“Lean Standard” ISO 18404 – A Questionable Idea …

iso-18404-errorRecently I learned about a new ISO 18404 standard certifying lean and Six Sigma organizations. I think this is a highly questionable idea, with little benefit for the quality of lean manufacturing. This certification madness won’t make much  difference for the quality of lean but will mostly siphon off money to the International Organization for Standardization and connected bodies for certifications of little practical value. Let me show you the details …

What Is the ISO 18404 About?

Six SigmaThe ISO 18404, published December 2015, aims to certify both organizations and individuals in either Six Sigma or lean, or both. Please note that this is not lean Six Sigma, but lean AND Six Sigma. Both lean and Six Sigma certifications come in three levels:

LeanSix Sigma
Lean PractitionerGreen Belt
Lean LeaderBlack Belt
Lean ExpertMaster Black Belt

The roles of the green/black/master black belts are copied from Six Sigma, being a participant, leader, and coach in Six Sigma implementations. The role of the different lean levels are the same as the equivalent Six Sigma levels, only for lean instead of Six Sigma.

For each they list a number of competencies that the person or organization should have. Here’s a selection, most of which are often subdivided into more detailed points in the full description.

The Six Sigma Competencies (Selection of 23 Points)

  • Business process improvement
  • Change management
  • Leadership development (self and others)
  • Creativity thinking
  • Customer focus
  • Decision making
  • Motivating others
  • Numeracy (???)
  • Project management
  • Six Sigma
  • Statistical tools
  • Presentation skills

The Lean Competencies (Selection of 18 Points)

  • Understanding benefits of lean
  • Lean principles
  • Measurement of process performance
  • Creativity thinking
  • Visual management
  • Analysis of data
  • Risk analysis
  • Motivating others
  • Lean techniques
  • Presentation skills

To me, this is a very odd list. While most entries are things that I would like to see in a practitioner of lean, I find it nearly impossible to audit for these qualities. How do you, for example, audit “motivating others,” “customer focus,” and “leadership development”? You may as well audit the riding of a bicycle purely based on paperwork without watching the person ride.

Why Did They Make It? (Official Reason)

Get your Six Sigma certificate here …

Well, the official reason why they created an ISO 18404 standard for lean and Six Sigma is due to the bad quality of some of the certificates handed out by some organizations. This is more of a Six Sigma issue than a lean issue, since there are many organizations handing out Six Sigma belts, while to the best of my knowledge there is no lean certification that comes even close to the widespread use of Six Sigma belts.

I agree that many of the six sigma certificates handed out are not worth the paper they are printed on. For example, I found a one-hour Six Sigma Master Black Belt online course for only USD 29 (Get a USD 15 discount with the automatic promotion code). Yes, within only one hour, you can get the highest Six Sigma belt available, or any other belt from Six Sigma, from green belt to champion. Just don’t expect me to be impressed. Yet, according to the website, thousands are certified every week. For that price I would even believe that. (I did not add the link since I don’t want to advertise such a crappy service).

Of course, there are also more credible courses out there, but unless you have a deep knowledge of those certification agencies, you cannot tell the difference.

Why Did They Make It? (My Guess at the Additional Unofficial Reason)

Pile of 100 Dollar BillsOf course, in my view there is another reason why they created the ISO 18404 standard. Money! Certificates are a big business, especially if there is such a well-known organization behind it like the International Organization for Standardization.

From the International Organization for Standardization side of view, the ISO 9001 is a great success. Millions of companies have been certified in ISO 9001. Many automotive companies require their customers to be ISO 9001 certified. With at least  a couple thousand dollars per certification (not including preparation), we are talking about billions in licensing fees.

Don’t get me wrong, the ISO has made many great and necessary standards, from paper sizes to screw types. In that, I am all for standardization. Yet, in my view, such a complex body of knowledge and experience like lean cannot be squeezed into a standard.


ISO 9001 at the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

It is not the first time that the International Organization for Standardization has created a certification for a rather fuzzy topic. The most famous one is probably ISO 9001, part of the ISO 9000 series on quality. If you are in industry, you must have surely come across ISO 9001 somewhere. They also have others like the ISO 14001 environmental management system, the ISO 39001 for road safety, or the ISO 50001 for energy management.

As for the original goal of improving quality, the results are more mixed. Opponents claim that the whole thing is mostly paperwork. A certificate shows only that the standards are (probably) followed, and gives no clue on how good the standards are. As long as you document it, you (probably) can get certified.

The time required for documentation and certification is not to be underestimated. There will be lots of paperwork, with the risk of managers being even more remote from the actual shop floor.

What Will Happen

Okay, back to the ISO 18404 on lean and Six Sigma. I believe the situation will play out similar to ISO 9001, but slower. A few early adopters will jump on the bandwagon. These may be companies selling Six Sigma belt certificates or firms that want to have another ISO label to put on their letterhead or website. In all likelihood, this will not increase their “lean-ness” but only their paperwork.

Let’s get one more …

I hope it stops at that, with only a few companies getting certified and the rest of the lean world doing business as usual. But the temptation of putting another label on the resume or homepage will probably be too big, and more people and companies will get certified.

The holy grail (from the ISO point of view) is when large companies require their manufacturers to be ISO 18404 certified similar to ISO 9001 nowadays. If that happens (and I hope it doesn’t), then the ones without an ISO 18404 will have a clear disadvantage and may be forced to do the ISO 18404 paperwork, effort, and licensing fee with little benefit other than not being excluded. But then, I still hope it will not happen.

I was wondering myself if I should write about the ISO 18404. Personally, I would prefer that everybody just forgets about it. I am fully aware that by writing a blog post – even a critical one – I am actually spreading the word. It is quite possible that a few readers are now thinking about where and when to get certified. Please don’t. Instead of starting a lot of wannabe paperwork, go out, do some real improvement, and organize your industry!

Response by Prof Tony Bendell

The blog post was inspired by a presentation by Prof. Tony Bendell, and I also kept him in the loop on this post. Since Tony has a more favorable view of the ISO 18404, he wrote a blog post in response to mine. Please check out his view in “It’s Always Good To Question, But It’s Always Bad To Ignore Reality”, so you can make up your own mind. (Update: Since publication this article was unfortunately removed around April 2019, hence I removed the link)

Selected Source

I first learned about ISO 18404 from the following presentation, which presented a favorable view of the standard:

Bendell, Tony: “Does Lean need an ISO Standard“, European Lean Educator Conference, September 14 2016, Buckingham, UK

16 thoughts on ““Lean Standard” ISO 18404 – A Questionable Idea …”

  1. Why? Customer demand! I recently conducted a Workshop and at the end of it was asked if I’d issue participants with a certificate. The client has many posted, certifying that so-and-so attended this-that-or-the-other course; some even declare the attendee passed. I obliged, creating certificates attesting that (member) was part of a kaizen team which improved productivity by 20% over 3 days. To me, that’s a bit closer to money-in-the-bank than a bonny certificate (no matter who might have issued it) or a heavy manual or something. Anyway, everyone was happy!

  2. I previously left a long comment that seemingly disappeared. I’m sorry if you receive two comments from me. Here was the gist: Thank you for writing this. I’m in a Black Belt program through The Ohio State University. It’s a year long program requiring classroom time, 2 projects, and an exam. Upon successful completion I will recieve a Black Belt. I have met folks from less rigorous Black Belt programs, who were not able to represent the certificate competently. Would you say that requiring some sort of accreditation, even if the accrediting body made a significant profit, could be beneficial? I mean, money is already being spent on folks getting less-than-ideal certifications, wouldn’t it be better to allow them the opportunity it to funnel their money into something that would at least produce a better result? This lack of accreditation is something that concerns me as a future Black Belt, because I want my employers to trust and know what it means to have hired a Black Belt. What are your thoughts on this for a budding Six Sigma professional?

  3. There is no doubt that standardisation is important and has its use – from capturing best practice to providing general frameworks (e.g. ISO 9000, 14000, and other families).

    There are so many standards out there so I cannot speak for all of them, but I worked with around 300-400 of them, and the best were written before ISO took over, i.e. by BS, DIN, UIC, etc. Practical, concise, and straightforward.

    Historically committees were led and populated with industry experts, people doing the work, seeing the work, who were in position to, well, actually standardise it.

    Nowadays it seems that some committees are led with consultants and people divorced form reality who dream up standards and then force them into the market, if they can. Just look at ISO 9001:2015. Christopher Paris of Oxebridge is writing extensively on that.

    Of newer standards I liked ISO 22400, about KPIs for manufacturing operations management. Nothing new, but it is great to have such selection of KPIs in a single standard, with definitions, formulae, interrelationships and visualisations. Makes it easier when presenting to managers and C-suite.

    ISO/TC 69/SC 7 has published several Six Sigma related standards before 2015 as well. ISO/TC 69 has some good standards as well, but most of that stuff you can find in proper book on statistics in manufacturing.

    Six Sigma certification market is in total chaos, but it is quite simple. If you want to get certified look for a “provider” that has mandatory project completion and presentation. Otherwise you certificate is as good as that toilet paper above.

    There is enough agreement on what Six Sigma is and what its BoK is, so it could be standardised. Lean cannot be standardised since there is no agreement on what Lean is, what are its fundamental elements, and how are they defined. LEI had the chance to do that but decided to go the other way.

    Now, should they be standardised, well that’s up for discussion.

  4. Hi danielleptong, sorry if your comment disappeared. i also checked the spam filter, but no comment either.

    The quality of Six Sigma certificates wary widely. Some are good, others are not. In my view, Lean in a classroom can be only for the basics, and the true experience has to be collected in the field. Having an ISO standard may lead to all being certified if they pay and satisfy a minimum standard, hence it may weed out only the worst offenders. On the other hand qualified people without ISO black belts (e.g. me?) may be left out because they did not pay for the certificate.

    it is a difficult topic. I am mostly against the idea, but I realize that there are probably many who like it.

    Many thanks for commenting 🙂

  5. Thanks for the article, I really laugh off my chair when I read the idea of a lean ISO and thought it was a joke, but apparently it is not. I’m personally 3 times green belt and black belt certified from which I only value one of them. Some companies hand them out like candies!

    Like in any profession, they are good and bad examples and those who call themselves black belts or lean professionals are better judged by their completed projects and reflective thinking than by their certifications. That is why sometime ago I started my project binder including both the projects with a success story and the ones that failed for both self-reflection and jokoten.

    One day the best Lean certification will be a swami on the top of Mount Everest that will ask you 10 coaching questions and never tell you if you “pass” or “fail”.

  6. There are many regular posts (for instance on LinkedIn) of people asking where to get certified. Systematically these people are looking for CV food or a way of being promoted. I have yet to see a post talking about getting certified to actually improve a production system…
    How do you recognize a good plane pilot? The same way you would certify a good improver…by the number of flight hours…
    This is a safety announcement “fasten your black belts guys”, Flight ISO18404 is about to take off and a crash is imminent.

  7. Miguel & Frank: Agree. While they are good Six Sigma people out there, the training alone is only the basics. I sometimes feel that if someone puts too much emphasis on his/her Six sigma belt, then there is probably not much behind it. I rather hear what the person has done (which should include failures, too – a sign of good self reflection!). Many thanks for commenting 🙂

  8. Well as an ex Toyota leader in TPS and TW we never considered ISO as anything to consider. Clearly as our standards were much higher and focused on people more than process

  9. Standards organization’s should stick to weights and measures. They have no business issuing standards or certifications in management or engineering practices. They have done it in quality, causing companies to spend money, time and effort implementing practices that did nothing to improve the quality of their products.

    The primary effect has been to raise the barrier to entry for newcomers to manufacturing. And it makes you wonder whether it was not the intent of the incumbents who control organizations like ISO.

  10. You hit the nail on the head, when you said, “…when large companies require their manufacturers to be ISO 18404 certified.” This is what will drive it. The thing is, most companies (especially governement) do poorly understand what lean and six sigma are, that they’re going to dictate it. Honestly, I didn’t know this ISO had been developed and I’m pretty connected. But now the Lean Sigma Institute is offering training for individuals to meet the standard. See, the training companies and auditors are going to work to convince big business that they need this and that way they can train to it. I will say that I would love to see the online certification mills shut down, so people can’t simply buy a belt…that sickens me!

  11. Nice point, John. Measuring “lean” is difficult, measuring “lean knowledge” even more. Many people unfortunately want a measurement, regardless of how bad it is.

  12. When you talk about CA $ 19 certification is confusing, because the same provider prepares in a week and USD 597 MBA.
    Is this a reason to discredit the MBA or any other diploma.
    I say no, on the contrary.
    there will always be certifications grocers with or without ISO 18404, on the contrary I think one of the fragile bricks of the ISO system and repository for certification of people in the field of continuous improvement.
    Moreover this referentials of skills (18404), which will help eliminate this kind of certificate authority (in half an hour and $ 19) for it is clear that he will never be compliant.
    So I don’t know what this has to do with ISO 18404.

  13. For me, a MBA in a week is the same as a $19 Six Sigma certification. A full MBA can be helpful, although they often seem to suffer from a lack of practical experience while believing that they have this experience. By coincidence I wrote a related article on “How to learn Lean“.

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