Research on ISO 9000 and Other Management System Standards

ISO 9000 and Southeastern Manufacturing

I have worked and continue to work with a variety of manufacturers in the Southeastern US to try to understand the unique regional problems of implementing quality management systems. Many of these problems are the result of a long history of industrial development policy that has been designed to attract low and medium-skilled manufacturing industries from the US Northeast and Great Lakes regions (the old "rust belt").

For this region, the appearance of ISO 9000 has been both a boon and a bane. On one hand, it has provided a stimulus for large numbers of medium-sized manufacturing operations (particularly in the auto parts industry) to upgrade their quality management systems. One the other hand, it has highlighted the problems that are manifest with workforce literacy in the region.

Mustafa V. Uzumeri and Richard H. Tabor, "The ISO 9000 Experience in the Southeastern U.S.", The Southern Business and Economic Journal, 18(1) October, 1994, pp35-49.

ISO 9001 embeds an external satisficer's model of the firm

When customers ask for a supplier's ISO 9001 compliance certificate, they are really asking whether the supplier's quality management system is "good enough" to merit addition to the customer's short list. This, in my view, is a clear example of Herbert Simon's satisficing process at work.

If customers decisions are satisficing in nature, and if ISO 9001 is truly a "model' of a quality management systems, then ISO 9001 must represent an external satisficing customer's vision of adequate management.

If one combines this observation with the well documented explosion in ISO 9001 certification activity, it seems to me that we must be witnessing the first broadly accepted definition of "good enough". Given that the rest of management focuses almost exclusively on finding the 'best' way to do things, the broad acceptance of this alternative definition strikes me as an exciting development.

To download a working paper (in Word for Windows 6.0 format) that explains this perspective, click here.

ISO 9000 supports the institutional theory of organizational change

The institutional theory of organizational change was developed as a contrast to the prevailing belief that organizational change was the result of a) conscious choice, or b) natural selection. Institutional theories argue that there are other forces, broadly embodied in society's 'institutions', that act as guides and constraints on the change process.

If one adopts the institutional view, it seems to me that it would be hard to conjure up a more fitting example than ISO 9000. In effect, a small number of individuals operated within the institutional framework of the International Standards Organization to effectively change organizational systems around the world. In the few years since the standard was published, nearly one hundred thousand industrial sites have already enacted the change. If that is not an instititional effect, I don't know what is.

To download a working paper (in Word for Windows 6.0 format) that explains this perspective, click here.

ISO 9000 and product design

ISO 9001 contains a number of very specific provisions concerning the process of product design. More significantly, many of these provisions are mirrored in a number of other recently published standards relating to worker safety and environmental management.

To me, it seems inevitable that future design processes will have to employ a broader range of formal controls than is currently the case. There is also a strong possibility that many of these externally-imposed requirements will appear to conflict with the 'softer' control approaches that are currently in vogue. For example, it will be interesting to see how companies will reconcile the desire to give design teams more autonomy with the standards' explicit demands for more formal process documentation and record-keeping.

To download a working paper (in Word for Windows 6.0 format) that explains this perspective, click here.

ISO 9000 is an exercise in unintended consequences

The early diffusion of ISO 9000 has been accompanied by a series of structural changes in the way many large organizations purchase products from potential vendors. There is an old adage that intended changes generally have unintended consequences. Since ISO 9000 is an intentional system change, it follows that it's unintended consequences are also going to involve management systems.

I have been gradually assembling a portfolio of these unintended consequences. Examples include the following:

  1. There has been a ripple effect as ISO 9001 requirements for purchasing documentation have created incentives (perhaps artificial ones) for registered companies to demand compliance of their suppliers.
  2. By issuing registration certificates for an explicitly contractual standard (ISO 9001 ), third-party registrars may be injecting themselves into the legal framework of huge numbers of commercial transactions. This could have a number of unintended consequences for all parties.
I hope eventually to be able to publish an organized catalog of these unintended and "second-order" effects.

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