The Power of ISO
Smart manufacturers are leveraging ISO certification to perfect processes and edge out the competition.
BY ANDREA LAHOUZE
Nick Panitzke, Ultra Machining Company apprentice, is learning that ISO means continual improvement.
In today's world of "extended" and "lifetime" warranties, businesses need more confidence than ever in the quality of their suppliers' products. Guaranteed quality is particularly important for the aerospace and medical device industries. Failure, after all, is not an
option when you're implanting a cardiac stent or flying 30,000 feet in the air.
As regulations for these and other industries increase, businesses are seeking suppliers that consider quality a top priority and have the evidence to prove it. So it comes as no surprise that suppliers are turning to the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO,
to demonstrate a documented commitment to quality -- and to attract new customers and markets.
The History of ISO
ISO was established in 1946 following the union of the ISA (International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations) and the UNSCC (United Nations Standards Coordinating Committee). Since 1947, it has published more than 16,500 international standards, contributing
greatly to the globalization of industry.
In the 1960s, NASA published a quality standards manual for its suppliers as a way to foster confidence in its products. When the 1970s saw a proliferation of larger companies following suit, the notion of an international quality management standard came to the forefront of
ISO activities. To standardize quality across companies and nations, ISO published the first family of international quality management standards, called ISO 9000, in 1987.
Today, ISO 9000 standards are recognized as the most widely known standards in the world. Wanting proof of a quality process, more and more original equipment manufacturers -- especially those in the automotive, aerospace and medical device industries -- are choosing to work
only with ISO-certified suppliers, and suppliers are rushing to meet expectations.
But for some ISO-seeking suppliers, certification is more than just a selling strategy. Armed with more than 30 years of manufacturing, engineering and sales experience, Enterprise Minnesota process engineering specialist Kent Myhrman has helped dozens of manufacturers to
become ISO certified. Myhrman also is a certified senior trainer, helping to prepare ISO 9001 internal auditors for audits within their companies. He says that while pressure from customers is the most common reason manufacturers get certified, those that benefit most view the
certification process as an opportunity to revitalize their entire business, from organization to company culture and beyond.
"For a lot of the smaller and mid-sized companies that we work with, this is the very first time they've put a lot of structure into their organizations," Myhrman says. "The benefit of that is just huge. The trick is to add that structure without taking away the ability
for it to be flexible and creative."
Step One: Conquer the Fear Factor
The first trick, however, is getting employees on board. For Ultra Machining Company in Monticello, it's a familiar quest. The company has manufactured precision machined parts and products for more than 40 years, selling to customers in the aerospace and medical device
industries. ISO certification often is a prerequisite to doing business in these strictly regulated markets, and UMC wasted no time, achieving its first ISO certification in 1997. Subsequent ISO certifications for the aerospace (AS9100) and surgical tool (1345) industries have kept
the company in good standing with its customers. Today, about 80 percent of UMC's annual $22 million in sales comes from customers that require various ISO certifications.
Don Tomann, president, says educating workers about the ISO process and its benefits before jumping into the certification process is key.
"The difficulty from a business owner's standpoint was changing the culture of the company to use [ISO] as a tool to truly make our business better and not view it as something that we had to do, or as a burden," Tomann says. "If people don't view it correctly, it does
become a cost driver for your business. It'll bog your business down and people won't follow the procedures.It's like any of us growing up; if you're told to do something and you don't understand why, you drag your feet."
For Von Ruden Manufacturing, a custom drive tool manufacturer in Buffalo, misperceptions causedinitial resistance. Steve Geurts, manufacturing manager, says workers required assurance that processes would not undergo drastic changes, but instead smaller tweaks.
"Everybody always has this overwhelming fear of the ISO process almost shutting you down with ... new processes and procedures," Geurts says. "Once we got everybody beyond that fear factor to realize it's simply doing what we were doing every day -- and maybe tightening
up a few loose ends -- then it went quite smoothly."
In fact, the ISO process was just the spark Von Ruden Manufacturing needed to ignite a companywide dedication to continuous improvement. While internal "programs of the month" often struggle to gain traction, Geurts says pursuing an external certification fostered team
spirit and a can-do attitude across the business.
"It organized us and got everybody on the same page in terms of accepting change," he says. "ISO is really a process of continually improving, and it's difficult to push that in an environment where people don't see why you need to change. The ISO [certification process]
gives you that vehicle to really accomplish change. It brings in that neutral party, and everybody is quick to jump on board; they see why you need to do it, and things do get done faster."
Step Two: Work Smarter
Perhaps ISO's largest myth is that it requires an abundance of brand-new processes and procedures. In reality, ISO asks that manufacturers examine each of their existing processes under a microscope, revise them to meet ISO requirements and keep on hand an official, documented
procedure for every activity they believe would benefit from one. The documentations standardize each process and also help customers to understand the intricacies of a manufacturer's production process, including how the manufacturer ensures product quality. Enterprise Minnesota
process engineering specialist David Ahlquist explains that the documentation can and should be simple.
"If you have too many [written] procedures that are complicated, people won't follow them," Ahlquist says. "A simple checklist or a flow chart is often adequate to communicate what workers need to do to follow a process."
Though ISO requires that documented procedures meet specific criteria, it is far from a plug-and-play certification. Tim Bjorgum, process engineering specialist for Enterprise Minnesota, says that successful ISO-certified companies may take 10 months or more to implement ISO
in a way that fits their business, instead of fitting into a perceived one-size-fits-all ISO mold.
"Enterprise Minnesota tries to look at ISO from a business perspective more so than a quality perspective," Bjorgum says. "We're trying to make the ISO certification work for the business, instead of the business working for ISO. We're going to ask questions like, 'The
standard says you should be doing this. How are you currently doing it and how can we make this ISO quality system work for you?'"
Kent Smith, president of injection mold manufacturer Diamond Tool and Engineering, had long considered seeking ISO certification to attract new customers and retain existing ones in the automotive, electronic and medical industries. But seeing other ISO-certified manufacturers
gave him pause before beginning the process.
"So many times, I'd seen places that had become ISO-approved, and there was a lot more paperwork and a lot more red tape, but I didn't see that anything had gotten better. It almost seemed like things had gotten worse," Smith says. "I wasn't that excited about it."
Smith and his team worked with Myhrman to develop procedures that fit ISO requirements without adding superfluous red tape for his company's 20 employees. He says the changes have motivated employees across all departments of his business to focus on quality through every step
"The requirements help you to keep a good edge on things, especially as a small company," Smith says. "We don't have one particular person that all they do is the quality. We've got different individuals in the company that have [quality] as part of their job description,
but they're doing other things as well."
For Geurts, who also worked with Myhrman to achieve ISO certification, keeping documentations as simple as possible when revising processes helped streamline company activities without adding a deluge of excess rules and regulations.
"There is nothing in ISO that says [process documentations] have to be complex," Geurts says. "Simplify them as much you can and do what you say you do."
Step Three: Reap the Rewards
Though customer demand most often drives ISO certification, companies can benefit on multiple levels. Smith says the documented job instructions help employees to excel, improving efficiency. ISO, he explains, "puts more pressure on the company to make sure that processes
are clear so that the employees have every opportunity to be successful at their jobs."
UMC's Stacy Obrycki, regulatory affairs and compliance specialist, adds that standardized job instructions also have expedited the learning curve for new employees. Now, she says, new hires "know how to do their work right away, and they're all consistent in the way they do
For Steve Yulga, director of business development for wire harness, cable assembly and control panel manufacturer Elektro Assemblies, the biggest challenge of ISO was investing the necessary time. Once they're ISO-approved, however, companies can look forward to speedier
customer audits and sales contracts. Tomann says ISO certification has knocked his customer audits down from three days to one-and-a-half or less. Instead of filling out paperwork detailing quality management for customers, Smith's company simply sends in its ISO quality manual.
Ken Detloff is president of Kenway Engineering, which manufactures air conditioning and heating systems for heavy trucks and agriculture and construction vehicles. Since achieving ISO earlier this year, Detloff says customers' confidence in his company has skyrocketed.
"If you are certified, [customers] talk to you in a different fashion. ... They're more interested in our system and how we deal with our system, and it's easier for us to do business with them," Detloff says.
Internal improvements resulting from ISO also make a business attractive to prospective customers. Bjorgum explains that ISO gives a customer confidence in both the supplier's product quality and process efficiency.
"Companies are still looking at ISO as a way to generate revenue, but I think that added benefit of reducing costs on the other side is equally pushing [ISO's popularity] ... as the customer, I would want a company to have this certification because I would want somebody
that is looking for ways to ensure they can meet my needs, but also in a way that keeps costs down and ensures good quality," Bjorgum says.
Elektro Assemblies serves as a prime example. Yulga estimates that Elektro's new and prospective customers will help its sales grow to 20 percent of parent company Automated Equipment's total revenue by the end of 2010, with a minimum 5 percent increase in future annual sales.
"We were making quality parts and we weren't having issues with the work [before certification] but we couldn't show the standard of care ...and we were losing customers because of that," Yulga says. "Now, we not only can tell people that we do good quality work, but we
can prove it; we can show it."
For more information on ISO Certification, go to