"Quest for Quality Standards Aids a Company and its Customers"
[Column #7, 7/95]

Some Thoughts on Standards

A lot of fads come and go in our industry, but quality continues to figure prominently in discussions about how to remain profitable, attract new customers and satisfy current ones, improve products and services and beat the competition. Everyone is striving to define and measure that elusive concept of quality. And, like the old story of the blind men and the elephant, each of us has widely differing ideas about what "quality" really is.

Here at Bindagraphics, we recently decided to embark upon the lengthy process of preparing for ISO 9000 certification. As you may know, ISO is a rigorous, thorough system of quality assurance standards for both manufacturing and service organizations. The standards were adopted earlier on a large scale by businesses in the European Economic Community and are now being accepted and implemented by many companies in the U.S. and Canada. Intended to help companies improve internal processes by implementing effective quality management systems, the standards also give customers a way to compare apples to apples when evaluating vendors. For some companies, ISO has also been a useful foundation for TQM and other quality improvement programs.

The cornerstone of ISO is a comprehensive audit and documentation of objectives, production processes, quality policies, job descriptions, organizational charts, customer requirements, quality control procedures and problem-solving methods. Ideally, all this documentation results in clearly-stated quality control instructions that are implemented company-wide. Documentation takes the form of manuals, flow-charts and diagrams.

Companies that adopt ISO standards provide their customers with a reliable, widely-accepted yardstick with which to measure performance. Internally, the formalization and standardization of processes helps employees become more productive. As a company methodically audits all its procedures and clearly documents them, the likelihood of ambiguity and misunderstanding diminishes dramatically. This helps decrease the "frustration factor" and makes it easier for people to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently.

Because ISO focuses on processes and does not guarantee the quality of the finished product, the system has its detractors. Critics have suggested that quality would be better measured through actual product improvements rather than detailed documentation. One article I read recently pointed out that it's possible to comply with ISO standards and still have an inferior quality product. While this may be true, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with ISO. The system was never meant to be the answer to all quality issues and concerns, it's really just a big step in a comprehensive, long-term improvement program.

In our industry, major printers have taken up the ISO banner, in many cases because their customers require that suppliers be certified. With more and more companies entering international markets, certification (or lack thereof) has become an issue. Even if a printer has no foreign clients, the printer's customers may well have international accounts. In other instances, printers may adopt ISO not because of customer demand, but because it's a great way to improve processes and reduce waste. A lot of companies find that ISO certification adds caché to their marketing efforts. Finally, certification provides a competitive advantage in seeking new business and forming strategic partnerships.

Why ISO at Bindagraphics. As a post-press finishing company, Bindagraphics is at the end of the production chain. We must respond to the quality expectations not only of our own customers but also of our customers. We must meet the challenges presented by customers demands for shorter production cycles, invisible client-vendor connections, comprehensive service and stringent quality control. We're pursuing certification because we believe formalizing our systems and procedures will improve our productivity and the quality of our services.

What prompted us to opt for ISO rather than another program, such as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award or Deming-based TQM? Redundancy and wasted motion, inefficient processes and too many mistakes and inconsistencies. I realized that the problem lay not with our employees, who give it their best effort, but with the system. For example, some procedures were never carried out the same way twice, or were not done in the most efficient manner. Lack of standardized methods left us vulnerable to errors, oversights and miscommunication. The process of setting standards replaces improvisation with clarity and order. An added bonus, standardization leads to a preventative, rather than reactive, approach to problems.

What's in It for Customers. The adoption of ISO standards will bring greater consistency to our operations. Our customers will see this in the quality of our work, in our ability to meet deadlines, in the way we communicate with them about their jobs. They'll know what to expect from us, and have the assurance that we're using sound quality control procedures. And when problems do inevitably arise, customers will see greater efficiency in the way we resolve them.

At Bindagraphics, we've assembled a very talented workforce, but a great workforce without standardized procedures and systems will not deliver an outstanding product. ISO doesn't tell you how to run your business once you've formalized procedures and systems, it just makes the day-to-day operations go more smoothly and efficiently. Essentially, the ISO philosophy can be summarized in three steps: say what you're going to do, do what you say you'll do and be able to prove it.

As Bindagraphics moves toward ISO certification, I'll use this space to give periodic status reports of our progress. Next month, though, I'll be back with another column about finishing methods.