ISO 9001 Culture
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to work with and experience dozens of different organizations across many different industries, many of which had or were working on some type of formal management system. When it comes to quality management systems, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work and the one common denominator that often seems to determine the difference is the organizational culture. Establishing and maintaining the right ISO 9001 culture within your organization can shift your company from one of mediocrity to one of organizational excellence.
Organizations with cultures that are truly committed to operating at a high level of excellence, even prior to their pursuit of ISO 9001 certification, seem to the be ones that achieve the best ISO implementations and over time reap the greatest benefits and value from their ISO management system. Those with ineffective or dysfunctional cultures tend to realize lesser returns and rewards, and are often the same organizations voicing negative feedback about ISO 9001. They blame the ISO standard rather than considering that the problem may lie within the organization, including an ineffective implementation of their management system.
A large number of ISO 9001 certifications are pursued to satisfy a customer request and to gain access to specific markets where ISO 9001 certification is prevalent. The main drive in these cases is to maintain or obtain a market opportunity or revenue stream. While there is nothing wrong with this, many of these organizations do the bare minimum to obtain certification and often fail to effectively implement the management system. These organizations approach ISO 9001 as a “bolt-on accessory” to their existing systems and generally fail to truly integrate and embed the ISO 9001 requirements and processes into their existing structure and more importantly the organizational culture.
Note that several of the core ISO 9001 principles including Leadership, Engagement of People, and Relationship Management all relate to this topic at some level. See ISO Quality Management Principles for additional information on the seven core ISO principles.
Leadership and Culture
Organizations that tend to exhibit poor or dysfunctional cultures can almost always look to the top leadership for the root cause. Top management is also where solutions to this issue will need to originate if change is desired. Dr. Henry Cloud states in his book “Boundaries for Leaders”, that the top executive (President, CEO, Chairman, etc.) is “ridiculously in charge”, meaning that they are fully accountable for the performance of and culture within the organization. They set the tone and determine the working environment throughout the entire company.
If the current existing culture isn’t what is desired, then the chief executive is fully responsible for making the necessary changes and exhibiting the appropriate behavior throughout the organization to create the environment and culture that is wanted. Unfortunately, many chief executives fail to acknowledge this and allow their organizations to struggle and flounder in dysfunction rather than taking ownership of the problem and investing the hard work to improvement the internal environment.
For organizations that do struggle with a poor or undesired working environment, shifting the culture is one of most difficult things that an executive can do. It will most likely take longer than anticipated and require a significant level of diligence and patience while adhering to established principles. It may also require some difficult decisions along the way including making personnel changes where needed. Stay the course and the rewards will eventually come which can reshape the entire organization and its performance.
Former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner describes the overwhelming and difficult task of shifting the culture of IBM in his memoir, “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance”. The following Gerstner quote from a Harvard Business School article clearly demonstrates Lou’s discovery of the importance of culture for success and long-term viability.
“Most managers in corporate life these days fixate on strategy as their way of envisioning company transformation. Strategy work by itself, though “terribly important,” is not enough to save a dying company. You don’t ‘win’ with strategy.”
“Underneath all the sophisticated processes, Gerstner concluded, there is always the company’s sense of values and identity. It took me to age fifty-five to figure that out. I always viewed culture as one of those things you talked about, like marketing and advertising. It was one of the tools that a manager had at his or her disposal when you think about an enterprise.”
“The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.”
The new IBM strategy implemented by Lou Gerstner and his team focused on two key elements; processes and culture. ISO 9001 certainly promotes the process approach throughout the standard but does little to address organizational cultural issues. Sure, section 7.1.4 discusses the need to determine, provide, and maintain an environment necessary to operate established processes and ensure product and service conformity. Footnotes to this section touch on some basic social and psychological factors to be considered, but don’t provide much, if any, real meaningful direction.
On top of that, you certainly can’t expect auditors in their limited annual two or three day visit to gain an understanding of the culture, let alone actually find objective evidence to expose any shortcomings or nonconformities, especially when most auditors are focused on turtle diagrams, process maps, and checking boxes on a checklist.
Implementing ISO 9001
With the start of any new ISO 9001 implementation project, we tell our clients that implementing ISO 9001 is just as much, if not more so, about shaping and implementing a changed culture than it is about the system, processes, and procedures. Just as Lou Gerstner focused on processes and culture, we feel that both must be addressed to successfully implement ISO 9001 and achieve the desired value and benefit of the management system. And the entire organization must understand what is happening, why it is happening, and how they can have voice and participate in the proposed changes. Good communication to all levels of the organization is mandatory to ensure success and to gain the greatest possible results.
We often see companies develop and document their ISO 9001 processes and gain ISO certification in a few short months, but totally fail to realize an effective management system that improves performance and delivers the desired results over the long term. This can often be attributed to a failed management system implementation; a failure of management to engage employees in the development and ongoing maintenance and improvement of the management system, and a failure of the chief executive and leadership team to embrace, support, promote, and actively participate in the ISO management system. Failure to truly integrate the new management system into the company DNA.
ISO recognized a lack of leadership engagement within the ISO quality management system over the years and used the recent 2015 standard revision to retool the management responsibility section of the standard. The new standard now focuses on leadership with the addition of several new significant requirements to be met by top management. They also eliminated the “management representative” requirement which pushed responsibility uphill and reduced the temptation to delegate responsibility down to the “quality manager” position.
Addressing Cultural Issues
While this article can’t even begin to explore all aspects of your ISO 9001 culture, if you feel that culture is an issue within your organization, consider retaining the necessary expertise and competence to help inform your approach and actions to address the issues. You will certainly want to start at the top of the organization and ensure alignment with your company’s values, policies, processes, mission, etc. This is often done during strategic planning activities.
Remember that a dysfunctional culture and organizational misalignment is a form of risk which requires investment of resources to reduce the risk. A dysfunctional culture increases the risk for inappropriate behavior, ineffective execution, and even sabotage. It can also damage the value and reputation of the organization and brand. The presence of cultural or working environment issues should be captured in your risks and opportunities process and associated documentation. We’ll take a closer look at both strategic planning (context of the organization) and risk management (risks & opportunities) in future articles.
ISO According to EBS
EBS’ leadership has been involved with ISO 9001 since 1997 and over the years we have developed our own ISO philosophy that extends beyond the standard and its requirements. Following are some of our thoughts and advice when it comes to successfully implementing ISO 9001 and realizing the full potential and value that the management system offers:
- The Management System should be soundly integrated into a company’s DNA: The system should be seamless with the business vision and mission, strategic and operational plans, and functional processes.
- To be successful, the Management System must be ingrained into the organization’s culture: This is accomplished through empowerment, ownership, and control of the system by everyone in the company.
- Drop the word QUALITY and approach ISO 9001 as simply a Management System: The intent is an interconnected set of processes that govern, support, and drive the entire organization; not a “bolt-on” accessory or after thought just focused on product or service quality. This system applies to the entire organization.
- The Management System should start and end at the top of the organization: The organization’s top executive and executive leadership team are totally accountable for system effectiveness, while demonstrating belief, support, and commitment for the system through actions and words every day.
- Quality should provide Strategic Value: The Quality function should be represented on the Leadership team and provide direction and value in shaping and defining the strategic direction of the organization.
- Top Leadership should adopt and practice the seven core ISO Quality Management Principles: All seven principles are fundamental and foundational to the success, growth, and performance of any organization.
- Develop and practice fundamental business methods: Top Leadership should practice Strategic Analysis and Planning, Performance Measurement (Objectives, Metrics, and Reporting), and Risk Management.
- Promote a discipline of Excellence rather than Quality: The traditional quality paradigm drives a state of compliance to minimum standards and achieves mediocrity at best; an Excellence model pushes an organization to its highest level of capability and achievement.
- Establish a performance Baseline, then plan for long-term Maturity: Rather than maintaining compliance through an ISO Certification Model, utilize a Maturity Model to continue elevating performance to a position of excellence which taps and exposes the organization’s full potential.
Many of the above principles are adopted from the ISO 9001 standard or guidance with our additional interpretation. Our ISO 9001 eCoach learning system facilitates adoption of these key philosophies to some degree, but generally only as far as the ISO 9001 standard or its accepted interpretation allows. Adopt and integrate these principles into your management system as applicable and desired. Just make sure your ISO 9001 culture aligns with your mission, vision, and strategy, and that your people embrace and support the established management system.