Recently 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?
The 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:
|Lean Practitioner||Green Belt|
|Lean Leader||Black Belt|
|Lean Expert||Master 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)
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)
Of 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.
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.
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)
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