A Question of Balance - Innovation has a place in the world of standards

by Peter Merrill

Many people say that mentioning standards and innovation in the same breath is a contradiction in terms. Evidence from the real world says otherwise.

In 2008, I spoke at ASQ’s International Conference on ISO 9000 and QMS (quality management systems) in Orlando and described the innovation process model in my book, Innovation Generation. Later, I was approached by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, which wanted to use this model—now used by ASQ’s Innovation and Value Creation Technical Committee—as the basis for the new Irish national standard on innovation.

Around the same time, the European Committee for Standardization Technical Committee (TC) 389 on Innovation Management started work after realizing that innovation required a systems approach. These events revealed the increasing global interest in innovation standards.

Clearly, people were realizing that a process approach and systems thinking are fundamental to successful innovation. Unfortunately, some countries set out to create so-called innovation standards and ended up with R&D standards. They still haven’t learned that for innovation to succeed, it must do so in a management system.

Resolving the conflict

So why do people think innovation and standards can’t play nicely together? One reason is that people think of innovation as some kind of magic, and the other is that they think standards are a concrete framework. Let’s break down both and see if we can change that thinking:

1. Innovation "magic." The innovation process has two phases: creative and execution. In the creative phase, you operate in a loose mode but still follow a process. People have difficulty with this because they have been schooled in process control and the principle of not allowing process variation. But even idea generation or the ideation step of the creative phase follows a process.

Structured brainstorming is necessary for new ideas. For creativity, you need a process, but it must have a high degree of freedom and be part of the management system of the organization or it will die. Even an artist painting a picture follows a process. You test a color on the palette before applying it to the canvas. You create an outline before applying color.

Moving to execution, or the delivery phase of the innovation process, the process must be rigorous, and a QMS is crucial to delivering an innovative solution. This applies to the development and delivery of your new offering. 

An important thing to remember is that while innovation follows a process, it’s a cyclical one. You never stop innovating. In fact, an innovation management system follows the classic plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle (see Figure 1): planning occurs during the opportunity stage, doing during the formulation of a conceptual solution, checking during development and acting during the final delivery.

2. "Concrete" standards. Most people think of standards in highly regulatory or compliance terms. This is the traditional picture of standards. But an insider’s look at a standard everyone is familiar with may change that.

I’m at the heart of the creation of ISO 9001 as a member of the strategic advisory group of TC176. Somewhat embarrassingly, I can recite almost all the requirements of ISO 9001. But I’m bitterly disappointed at the misunderstanding and misuse of the standard.

Auditors and users treat the standard as if their organization should be encased in concrete. Yes, if you are in chaos and need discipline, use the standard to create order and process thinking. But your end game should be an agile organization. 

To borrow an album title from my one-time favorite band the Moody Blues, it’s "A Question of Balance." The creative phase must have a process. The execution phase must have agility.

Increasing agility

If you’re in the software industry, you’ve heard of the agile manifesto, which is about redressing the balance and moving back from a rigid use of standards to a point at which the pendulum is back in the center between loose and tight.1

A couple of years ago, a presenter at the World Conference on Quality and Improvement (I wish I had his name so I could give him credit) adapted it for a QMS. The first of his five points was that the agile manifesto values improvement over compliance. Yes, we must observe laws and regulations, but the auditor has a job beyond that when a standard follows the PDCA cycle. Every organization should be raising the bar on its performance objectives on a regular basis.

ISO 14001 does this well, but for ISO 9001, lazy auditors don’t push for improvement; instead, they focus on compliance. If you are registered to ISO 9001, force your auditor to force you to raise the bar. Use clause 8.2.1 (customer satisfaction measurement) as a tool to find unfulfilled customer needs, not just their requirements.

Unfulfilled needs are the start of the innovation process. In your customer satisfaction survey, ask questions such as, "In which areas do you waste time?" and "In which areas do you have difficulty getting things done?" This reveals opportunities, which become objectives in the PDCA cycle of innovation management. Having found a customer need, you can use clause 8.5 (improvement) to address the need.

Knowledge is power

The next two of the presenter’s points in adapting the agile manifesto were "understanding over audits" and "learning over habits."

You don’t wait for your auditor to ask whether you have addressed a need. You must understand the need and why you didn’t address it before. As a learning organization, be proactive and find ways to improve your offering. Don’t wait for things to go wrong and apply corrective action (clause 8.5.2). Build ideation into your corrective action process. Use the right side of your brain, as well as the left, to solve the problem.

A major weakness in ISO 9001 is data analysis (clause 8.4) and improvement (clause 8.5). This is why Six Sigma has been so successful during the last decade. Be creative when you look at improvement opportunities, but also use the left side of your brain and carefully analyze the data you collect from the marketplace to find the best opportunities before diving into the tough task of finding conceptual solutions.

Good problem solving produces choices, after which you select your preferred solution. This is a strategic decision for the organization and a job for leadership. The majority of organizations registered to ISO 9001 before 2000 are stuck in the old quality assurance mindset of management review (clause 5.6). They perform the review once a year, and the process is chaired by the quality manager. This couldn’t be more backward.

Clause 5.6 of ISO 9001 says, "Top management shall review the performance … assessing opportunities for improvement,"2 and the leadership principle in clause 0.2 of ISO 9000 says, "Leadership sets direction."3

You may already know that the term "management responsibility" in ISO 9001 will be replaced by the term "leadership." The management review should regularly identify innovation opportunities using risk data collected after the ideation process. During management review, leadership should look forward as well as back. This is how leaders should set innovative direction.

Final product

Having made a decision about which new ideas to pursue, it’s in the execution or delivery phase of innovation that ISO 9001 comes into its own.

People run away from clause 7.3 (design and development) because it will increase the cost of registration. But this clause addresses the famous quote from Thomas Edison, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."4 This is an opportunity to create new wealth for your organization. This is where you need a strong process that operates with speed and focus.

People say clause 7.3 slows them down because they must record their decisions. In fact, clause 7.3 speeds you up because you can eliminate design rework, which hides behind the overused term "iteration."

The next point from the presenter’s adaptation of the agile manifesto was "lean over artifacts." A good design records good decisions and actions, not the ramblings of every person that speaks at the design review meeting. Good design review is crucial if you’re going to deliver and profit from your new idea.

New offerings are incredibly important if your organization is to have a future. That’s why if you’re registered to ISO 9001 and have an exclusion for clause 7.3, you should think again.

This is one of the best sections of the standard because it injects focus into the development process. Too often, reviews in the development stage of innovation are carried out in a haphazard manner. The hand-off to operations is far too casual without a real prototype of the service or product.

The last of the presenter’s five points was "autonomy over authority." One of my jobs for the International Organization for Standardization has been as convener of ISO 10018, which deals with people involvement and recognizes that unless we treat people as people and not as adjuncts to a machine, we and the organization in which we participate will never realize our full potential.

Notice I used the word "participate" instead of "work." Unfortunately, "work" has become a four-letter word synonymous with drudgery. Work is where we spend the biggest part of our week, and it should be enjoyable. Work should be fulfilling, and if commands and controls are needed, it’s a symptom of a broken process.

Refresh and renew

Finally, some good news as the revision of ISO 9001 gets under way. All ISO management system standards have adopted a common structure using the new ISO/DGuide 83. The archaic terms "management responsibility" and "product realization" have been dropped in favor of "leadership" and "operations." Planning is now a meaningful term, and management review has been moved to the "act" stage of PDCA, which is where it already is in ISO 14001.

Looking forward, I’m optimistic that one day we’ll see an ISO standard for innovation management systems. Because if we use standards in the right way, they give us a flexible framework for running our organizations, allowing us to tap into our human desire to create and remove the failure and rework from our working lives.


  1. Wikipedia, "Agile software development," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/agile_software_development#agile_manifesto.
  2. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 9001:2008—Quality management systems—Requirements, clause 5.6.
  3. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 9000:2005—Quality management systems—Fundamentals and vocabulary, clause 0.2.
  4. Wikiquote, "Thomas Edison," http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Thomas_Edison (case sensitive).