Published: 4 Oct 2021

ISO 9004 should be seen as more than pure guidance if it is to help ensure standards for today’s organisations, says Richard Green, Senior Consultant at Kingsford Consultancy Services. 

While ISO 9001 is firmly established as the principal quality management system (QMS) standard, ISO 9004 has attracted much less attention.  

Both standards were created in 1987. Then, the purpose of ISO 9004 was to provide guidance to organisations on how to implement ISO 9001 more effectively. Over time, however, the direct link with ISO 9001 has disappeared and, today, ISO 9004 stands on its own, seeking a different outcome – the sustained success of an organisation.  

ISO 9004 tells us that, to achieve sustained success, the organisation must focus on more than just improving the quality of its products and services and maintaining customer satisfaction (the intended outcomes of ISO 9001). We know this is true. There are many examples of market-leading companies – which once provided innovative products that were in great demand – that have gone out of business because they failed to adapt. Kodak, Blockbuster, Xerox are all members of this club; others – such as Nokia, Hitachi and IBM – were forced into major reinventions of themselves to stay afloat.  

The extent of interested-party influence reaches far wider under ISO 9004 than under 9001, impacting the whole organisation and everything it does
Richard Green

Achieving sustained success requires a number of factors to be in alignment. ISO 9004 tells us these are the organisation’s mission, vision, values and culture. Collectively, these four form the ‘identity of the organisation’, and it is top management’s responsibility to ensure this identity is established and preserved. Top management must also focus on the ‘quality of the organisation’, which is defined as ‘the degree to which the inherent characteristics of the organisation fulfil the needs and expectations of its interested parties’. This confirms that the extent of interested-party influence reaches far wider under ISO 9004 than under 9001, impacting the whole organisation and everything it does, and not just the products and services it provides.  

At the heart of ISO 9004 is a self-assessment tool that can be applied by the organisation to determine its sustained success performance. At the lowest level of maturity (level 1), the organisation is simply aware that it should be carrying out certain activities. This is referred to as ‘the base level’. At the highest level (level 5), the organisation is not only carrying out these activities routinely, but is actively learning, improving and innovating in that area. This is referred to as ‘the best-practice level’.  

At present, it is not possible for an organisation to achieve external certification to ISO 9004 – but is this about to change? 

AHG4 meetings and outcomes 

Early in 2021, TC176 – the ISO Committee responsible for the ISO 9000 series of standards – asked its strategy planning group (SPOTG) to consider making ISO 9004 a requirements standard, effectively allowing organisations to certificate against it. In turn, SPOTG established an ad hoc working group (AHG4) to look into the matter and report back. 

At a meeting in May, group members were asked to vote on five proposals: 

  • Option A: Develop ISO 9004:2018 into a Type A management system standard (MSS) – that is, it becomes ‘requirements’, not guidance. 
  • Option B: Keep the current ISO 9004: 2018 as a guidance standard and develop a new ISO 9004 Part 1 as a requirements standard. 
  • Option C: Develop a new ISO 9004, the first part with requirements and the second part containing an updated version of the present ISO 9004 as guidance to the requirements in the first part. 
  • Option D: Create a new part to ISO 9001 for the additional requirements of ISO 9004. 
  • Option E: Leave ISO 9004 as a guidance standard. 

The 52 subject-matter experts on the AHG4 were invited to register their votes by awarding marks from 1 to 5 (with 1 as least preferred option and 5 as their most preferred option).   

If several options were unacceptable, all of these could be scored 1. 

The results of the ballot were: 

Of the 52 subject-matter experts eligible to vote, only 24 (46%) did so. 

A further poll conducted at the May meeting considered: 

  • Option 1: Should ISO 9004 be left as pure guidance? 
  • Option 2: Should ISO 9004 contain requirements in some shape or form?  

The results of this vote were option 1 – 83%, and option 2 – 17%. This second poll was based on the voting of those present at the meeting  – 26 members. 

Why some see this result as disappointing 

Many arguments were put forward in respect of leaving ISO 9004 as a guidance standard. These included: 

  • End users will be confused by there being two quality management system standards.  
  • ISO is seeking to reduce the proliferation of Type A management system standards.  
  • It is not possible to audit the maturity model. 
  • Take-up of this standard can be increased without the need to make its contents mandatory. 
  • This is not something we should be doing at this time; there is other work to focus on. 

While these are valid concerns for some subject-matter experts, none of the above should be viewed as a definitive argument for not progressing, particularly when balanced against the benefits a requirements-based ISO 9004 would bring.  

What happens next? 

At the time of writing, in August, AHG 4 will have submitted a report to TC 176 SPOTG stating their preference for no change. SPOTG may wish to undertake more work with external stakeholders before making its final decision. Given the handful of individuals participating in the ballot, this would seem reasonable when so much is at stake. No options are being ruled out, at least for the present. 

As the world charges ahead into the fourth industrial revolution, and the CQI continues its research to define and implement Quality 4.0 in response, recent decisions not to revise ISO 9001:2015 significantly – and, now, to leave ISO 9004 as pure guidance – appear out of step with what needs to happen to ensure standards remain relevant for today’s organisations. Can the world live with two QMS standards? Of course. Would the world benefit from two QMS standards? That’s a different question – but from the author’s perspective, absolutely.