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It's Always Good to Question But It's bad to Ignore Reality

In his blog article on "Lean Standard" ISO 18404 – A Questionable Idea… Christoph Roser starts by saying that “This certification madness won’t make much difference for the quality of lean.”

As anyone practicing in the real world knows, the quality of much Lean implementation and training is in many cases questionable, sometimes so bad that it doesn’t just waste money in implementing, but it actually makes things worse. These cases are well documented but recur frequently due to naivety, commercial interest and the absence of internationally recognised reference standards.

Any ‘cowboy’ can do Lean, consult in Lean, contract in Lean or train in Lean. And unfortunately, there are many customers out there, individuals and organisations, who do not have the knowledge, experience or insight to differentiate good from bad Lean. What is good or bad Lean is, of course, a matter of opinion but broadly the professional and academic communities do have consensus, for example seeing isolated use of Blitz Kaizen without adequate preparation or follow up as unlikely to be successful. And yet it still goes on, on an extensive scale, since much of the market knows no better.

Similarly, anyone who understands Lean knows that a Lean practitioner needs lots of additional skills and competences over and beyond knowledge of Lean tools. They must be able to manage stakeholders, often project manage improvement, find appropriate data to measure current performance, lead and manage a team, motivate, communicate, and manage their own development. That’s for starters. But, so much Lean training is only about tools.

And organisations also lose their way. I have seen many organisations (as, I suspect, we all have) where, having set up a Lean programme of activity, they then forget exactly how it fits in with corporate objectives and think about it just as about cost savings, where key people have been trained by different providers and there is a lack of coherence and even conflict within the approaches, and where the programme limps on ineffectively in the background with management attention having moved on.

All of this is why the international standard for Lean and Six Sigma, ISO18404 was created. A standard gives a reference point, an aspiration to improve management and performance, and something once got, that management doesn’t want to lose, hence empowering the Lean champion, like the Quality Manager, to keep the organisation’s eye on the ball. You can implement a standard badly within an organisation, but that is not a reason to condemn such standardisation. Do it right instead.

Later in his article, Christoph says he finds it difficult to understand how to audit required competencies. He asks “How do you, for example, audit ‘motivating others’, ‘customer focus’, and ‘leadership development’?” Well, it isn’t difficult. The reason that practitioners are assessed on competencies under ISO18404 is that in this field, what you can do well is more relevant than what you know in theory. Competency based assessment, following much good, well established international practice, is based on a combination of submitted documentary evidence of having done it previously for real, and an interview process at an assessment centre.

Christoph believes that money is the reason for the new standard being created, and, in a sense, I agree with him. And, I will add, vested interest. Most national standard bodies supporting ISO standards, such as BSI in the UK, are government or not for profit. ISO itself is an independent, non-governmental international organization with a membership of 163 such national standards bodies. Many, if not most, accredited certification bodies who certify standards such as ISO18404 are also not for profit. There is, however, as we know a for-profit sector in current training, certification and consultancy in Lean. Whilst these are in no way prohibited from continuing operations by the creation of ISO18404, they and their clients now have an internationally agreed reference point to work around.

Christoph thinks that the current certification issue is less of a problem for Lean than Six Sigma. I am less sure. A quick google search shows innumerable Lean certifiers and certificates on the web, some good, some less so. And use of Google Trends shows that interest in Lean certification overall has been increasing, if slowly. More so, actually than has Six Sigma certification.

So, I disagree with Christoph. But I respect his opinion and welcome this opportunity to have this debate. No one is compelling to use, or not use, ISO18404. There are arguments for both. But please, do not dismiss it out of hand without looking at it.

(Prof) Tony Bendell

Project Manager for ISO18404 Sector Scheme

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