The quality profession — and here I’m pointing at both quality managers and the private consultant class — still can’t get over the fact that CEO hasn’t flung open the doors on the c-suite and invited them in, en masse, to enjoy pâté and private bathroom privileges. I’ve been involved in the profession since the late 1980s, and it’s somewhat stunning to see that — Einstein’s definition of insanity notwithstanding —  nearly nothing has changed.

Worse, this dogged inclination to slink into a corner and mope about professional injustice results in real-world harm to (not so ironically) the profession itself. The 2015 version of ISO 9001 includes an entire clause (5.1, for those playing at home) that is, essentially, a list of petty grievances written by disgruntled former quality professionals. The end result, as we know, is that ISO 9001’s uptake and popularity are declining, at least in part due to the fact that complying with whiny, intangible gripes is hard to prove during conformity assessments, which rely on objective evidence.

This needs to change.

So here are six tropes that quality managers, auditors, and consultants need to remove from their bag of tricks immediately, not only to improve their personal standing in the profession, but also to help raise the profession itself.

Trope # 1: Blaming Management for Lack of “Commitment”

The argument that any corporate endeavor must have full “management commitment” up front has been around for a long time, and certainly makes sense in most contexts. But the way in which the quality profession has latched onto this argument as a go-to gripe to explain every possible failing reduces it to a desperate, convenient escape clause. The result is a combination of Chicken Little and the Emperor’s New Clothes: noisy proclamations that don’t point to any actual facts, and which usually end badly for those making them.

And here I blame Deming. The famed American quality “guru” was notoriously anti-social, combative, and generally ill-tempered. While using valid statistical methods to support his ideas, he peppered them with so much anti-boss rhetoric, he alienated nearly his entire audience. Famously, the story goes, he was forced to go to Japan, where his ideas were embraced, resulting in a massive improvement to Japanese quality in a single generation. The reality is that Japan was already underway with home-grown improvements, and not a little bit of racism was to blame for marketing Deming as its architect, in a misleading “White Savior” narrative.

Maybe, just maybe, had Deming simply been “prickly” and not an insufferable prick, he might have had his ideas embraced in the US first. But we may never know, because Deming — and then Crosby and the rest — began to hardcode the “management commitment” argument into their marketing materials, creating entire cults based on it.

Instead, quality professionals need to do their jobs, and then prove their worth — which (guess what) is exactly what every other manager has to do. 

Trope # 2: Demanding Special Corporate Access

This next trope ties directly into the first and makes them both all the more insufferable. After complaining about a lack of management commitment — which is, essentially, insulting the boss — quality professionals then demand to have special corporate access and to be given dominion over the entire company. Because they make their argument through condescension, this has even less likelihood of success than the first trope.

Imagine going into the boss’ office and saying you deserve a raise because if he doesn’t give you one, he will look like a jerk. This is that.

Quality professionals make this argument based on the claim that poor quality impacts on everything: finances, legal liability, the environment, risk, even workplace safety. As a result, they say, the QA department must be given a c-suite role that sits above all other departments.

This, again, pokes up its head in the ISO 9001 text. In that same dubious clause 5.1, the authors injected a (wholly un-auditable and largely laughable) requirement that top management shall ensure integration of quality “into the organization’s business processes.” To which every top manager everywhere responds with, “get the hell out of my office.”

At the same time, quality professionals don’t realize that the other managers are doing the same thing. Right now, in the risk management profession, there is a nearly equivalent campaign to get Corporate Risk Officers (CROs) to oversee all other departments, on the basis that “risk affects everything.” Meanwhile, the IT guys are pushing to have Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) be handed dominion over all, since a single ransomware attack or breach can topple the entire company.

Again, quality professionals are not special when compared to other professionals. They are not superior, and the argument that “quality affects everything” is not only a stretch, it’s self-defeating. When one member of a team is griping about how they are not running the show for the rest of the team, guess who loses?

And God forbid you actually give the professional the authority they want. When things go wrong those same people suddenly claim to have been “scapegoats” when held accountable for the roles they, themselves, clamored for.

This isn’t working, and quality professionals — along with everyone else — need to understand they are all part of a team, and a successful team isn’t comprised of jealous, backbiting vipers.

Just chill, and do your job.

Trope # 3: Pedantic Obsession with Meaningless Distinctions

This next trope involves the quality profession’s obsession with distinguishing terms that normal people could not care one bit about. The most common, thanks (again) to ISO 9001, is the argument that there is some difference between “continuous” and “continual” improvement.

The proponents of this low-education argument claim that one of the terms refers to stepped improvements, characterized by occasional plateaus, while the other is perpetually advancing, without any such plateaus. Then, proponents argue that only the plateau-less approach is acceptable. I frankly can’t remember which is which, so I won’t even try; but the argument is ludicrous.

Both are improvements. Whether there is an occasional period of stall is meaningless, and also more reflective of the real world. Here, quality professionals are being outright pedantic, annoyingly so, and imposing some made-up vision of utopian perfection that can never exist. It’s absolute bullshit.

Worse, the thesaurus says the words are synonyms! And, frankly, I trust dictionaries — which have been developed over thousands of years based on the usage of billions of people — than I do some ISO standard or self-declared industry expert.

Another distinction is one being trotted out by the US accreditation body ANAB, in its clumsy attempt to market some obscure services. ANAB insists that there is a distinction between a “certificate” program vs a “certification” program. For the rest of us, they are the same thing: both result in the recipient obtaining a certificate of something or other. But ANAB needs to create this distinction — and confuse everyone, including their intended market — because they have one program that aligns with food industry terminology, and one that aligns with everyone else.

Ditto for the distinction between “accreditation” and “certification.” Yes, in a legal sense these have crucially different meanings. Ditto for anyone working in the ISO certification market, such as myself. But quality professionals need to stop interrupting any conversation raised by a newbie to argue about the differences. It’s really not that important in the daily grind.

Instead, quality professionals need to recognize that not everyone needs to have the identical level of expertise as they do when engaged in simple conversation. There is a time and place to teach, and every waking moment isn’t it.

Trope # 4: Treating ISO 9001 as God’s Word

The fourth trope is related to the slavish adherence to ISO 9001 as a religious text, and that it must be treated with absolute respect. Here we see quality professionals making passionate arguments based on whatever happens to be included in the latest draft of ISO 9001, ignoring the fact that much of the latest draft’s text completely contradicts the last draft’s text.

For example, prior editions of ISO 9001 insisted that the standard had nothing to do with risk management. For the 2015 version, ISO gadfly Nigel Croft drafted a wholly false claim that risk was “implicit” in prior editions. No… no it was not.

Regardless of actual facts, however, quality professionals slavishly repeat this lie to justify the absolutely unforgivable removal of preventive action from the standard. Now, they argue, it’s entirely fine to focus only on correcting existing problems, because the newest version has a clause on “corrective action,” and let the hunt for possible problems be relegated to an undocumented “risk-based thinking” concept that doesn’t actually exist.

You can be sure that if ISO does a reversal in the next edition, and puts “preventive action” back in, these same professionals will suffer whiplash as they completely contradict themselves and insist that “risk-based thinking was never really preventive action.”

(But ISO won’t do that, because Croft is still at the wheel, albeit behind the scenes, and isn’t about to let his legacy get tarnished by admitting he fucked up.)

The reality is that the method by which ISO standards are created has changed dramatically since the 200s. Whereas the TC 176 committee used to take its time and had fewer consultants at the wheel, the opposite is now true. ISO actually advertises the fact that it fast-tracks standards development, and it has opened the floodgates to allow TC 176 to be run nearly entirely by private consultants. This new breed — led by Croft and his ilk — is only interested in selling their services, not making standards that make any sense or which can be implemented without hiring them to decipher it all.

So quality professionals ignore the bad grammar, redundant requirements, blank clauses, or wholly incomprehensible text. Instead, they pretend that everything is just fine, thank you, and that we must adhere to every word — even if those words make no sense. It’s as if someone wanted to convert the Biblical book Revelations into an audit checklist.

Instead, quality professionals must understand that ISO 9001 is written by people, and many of those people are conflicted, dumb, or both. Until ISO puts back the controls it once had to ensure the quality of ISO 9001’s content, and brings back actual editors, we have to view ISO 9001 as a partially inscrutable text, one that must be interpreted by the user in order to be understood.

Trope # 5: Worshipping Auto Manufacturers

In keeping with the cultish tendencies of some quality professionals, we also see an unending and anachronistic tendency to treat automobile manufacturers as the pinnacle of quality. And even worse, quality professionals obsess over two specific car makers — Ford and Toyota — while largely ignoring the rest of the industry.

First, let’s understand that the number one cause of death apart from disease is automobile accidents. Now, sure, many of these can be attributed to the driver or pedestrians. But multiple studies show that “vehicle design” remains a top contributor to this statistic. This is then supported by the sheer number of recalls the industry experiences every year.

Let’s look at those recall figures, too. In the first half of 2020 alone, over 13 million cars were recalled for safety and quality concerns. That was just half of one year!

So how did Ford and Toyota do? Not so good, according to Finbold:

According to our findings, Japan-based Toyota has the highest number of recalls [in 2020] at about 3.95 million followed by Ford at 2.9 million. Volvo has the third-highest recalls at 2.8 million with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles having the fourth highest recalls at 1.74 million. Honda Motors is fifth with about 1.4 million recalls.

Those were just the cars recalled in that period of time, under new recalls. At any given time, multiple recalls remain in effect, causing the numbers to cascade. In just the United States in 2021, over 66 million cars were subject to one or more recalls, and  7.5% of cars in the US were under recall. Those are shocking, damning statistics.

For 2022, the picture remains grim. According to Bankrate, the beloved Ford leads the pack in recalls to date.

But meanwhile, quality professionals continue to tread in tired tropes about Henry Ford’s assembly line systems which date back to the 1910s, and the “Toyota Production System” (TPS) from the 1940s. So prevalent have these cults become, that pasty white guys find themselves using words like “muda” and “kaizen” and “jidoka” with a straight face, pretending to be some sort of Mifune-style samurai in the cutthroat world of quality, ready to kill all comers with their slide rules. It’s embarrassing and needs to stop.

The reality of the 2020s is that Ford and Toyota have long since abandoned all their high-minded quality concepts in the pursuit of cheap labor and compressing costs of their supply chain.

Any time you want to shut up someone blathering on about the Toyota Production System, just say the words “Takata airbags” and watch them fall into sudden, and uncharacteristic, silence.

What do to, then? Look to modern industries that are outpacing car makers on quality, without any formal “production systems” or Japanese words to market them. If you want real inspiration for quality management, look to Apple or Netflix or Disney, not an industry that routinely produces products that kill the user.

(Extra points if you noticed that none of those companies need ISO 9001 to tell them how to work.)

Trope # 6: Whiteboarding Your Obsessions

In the age of social media, we now get a front-row seat to each person’s obsessions, and quality professionals are happy to participate in this. As a result, we are bombarded with photos and slides from quality folks who are so, so proud of their ability to overwhelm anyone in earshot of their knowledge of dubious “tools.”

Nothing will alienate your audience more than trying to show how smart you are by flooding them with ideas they didn’t ask for, in a manner they can’t understand.

This is like trying to shove an entire university degree into someone’s brainstem in five minutes, and expecting it to work. It doesn’t, but it does permanently turn off the person you’re talking to.

Here’s a sample of recent ones I found on LinkedIn:

This is the kind of stuff that belongs on the wall of the Unabomber’s shack, or a serial killer’s basement. This is not impressing anyone.

OK, we get it. You studied stuff. Very good. But you really don’t need to show everyone what you learned at every opportunity.

But I want to be clear: only other quality professionals think this sort of thing is acceptable. Everyone else thinks you’re an OCD-addled nerd who is off their Adderall.

Not every problem needs a 12-hour fix requiring a team of 100 people to draw the spinal anatomy of a fish and ask “Why?” a million times. Quality professionals need to stop pushing their interests on everyone else, and learn to adapt to both situations and their audience. Flexibility is key.

The Future

I’ve tried to provide alternatives for each of the tropes above, but to address the problem overall I simply say that the quality profession needs to advance. It can’t be based on tropes that were built on information from decades ago. The world has changed, and repeating memes and complex diagrams won’t move the profession forward.

Likewise, buzzwords won’t save us, either. Right now we see a host of would-be “modern” experts trotting out futuristic-sounding terms like “Quality 4.0” and “Quality Infrastructure” as if they actually mean something. The truth is, they are making all of this up as they go, and it’s nearly always tied to marketing some book or seminar. None of it is real.

The reality is that the combining of automation and artificial intelligence are combining to put a large number of quality professionals out of business. The future of quality is 100% real-time, in-line inspection performed by automated systems, which then crunch the numbers and provide metrics and objectives to management, cutting the quality professional out of the picture entirely. That’s bleak, but that’s progress.

Today’s professionals, then, need to adapt. They cannot continue to trade in (literally) Model T assembly line practices while living in the era of artificial intelligence. Instead, quality professionals need to undergo rapid training on new concepts, while avoiding shady webinars. This may mean going back to school and learning programming, machine learning, and automation.

Next, quality professionals need to stop repeating the tropes of others, and generate their own insights. Heck, create new tropes (if you want to frame it that way.) I always recoil when people repeat the work of others because it just means they can’t come up with anything new on their own. This means new philosophies, new approaches, new ways of thinking.

And it may take people in uncomfortable directions. It may mean confronting corruption in existing schemes. It may mean dropping standards and certifications and existing “production systems.” It may mean ignoring the flood of tired, bad information coming from publishing companies and the usual suspects. It may mean living in a vacuum until you can create your own air.

But if a profession is easy, then maybe it shouldn’t be a profession.


About Christopher Paris

Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001 and Surviving AS9100. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.


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