Is There a Quality Blindspot?

By Alec Corthay

I could not speak for India, Brazil or China, but ISO standards have certainly impacted the way business is done in many European countries.

I just looked it up: in web-slang, ISO means “In Search Of”. So let me ask a burning question:

What’s the ISO I.S.O.?

There is also this huge population of middle managers that shows waves of skepticism and, more problematically, passive indifference towards quality management systems.

Most managers have something to say about the “International Organization for Standardization”, an internatioal standard-setting body formed in Switzerland in 1947. Over the last twenty years, I have met consultants that are passionate about, say, ISO 9001 standards, and what is known as “Quality Management Systems”. There are those executives that believe in standardization, and those that see it as a necessary, and sometimes valuable, investment. There is also this huge population of middle managers that show waves of skepticism and, more problematically, passive indifference towards quality management systems.

I am no ISO expert, but understand enough of them to help auditors integrate internal control and ISO standards.

A critical assumption

So let me point out an assumption made by the International Organization for Standardization. Its flagship standard, ISO 9001:2015, reads that it “aims to enhance customer satisfaction through the effective application of (a quality management) system”.

Can you systematize moments of truth? Can you standardize the emotion you experience as a client when, say, you joke with a frontline employee?

There are several ways to enhance customer satisfaction —including the effective application of a quality management system. This is what the ISO does: standardizing what can be standardized, systemizing what can be systematized…

But not all ways to customer satisfaction are pursued through management systems. Can you systematize moments of truth? Can you standardize the emotion you experience as a client when, say, you joke with a frontline employee? Can you standardize a spirit of service (large banks in France spend millions to achieve just that)? Now if you are in the people-serving business, and most of us are, these are legitimate questions.

What ISO standards cannot do

ISO standards cannot change people, behaviors and cultures. They can force your employees to smile, but not to love customers. They can sanction a lack of client orientation, but cannot make your employees walk the extra mile. As a senior manager in a certified company, the worst thing I can probably do is to blindly push for compliance, thus exposing my company to passive, rebellious, and malicious compliance.

Enforcing quality management systems is a skill-set owned by thousands of managers throughout the world. But how many understand how to lead people into personal change?

So this brings me home. The world has enough standard-makers and enforcers. Let ISO search for transformers.

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