One aspect of the Volkswagen emissions scandal that has so far escaped attention is the part played, or not played, by the company's certifications to the ISO 9001 standard for quality management and ISO 14001 standard for environmental management.
Neither VW nor ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) have replied to the following question: "Volkswagen has worldwide certification to ISO 9001 and ISO 14001. Doesn't the scandal over VW's emissions manipulation indicate a failure of certification to the standards, in terms of meeting customers' quality requirements, customer satisfaction and environmental management?"
They were not alone. Also silent were TUV Nord, the German certification body that issued VW's certifications, and a spokesman for both the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC). The latter two groups promote standards and certification as tools for achieving public policy goals.
On Nov. 2, ISO jointly hosted a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on "Using and referencing International Standards to support public policy." ISO said that the conference "looked at the many ways that standards can benefit policy makers, through providing confidence in technical specifications and safety requirements, as well as helping to implement policy commitments."
For many people, the VW crisis would advise caution against a blind faith in standards. However, ISO and the other protagonists remain silent or dodge the issue. This silence is a matter of serious concern because VW's certifications are intended to give customers and regulatory authorities confidence that quality requirements and environmental responsibilities are being met.
One of the objectives of ISO 9001 is to make enterprises more efficient in turning out products that enhance customer satisfaction, by ensuring that these products meet customers' quality requirements -- both stated and implicit. It is unlikely that software designed to cheat emissions tests, as VW has admitted to installing, was a requirement of the 11 million customers who bought the affected vehicles. Clearly, VW's ISO 9001 systems and certification did not deliver on customer satisfaction.
ISO 14001 is aimed at enabling organizations to reduce negative impacts on the environment as a result of their activities. It is designed to be a tool for meeting regulatory requirements. Despite VW's ISO 14001 systems and certification, the company deceived its customers about the environmental impact of the cars they had bought and manipulated the results of regulators' pollution tests.
ISO itself does not handle certification. This is performed by certification bodies independent of the organization. However, many of the national standards bodies that make up ISO's membership do carry out ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certification, and this activity can represent a sizable portion of their income.
In practice, ISO has an ambiguous attitude toward certification. On one hand, it states that certification to its standards is not compulsory and not a requirement of the standards. On the other hand, it indirectly promotes certification through The ISO Survey of Certifications, published annually, which provides data on the number of certificates of conformity issued worldwide to ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and other ISO management standards. In ISO's comments on the survey data, it highlights what it sees as significant increases and downplays less flattering figures.
It might be argued that such is the stuff of public relations. However, ISO now presents certification to its standards in completely overblown marketing terms.
Announcing the latest edition of the ISO survey, the organization in September claimed the world is "still under the spell of management systems." It added, "As the world evolves, it continues to trust ISO management systems standards to keep its organizations performing well."
However, ISO's marketing, communication and information department had "no time" to answer the question on its flagship standards and certification in light of the VW scandal.
ISO's silence may prove to reveal disastrously poor judgement. This is because more than 1 million ISO 9001 certificates and over 324,000 ISO 14001 certificates had been issued worldwide at the end of 2014 to businesses of all types and sizes, as well as to public-sector organizations. So the question of confidence in standards and certification goes well beyond VW and its customers.
Despite the scandal, VW's website continues to publicize the ISO 14001 certification of its technical department, awarded "for the environmentally compatible development of Volkswagen brand vehicles."
TUV Nord, VW's supplier of certification, is accredited -- approved as competent -- by DAkkS, the German national accreditation body and a member of the IAF. Shareholders in DAkkS include the German government. On TUV Nord's website, it continues to display an April press release publicizing its re-certification of VW to ISO 9001, as well as recalling its ISO 14001 certification of the company. Regarding the ISO 9001 certification, TUV Nord says, "The quality management system also fulfills requirements of German and international road traffic legislation ...."
Apparently, neither VW nor TUV Nord is sensitive to the irony of the above statements in the wake of the scandal.
A spokesman for the IAF and the ILAC was contacted for comment because the two organizations, along with the Independent International Organisation for Certification, have launched a new website, Public Sector Assurance, promoting standards, certification and accreditation as assets to help government officials and regulators attain policy goals. The IAF is an association of the national accreditation bodies, such as DAkkS, that approve certification bodies as competent according to ISO standards for conformity assessment. ISO, the IAF and the ILAC work closely together on developing ISO standards for conformity assessment activities, such as the accreditation of certification bodies and testing laboratories.
The spokesman responded with a long-winded general explanation of certification and accreditation, but like ISO, VW and TUV Nord, he did not answer the specific question about the apparent failure of certification.
The response included the statement, "Accredited certification to ISO 9001 should provide confidence in the organization's ability to 'consistently provide product that meets customer and applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.'" Presumably, the important qualifier in this statement is "should."
The IAF/ILAC spokesman also stated that, while "accredited certification to ISO 14001 provides confidence in the organization's ability to meet its own environmental policy, it does not ensure that the organization is currently achieving optimal environmental performance. It is important to note that the ISO 14001 accredited certification process does not include a full regulatory compliance audit and cannot ensure that violations of legal requirements will never occur, although full legal compliance should always be the organization's goal. Similarly, not all legal noncompliance would also be a noncompliance to a given standard and must also be considered in the context of the scope of certification."
Translating these statements into plain English gives something like this: Even though a company has implemented ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 and had its management systems certified by a body accredited by an IAF member, this does not necessarily mean that customers can count on their quality requirements being fulfilled by the company's products. And regulators cannot necessarily count on the company meeting environmental and other relevant rules.
What is more, according to IAF/ILAC, despite noncompliance with regulations, the company may still be awarded a certificate because legal noncompliance does not necessarily mean noncompliance to a standard.
The joke's on us?
This situation seems analogous to the medical joke: "The operation conformed to procedures and was a success. Unfortunately, the patient died." However, it is doubtful that many of the 11 million purchasers of VW cars with manipulated emissions devices would find the joke amusing.
In the circumstances, these customers might consider complaining to ISO and the IAF. On ISO's website, it states: "ISO is interested to hear from you if you feel that any ISO standard, including ISO 9001 or ISO 14001, is being misused." Likewise, the IAF declares on its own website: "The IAF Board treats any complaints with the utmost concern and will deal with them expeditiously and in confidence. All complaints involving IAF members or certification/registration bodies accredited by IAF members are regarded as extremely serious."
Hopefully, ISO will find the time to answer and the IAF will stop hiding behind generalities. Otherwise, the confidence of customers and regulators in standards, certification and accreditation could be seriously dented by the VW crisis.
Roger Gareth Frost, a Welsh journalist, was formerly ISO's head of communication and editor-in-chief of its magazine, ISO Management Systems.