ISO-9000 is Bogus

ISO isn't an acronym -- the organization is (in English) the International Organization for Standardization -- but the short, standard, language independent way of referring to it, derived from a Greek word meaning "the same", and cognate with the prefix in words such as "isobar", "isotherm" and "isosceles". Knowing this is important for understanding what the organization is for -- standardization. Not quality -- standardization.

Standardization is about making things the same. Sometimes sameness is important -- e.g. one pound coins have to be accepted by vending machines, plugs have to fit in the sockets they were designed for. And in software, it gives various guarantees to the user -- ANSI (another standards organization) standard C source, and ANSI Common Lisp source, are portable across compilers and operating systems. And when a standard is broken, it causes no end of problems -- consider the mess caused by Microsoft and Netscape's non-standard HTML and ECMAScript (JavaScript) extensions. Standards are often deliberately broken to deny the competition market share, thereby making development of rival products harder.

Quality, by contrast, is about making things better. Better implies different, or non-standard.

So: standardization cannot improve quality. In fact, it actually hinders quality improvement, preventing it until the standard is changed, and this can only come about by consensus, which takes time, often years, to arrive at.

In fact, better products will be rejected by any standardization system (often misunderstood as "quality control system" or "quality management system") because they are different.

The only upside, and this was presumably ISO's intention, is that if you have goods of varying degrees of quality, you could aim at standardizing around "best practice" and by doing so raising the quality of the poorest up to the standard set by the best. But you cannot improve on that, and what is called "best practice" is often decided by people who aren't qualified to judge.

Quality cannot be measured

ISO-9000 implies that quality can be measured (you can't standardize something if you can't measure it). Yet for something to be measured, it has to be quantitative, which by definition excludes qualitative. Redness has both quantity (the frequency or wavelength of the light associated with it) and quality (the experience you have when you see something red. These are different, and only the former can be measured. The second cannot even be communicated in any non-circular way.

To see the effects of standardization upon quality, read Big Macs vs. The Naked Chef.


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© Copyright Donald Fisk 2003