Monday, 15 June 2015

Standard Disillusionment

I've been getting increasingly disillusioned with standards and certifications as I've grown more experienced, older and wiser. And it's not always the standards themselves, though increasingly that is also the case. It's the bodies that own and curate the standards, the organisations that administer them and the people who act as judge, jury and executioner for all things related to a standard.

I used to think that standards were useful. There are probably some standards which still are useful. These are the ones regarding industry specific rules and regulations which are designed to benefit people's safety and well-being. But generic quality standards appear to be being continually dumbed to such an extent that they are becoming increasingly meaningless and irrelevant.

ISO 9001 in particular has had a chequered history. When I first started using it many people were of the opinion that it didn't matter how you interpreted it. As long as you did was you said you were going to do - even if it was plainly wrong - you could gain your ISO 9001 certification and be a 'quality organisation'.  The 2000 release did much to regain faith in the standard, but the forthcoming release appears to be propelling it back into the dark ages.

Much of the current problem with today's 'standards industry' is just that - it has become an industry in its own right and responsible bodies are milking their consumers for every penny they can get. For example it will cost you $79 (about £50) to purchase the 56 page draft version of ISO9001:2015 which isn't due to be finalised until the end of the year.

The key word with a generic standard is interpretation. I've suggested on more than one occasion that quality people fall into one of two camps - those who focus on compliance and telling people what to do (not necessarily ever having done it themselves) and those who understand that the world isn't black and white but made up of many shades of grey and a multitude of other colours, tints and hues. These are the people who have actually done the job, look for pragmatism over compliance and add genuine value to the people they support. They have no need to hide behind rigid interpretations of standards because they understand that different situations require different interpretations and approaches. You only have to look at some of the LinkedIn quality forums to see this for yourself!

When I'm in the role as a quality manager this disillusion with standards can be seen as both a curse and benefit. As a standard becomes more woolly and vacuous it does allow more scope for interpretation which enables me to promote some of my personal business agendas - like reducing organisational tendency to focus on things that really benefit no-one (not even the people pushing them!). At the same time, I have to be careful about voicing my dissatisfaction which could be seized on by the anti-process brigade as an excuse not to adhere to any process - even the good ones.

I'd like to think that the worm will turn - but I'm not going to hold my breath. We seem to go from one extreme to the other. The draft ISO 9001:2015 standard as stated previously runs to 56 pages and gives little guidance regarding interpretation. The ITIL version 3 framework (we can argue another time over whether this is a genuine standard) now runs to just under 2000 pages and costs over £250 - but is summarised in 300 pages for a tenner (as in the ITIL Foundation Handbook) and far less in some of the pocket guides. Much of the rest is simply padding. I wonder if the authors thought that they needed to create hundred of pages of documentation simply to justify the cost.

Standards need to be precise enough to be of value. They need to be affordable enough to find global acceptance, not just in big corporations but in small, one person businesses, and the cost of applying useful and relevant standards needs to be clear and transparent to the business owner.

I've recently worked in a number of major corporations in financial and pharmaceutical domains where they see no need for ISO 9001 amidst the other regulatory standards they have to adhere to - and it believe this trend will increase unless the people writing, publishing and administering the standards begin to get their acts together and start thinking of their customers and the folk who have to implement standards in their own organisations.

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