The concept of total quality management (TQM) took the corporate world by storm almost two decades ago. There were many reasons for this, but the most important one being the European Union's move to allow imports only from companies with International Standards Organization (ISO) certification. As a result, ISO rose from anonymity to become a household name in the corporate world in no time. All types of businesses and organizations, which before saw "quality" as merely a desirable attribute, started looking for certification of their goods and services to keep up their exports.
Many good changes resulted, but many more unwanted tendencies surfaced. Two decades down the lane, it may be a useful exercise to retrospect on the issue. Did ISO certification bring about any desirable change? Is it necessary to continue with it in its present form? TQM is tottering, and drastic steps (by ISO) are required if the good effects of the quality movement are to survive.
There are two aspects to quality management: quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC). Ever since the advent of mass production and assembly lines, QC has been an integral part of the industry in the developed world. It sounds thoroughly logical to have someone or some system to control the quality of things produced in mass. Systems and procedures for QC vary from industry to industry. Non-destructive testing (NDT) of items, even if done on a random basis, is good for both the producer and user. It is no surprise that the concept of NDT caught on and developed into a full-fledged engineering activity of its own. There is absolutely no dispute on the need to have the various levels of certifications in this field to maintain the quality of products.
It is the deceitful cousin (ie. QA ) that is suspect in the eyes of industry observers, especially in the services sector. We all know that it is possible to take any horse to the waterfront, but it is always up to the horse to drink from it. Quality in an organization is of a similar nature. We can have perfect systems and procedures for quality, but if the employees are not willing to follow, the whole system will fail to deliver. All companies in the services sector are victims of this syndrome. When the quality movement started, some shady agencies deceived their clients by promising that a quality assurance system, a quality certification and a quality assurance manager can ensure quality of the output. A QA system is as good or bad as the quality of those who implement it, and no company with sub-standard employees can provide standard services even if there is an ISO certified QA system and an expert QA Manager in place.
The most significant development in the rush for quality has been the unprecedented growth in the number of certification agencies. From a few international players the number has grown in hundreds the world over. The initial few had a bountiful harvest when the rush started, and that provided an ugly model for numerous "operators" to try their hand at a low-investment-high-return business opportunity. The simple fact that most of the new certification agencies have their principals in Europe and it was the European Union that triggered the quality juggernaut makes the whole exercise suspect.
The biggest beneficiary of this erroneous concept of quality assurance has been a set of professionals masquerading as quality assurance managers (QAM) in ISO-certified companies. They first descend on the victims (desperate for ISO certification) in the form of experts or consultants willing to assist in getting the initial certification. It goes to their credit that they do a useful job at this stage. In most companies, there will be severe shortage of expertise to document the procedures they follow in a systematic manner. This vacuum is easily filled by the so-called ISO experts and consultants. After marathon sessions with the employees, an acceptable and auditable quality system is set up. Then these quality consultants (sometimes in the form of a full-fledged company) spend months upon months conducting mock audits, feedbacks and corrections, until finally the whole system is ready for offering to an accredited external agency for certification. It is always up to these ISO consultants to conclude their deal by "arranging" a smooth audit and certification as per ISO norms.