 9000-2000 version offers more explicit requirements for achieving customer satisfaction, companies are improving performance in this area, says Philippe Dion, quality assurance manager and estimator at AC Plastiques near Montreal. This manufacturer of dual laminate piping and tanks for such industries as pulp and paper and electronics has about 25 employees and got its ISO 9000 certification three years ago.
“The auditors are always looking for ways you need to improve performance,” says Dion. “They saw we had a problem in the way we dealt with our customer satisfaction feedback. We didn’t have a database to log it. So, this year, we’ve introduced a form on our Web site.”
Still, while the rigorous paper trails and practices ISO 9000 demands can be used to heighten organizational efficiency, some of the required practices used to track customer feedback are just “not relevant,” says Krauss.
“The standards can be too formal,” he says. “They want us to do statistical charting with bar graphs to track customer complaints, with the goal of then taking corrective action. They’re trying to analyze whether there is a pattern to the complaints.” The trouble, however, is that the complaint rate is quite low and no two complaints are the same, so there’s no pattern of behavior to tackle with a single corrective action, says Krauss.
CHANGING EMPLOYEE MENTALITY THE BIGGEST HURDLE
Another challenge is simply getting all employees to comply with the ongoing task of documenting all operational processes for audits, usually conducted twice a year. “You’re offering new procedures to employees who may be quite content with the way things are done and it’s a mentality shift,” says Dion.
“If you’re dealing with a moldmaker who has been a skilled tradesperson for years, he’s thinking, ‘If there’s a better way to do my job I would have found it by now, and ISO won’t do it for me’,” says Lisa Velanoff, Mississauga-based national sales manager for international registrar, SGS/ICS, which offers ISO 9000 certification in Canada.
“The biggest challenge, always, is getting people to follow procedure,” says Stan Szmyr, corporate quality technician at Escalator Handrail in Oshawa, ON. With 250 employees, it deals in worldwide markets with applications in shopping malls and airports.
The best way to counter that resistance is to make sure no single employee is the “gatekeeper” of all that tabulated analysis, says Tim Burke, president of Cebos, a Southfield, MI-based compliance software firm. “It’s not enough to just define a system and put it on the shelf. The goal is to bring the system to life. All employees need to have access to the data. If it’s not a company-wide initiative it’s only a badge.”
That, in turn, means there’s no mad scramble when the auditors arrive, says Velanoff. “A lot of companies dedicate one month before an audit to coming up with evidence for the auditor, and it’s a big project. If the (ISO 9000) processes are already integrated with operations, it’s no big distraction.” Krauss, for example, admits they have to “tidy up a little,” but because ISO 9000 standards are fully integrated with operating practices, there’s no problem presenting the documentation.
WORTH THE COST
In terms of the cost to remain certified, many plastics processors believe it’s a valuable expenditure, even if there’s no immediate drama on that bottom line. “It’s simply valuable to be able to say to your customer that you have a respected quality system in place,” says Dion of AC Plastiques. Szmyr agrees: “If a customer is looking at a company with ISO 9000, and they’re offering the same product at the same price, guess which one he’s going to go with.”
While Krauss pays about $5,000 a year to remain certified, the cost can run as high as $10,000 to $15,000 depending on the size of the company, says Vern Shute, president of Track 2000 Quality Assurance, an Orangeville, ON-based consultant.
“When companies ask ‘Why am I doing this?’ I always say it’s a lot like holding up a mirror and looking at all your blemishes and defects,” says Shute. “This isn’t the kind of traditional quality management system that works for a year and then gets shelved.”