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Quality Assurance, Customer Satisfaction and ISO 9001

Dec 20, 2022

An anecdote from our Director, Craig Milne, about a 1990s Design Award Panel for a Ford vehicle highlights how firms need to go beyond surveying customer satisfaction in setting goals for their Quality Management System.

What does ‘quality’ mean?

What does ‘quality’ mean? Putting aside the more profound examinations of classical philosophy for the mundane definitions found in the conduct of business activities, quality may generally be taken to mean ‘fitness for purpose’. Quality Assurance is the processes and systems designed to make sure a product or service is good quality.

Within the ISO 9000 framework the fitness for purpose of a good or service was understood as ‘conformance to contracted requirements.’ Although less emphasised today, this interpretation was particularly explicit in the earliest forms of the ISO 9000 Standard, as derived from BS 5750 and the military procurement standards that preceded it.

In its military beginnings, expressing quality in contractual terms was an important means of holding civilian suppliers to account, particularly given their assumed propensity to extract rents from taxpayers for the supply of goods on which the lives of soldiers might depend.

In the current iteration of the standard, ISO 9001:2015, this is expressed in the closely related concept to ‘meeting customer requirements.’ The product or service was fit for purpose if it met the customer’s requirements.

The ISO 9000 Standard has evolved over subsequent iterations, in response to a different understanding of “quality”; that which emerged (mainly) from the Japanese automotive industry and was expressed in the TQM approach.

TQM differed from the ISO 9000 definitional framework through its fixation on the reduction of variation, an obsession with defect eradication and, above all, by the adoption of progressive specification improvement and tolerance reduction as a competitive strategy. Whereas ISO 9000 took a legalistic “theory of contracts” view of quality (which implied a negotiated equality between buyers and sellers – in line with liberal market theory), TQM had a somewhat asymmetrical aspect in that it made a point of offering buyers more than they were actually asking for.

An example from the past can illustrate some of these themes. About twenty-five years ago our organisation was regularly called upon to comment on quality assurance issues as part of the process of assessing Design Awards for manufacturers. The particular case in point involved an Australian-designed Ford sedan.

The Australian made Fords, once popular, are no longer produced. These cars had many commendable attributes; they drove well, were robust, durable and well-suited to the tough conditions of the Australian outback. There was always a certain coarseness in their execution, however; in fairness mainly because the American management were not interested in refinement, didn’t really want to build cars in Australia. Therefore they never provided sufficient funds to build their Australian models to the standard needed to meet the Japanese challenge.

When inspecting the vehicle, it was clear that the frontal structure of the cars we examined were made to close tolerances and well put together. On the other hand, the whole centre section of these cars, the doors and closures, were, in terms of alignments, fits, panel flushness, mouldings and general care in assembly, rather unimpressive. On pointing this out, the engineers responded that the frontal section had to be precisely built to pass the mandatory crash tests but when asked as to why the core structure was not built to a similar standard, the explanation offered was “our customers aren’t asking us for that”.

This was a striking admission; the customers were not “asking” for something better, they were simply progressively moving over to the producers, such as Toyota, who didn’t need to be asked to build their cars properly.

This anecdote reveals a few concepts relevant to running an ISO 9001 system. Surveys of customer satisfaction are often relied upon heavily to meet the requirements of performance evaluation and monitoring under clause 9 of the standard. However the obvious weakness is that you are not surveying the potential customers who ended up choosing a rival product which better met their requirements.

If you are relying too heavily on your existing customers to tell you their requirements or ask for a change, or if you are waiting for them to retrospectively express disappointment in a satisfaction survey, the damage may already be done. Furthermore, customers may realise before even buying your product or service that it will not meet their requirements, so you will never even get the chance to survey them for satisfaction.

This underscores the importance of leadership – leadership need to really understand their industry so that they can accurately and pre-emptively determine the requirements of all potential customers, not just existing customers. Customer satisfaction surveys can then serve their proper purpose as a fine-tuning device and for finding non-conformances, rather than for setting the entire agenda of what the customer requirements are.

In terms of “fitness for purpose” the Australian Fords certainly worked well enough; decades after their production many thousands of the model we examined are still running, often with colossal mileages. As for their “conformance to contractual requirements”, their buyers must have thought so, or they would not have bought them. But in terms of providing more than their customers were asking for – effectively meaning pre-empting the requirements of potential customers – these cars did not make the grade the same way as the Japanese producers who came to dominate the market did.