Interview with Professor Dr. de Vries on ISO 9001 and Standardization

February 2019

Prof. Dr. Henk J. de Vries is Associate Professor of Standardization at the Rotterdam School of Management, President of the European Academy for Standardization (EURAS) and was formerly Chairman of the International Cooperation on Education about Standardization (ICES). He has authored and co-authored more than 300 publications in this field. We invited him to participate in an interview and share his thoughts on ISO 9001.

Our research shows that ISO 9001 can be successfully implemented in any culture.

Prof. Dr. Henk J. de Vries

Professor de Vries, what attracted you to your job? And what do you like most about it?

Having worked before at the Netherlands Standardization Institute NEN, I was already familiar with the field of standardization and knew about its major importance, found it intriguing, and also saw that the field was in need of a professional approach underpinned by scientific research.

Some commentary of yours about ISO 9001, along with a photo of you, has been published on the website for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). How did it feel to gain such high-level recognition?

Of course this can be seen as high-level recognition but for the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University being a top-ranked business school, the acceptance of my research by highly-ranked academic journals is much more important, second is the recognition by ISO in 2009 that my education on standardization is the best in the world, and third my impact on business and society, including me having co-developed the predecessor of ISO's High Level Structure for Management System Standards.

ISO 9001 Consultants

Prof. Dr. Henk J. de Vries, Associate Professor of Standardization, Rotterdam School of Management

In addition to ISO 9001, what standards do you teach and/or research at the Rotterdam School of Management?

My teaching is on the management of standards and the process of standardization rather than on specific standards, and there is no limitation to any category of standards or business sector.

Compared to ISO 9001:2008, what do you think are the main improvements in the latest revision, ISO 9001:2015?

The new standard is better aligned to other management system standards thanks to the High Level Structure. This should allow companies to add more easily another management system to their ISO 9001-based Quality Management System and integrate these systems. Moreover, the new standard is more than the previous one about "good business", including a major role for top management, attention for the organization's external environment, and management of risks.

Do you see any downsides in the latest revision? If so, what would you suggest that users of the standard do to overcome them?

The improvements of the standard have made it more abstract and in that sense more difficult to implement. Many companies used to have a rather straightforward implementation, giving more attention to control than to improvement. This makes implementation easier but hinders reaping the full benefits. I hope the new standard triggers companies to really use the standard as a managerial tool for business improvement.

In addition to the problems already mentioned, there may be problems with consultants having a too old-fashioned interpretation of the standard, leading to rigid systems that focus on control rather than improvement. Companies then end up with sub-optimal systems that hinder rather than help the business.

Prof. Dr. Henk J. de Vries

ISO 9001 standardizes certain aspects of management. Could you explain how a small business may benefit by adopting standardized management practices?

I disagree that it standardizes aspects of management. The only thing is that it requires management to address certain topics but they are free in their choice how to do this. These topics do make sense, also for small and medium-sized companies.

Employees are sometimes alarmed by the prospect of ISO 9001 at their company, fearing that standardization will make them easier to replace. Are their worries justified?

ISO 9001 makes processes transparent, including the role of employees. Process descriptions describe what needs to be done and who is responsible rather than how this should be done, the latter relates to the professionalism of the employees. The more professional, the lower the need for detailed descriptions.

But indeed, replacing an employee with someone who has similar or better knowledge and skills becomes easier. This also can be seen as an element of risk management – the company should be able to continue work once somebody becomes sick, is on holiday or leaves the company. I would not see this as negative, on the contrary. However, a more serious issue is that the standard talks about people in terms of resources – as if they were just production factors like machines rather than real human beings. In this sense the EFQM model is better, it better reflects European values.

Small businesses owners often reject the idea of implementing an ISO 9001 QMS by arguing that it would destroy the individuality of the business and its culture. How would you alleviate their fears?

As I've already explained, this is simply not true. Our research shows that ISO 9001 can be successfully implemented in any culture. This however does not imply that there cannot be tensions between the culture and ISO 9001.

As far as small businesses are concerned, there are two primary approaches to ISO 9001 implementation: using an external consultant, or setting up ISO 9001 in-house, possibly with the help of a template kit. Which approach would you suggest to the owner of a small business?

I would suggest a combination: getting external assistance but not more than that. It should really be the company's own system, home-made. A third option is to team up with other SMEs, either in the same geographic area or as members of the same trade association. Then they also can share a common quality manager.

The cost of achieving ISO 9001 certification could be substantial depending on the implementation approach. Are these costs generally offset by the financial benefits of ISO 9001 and, if so, how long does it take reap the rewards?

Research shows that in many cases the costs are not outweighed by the benefits. This is not due to the standard but to wrong implementation. The main costs are not in the certification but in the time needed to design, implement and maintain the system. If these costs are outweighed by the benefits depends in the first place on the starting situation: does the new system improve the functioning of the organization substantially or did it already function at a high level of quality?

The benefits then should come from more effectiveness and efficiency internally and from enhanced customer satisfaction and as a result a better market position and thus more sales externally. These are benefits of the system itself. On top of these, certification, if any, may bring additional benefits: internally as a milestone along the road towards improvements, and externally as a signal of the quality of the organization's management system. In some cases it is a prerequisite for being acceptable to certain customers, or having the certificate makes it easier to meet legal requirements (for example, as in the European New Approach for medical products).

In your opinion, what problems do companies typically encounter when implementing an ISO 9001 Quality Management System? In other words, what are the main hurdles that need to be overcome?

In addition to the problems already mentioned, there may be problems with consultants and certification bodies having a too old-fashioned interpretation of the standard, leading to rigid systems that focus on control rather than improvement. Companies then end up with sub-optimal systems that hinder rather than help the business, and they may be afraid to make changes in their processes.

Professor de Vries, thank you very much for your time and cooperation.

It was a pleasure.

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