Friday, November 9, 2012

Quality management is a management fad elevated to divinity

Every second shipment was delayed and the invoices were never correct. Those were the experiences I had as a client of one freight-company in Sweden in the late 1980s. What was special with this company? They were pioneers in the implementation of an ISO 9000 certified quality management system. 

When I first implemented a quality management system some 23 years ago, it was new and fresh, and seemed like a good idea. I mean, who could possibly oppose a focus on quality, and approaching quality in a systematic way through a management system? The approach really suited my personality of an introvert system designer. Just write down how things should be done; do; check that it is working and revise if it isn’t; then repeat the cycle. However, over the years I have grown more and more cynical about the use of such systems, and in particular how the belief in them is like a dogma that can’t be questioned.

What is a QMS
There are many definitions of quality management systems (QMS). It can be ‘A set of coordinated activities to direct and control an organisation in order to continually improve the effectiveness and efficiency of its performance’. Alternatively, it can be “A system by which an organisation aims to reduce and eventually eliminate nonconformance to specifications, standards, and customer expectations in the most cost effective and efficient manner.’  The latter is at least a bit more modest about what a QMS can deliver, or should deliver.

In my view, the time is overdue to challenge this management idea, to expose it as just another fad, loaded with jargon and promoted by a hoard of consultants (including myself), certification bodies and accreditation bodies who earn their living from it. My objections to it are based on two different issues; on the one hand it is based on some erroneous principles or assumptions and on the other hand, even if it were useful, the positive effects are not big enough to justify the energy spent. What I am discussing here is quality management as a management principle. Clearly, I have no objections to quality, how could I? After all, quality is anything you define. I also have no objections to ‘management systems’, how could I? All organisations are managed according to one or the other system, documented or not, good or bad. But those who have spent weeks writing manuals and training staff etc know what I am talking about, the quality management system (QMS).     

Proudly certified!
The main standard for quality management is the ISO 9000 standards. ISO 9000 was first published in 1987.  It was based on the BS 5750 series of standards from the British Standards Institute. However, its history can be traced back some twenty years earlier to a US Department of Defense standard in 1959, which was aimed at ensuring bombs go off at the target and not in the hangars or in the factory – a laudable effort (not for the targets, though). The concept of the ISO 9000 has spread into a wide range of other standards, such as the ISO 14000 series for environmental management, the ISO 22000 for food quality management and the ISO 65 for certification bodies and ISO 17011 for accreditation bodies.

Despite its rapid uptake in various industries quality management is not a proven method. Agreed, there are many reports and statement from quality managers, and consultants and certification bodies about how good quality management is. However, very little peer-reviewed research has been conducted that evaluates whether the system delivers what it promises to do, that is, consistent quality. And there has been even less work done to prove that it delivers general management benefits, which proponents claim most often. One study in Australia and New Zealand did look at the effect of ISO 9000.1 The central finding of the project was that ‘on average ISO 9000 certification has little or no explanatory power of organisational performance.[1] Another study reports that ‘However, surprisingly no significant difference is found with respect to defective part production and manufacturing cost between the two groups [those who had a QMS and those that hadn’t].’[2]

We are told to put quality first, but what does that really mean? Is quality more important than following the law? How does it relate to workers’ safety, the environment or, the most obvious factor in organisations, profit? The quality management culture is based on the fact that there are special quality manuals and a special quality system. But organisations are not managed by these kinds of manuals, and controllers and financial departments work with a different logic. Where does that really leave quality management? Instead of acknowledging the contradictions and different interests in an organisation, QMS proponents spread the illusion that the QMS is the most important part of the management system, which is at best delusional.   

The starting point in the development of a quality system is, almost exclusively, the standard itself, and all the issues required by the standard. This is in itself a very bad starting point. ‘Planners of quality systems, guided by ISO 9000, start with a view of how the world should be as framed by the Standard. Understanding how an organisation works, rather than how someone thinks it should, is a far better place from which to start a change of any kind’ says British management consultant, John Seddon.

QMSs are based on a view that people perform better when told what to do, rather than when they are given freedom and motivation. They exaggerate the use of written instructions at the expense of social interaction and continuous problem solving. This degrades people to automata, a development that risks the quality in their work and ultimately the performance of the organisation.

Even good systems take considerable time and energy to implement. Consequently their implementation competes for resources and attention, resulting in less energy and attention orientated to other (real) problems within the organisation. In addition, QMSs discriminate against small firms as they are more costly to implement while the potential benefit is even less than in a big firm.

While a well functioning QMS might be good for operations, they are often badly designed and implemented, and thus are likely to do more harm than good. An organisation with shelves full of files telling people what to do and how to do it, with a workforce that disregards the policies, is worse off than a company with very few policies, which are vigorously enforced and promoted, and grounded in the organisation’s culture. Many organisations implement a QMS because they ‘have to’ – as a result of demands from the clients or from other outside parties – and not because they see the value of them. Again a very bad starting point for good implementation.

And finally, there are the audits of quality management systems. The actual quality of the product or service is not included in an audit or assessment. Auditors look into systems, procedures and organisational structures, and very little at implementation. Increasingly, audits look at ‘meta-systems’, that is the systems used to develop and maintain the system, for instance, internal audits. Here it follows the footsteps of financial audits, which also has gone from checking the actual books, stocks and assets to auditing the system. This has been well analysed, and criticised, by Michael Power in the book Rituals of Verification. Power says that most effort is actually spent on making the systems auditable, and not on making them reliable.

In the organic sector, where I have a lot of first hand experience all from farming to accreditation of certification bodies, conformity assessment has moved towards focusing on ‘auditable performance’. Quality management is enforced all along the food chain, from the accreditor to the farms; every level expects the next level to implement a QMS. QMS in accreditation demands QMS in certification, which in turn demands QMS on farms. On the farm level this is not as yet formulated in demands for fully fledged QMS, but the tendency to enforce QMS style demands on farms and even more on food processors is clear. Real control is rarely made – this was pointed out in a recent report by the European Court of audits of the EU control systems, and it was pointed out by the Swedish Food Authority some years ago. It is clear that audits don’t address, detect or prevent fraud to any larger extent. When blatant mistakes are made – if the mistake is even detected – the “corrective action” is mostly to insist on more quality management policies or written procedures, which are actually counterproductive.

In certain situations a QMS can be useful, even very useful, for organisations, but that does not imply a QMS is good for all organisations. Nor does it suggest that a functioning QMS contributes to the integrity of the system in general. Instead they should be seen as one of many tools organisations use to manage themselves and the service they offer; a tool that suits some much better than others because all organisations differ in size, culture, resources and stability.

1. The Business Value of Quality Management Systems Certification. Evidence from Australia and New Zealand,  Samson, D. Terziovski, M. Dow, D. Journal of Operations Management Vol. 15, No. 1, 1997, pp. 1-18
2. The impact of ISO 9000 quality management systems on manufacturing, Tufan Koc, Journal of Materials Processing Technology Volume 186, Issues 1–3, 7 May 2007, Pages 207–213

Swedish article about the quality management craze:
Update: 22 January, I have another article about quality management published in Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish).


  1. Dear Mr Gunnar Rundgren,

    Thank you for directing me to read this detailed article which exposes the nuisance that the Quality Management System (QMS) under ISO 9000 series has been creating for millions of working professionals in this world.

    Surprisingly we both chose to write about this on the same day.

    [My blog here:]

    I had expressed my anguish as a layman affected by this fad.

    But those like me would be extremely thankful to you for supporting us with your detailed and authentic article as above. You being an authority on this subject in the world, I think the time has come for the world to pause and think on this before it is too late !

    With kind regards.

    Er Rajan C Mathew FIE
    Ranchi, India.

    1. Dear Rajan C Mathew,
      I found your piece very well crafted and compelling as a real case. I could have told the story about the "quality assured" palliative care my mother had, where pulling the curtains was not on the checklists and therefore didn't happen unless I was there...

  2. Hello Gunnar!

    Good to be back in touch and even better to "hear" you talk like this!! You know I totally support your views... I and can't help to continue to wonder: are we in the organic sector going to be able to find a suitable alternative to protect both consumers and farmers?

    If you have any ideas, I would be more than happy to help you! I have gone your way backwards. From policy development and consultancy, I am now working hard to become a farmer (not certified yet) and I am reluctant to even begin the process...knowing what I need to go through, on top of fighting with my poor soil!

    Greetings from Costa Rica!

    Felicia Echeverría Hermoso
    San José, Costa Rica

    1. Hi Felicia, I do believe that the Participatory Guarantee Systems are promising. In the end we have the "guarantee systems" that fit to the market relations we create. International Standards and Quality Assurance are all ways to turn produce into commodities subject to (unlimited) competition. You could also read the post where I review a recent book about standards,

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  4. I think the issuance of QMS is not only useful to the organizations themselves. Rather, it also protects the interest of the stakeholders. Especially if your business is going global, there is a risk that your business may not be applicable to the other country's culture. It's not about your product that you're catering, but the totality of your company's image.

    Barton Wilson

  5. QMS serves as a checklist for further product evaluation. Its main purpose is to act as a tool to keep systematized creation of the product. Without this framework working, the standardization would be worthless.
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