ISO 18404: Should you adopt standardised Lean (and Six Sigma) certification?Nov 06, 2023
I see ISO 18404 still makes the news. Hot off the press is an article in The TQM Journal by, among others, Professor Jiju Anthony, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University.
The article, "The misplacement of ISO18404:2015 in organisational improvement: a point-counterpoint article" can be found here.
It got me to thinking about what we had written about ISO 18404 following its surprise unveiling at the European Lean Educators Conference in September 2016. This is what we said back in early 2017, and to cut to the chase, we’re still of the same view. Here it is, and, Yes, I used the same blog heading:
ISO 18404: Should you adopt standardised Lean (and Six Sigma) certification?
Posted On: 10/02/2017
By: Rob Morgan
ISO 18404, or to give it its full title “Quantitative methods in process improvement – Six Sigma – Competencies for key personnel and their organizations in relation to Six Sigma and Lean implementation”, is the new (12/2015) ISO standard for Lean and Six Sigma. Its stated purpose is to ‘clarify the required competencies for personnel and organizations in Six Sigma, Lean and “Lean & Six Sigma”’ because, as the standard’s introduction rightly says, ‘there [has] been no universal standard on what constitutes a Black Belt or what is required in an organization which deploys these approaches’ (ISO 18404, pg. v). The functional benefit of ISO 18404 is to provide an answer to such questions as: If an organisation is recruiting for a Six Sigma Black Belt or Lean Practitioner, how can it be sure of the quality of the applicant’s training/experience? You can watch an introductory webinar to the standard here.
Lean and Six Sigma competencies
There are three levels of competency for Lean and Six Sigma described in the standard: Lean Practitioner, Leader, and Expert; and Six Sigma Green, Black, and Master Black Belt. “Lean & Six Sigma” is simply a combination of the competencies of the equivalent Lean and Six Sigma levels, and follows the same belt structure as Six Sigma. For each level, the standard lists competencies, performance criteria, and suggested evidence of understanding, applying, managing, and training the competency.
There are 18 competencies described for Lean Practitioner, Leader, and Expert. The focus of the Lean Practitioner level is on understanding and applying the Lean Principles, change at individual and organisational level, workplace optimisation (see 5S), and analysis and measurement of data and process improvement. At Lead Leader and Expert level there is additional focus on stakeholder management, team engagement, and reporting skills, as well as a shift towards management and teaching of the competencies. The expectations of the three levels are summarised in the table below:
There are 23 competencies for Six Sigma in ISO 18404, which are consistent across all the levels. As with Lean, as one progresses to the higher belts there is more attention to specific techniques and to managing and teaching the competencies. We’re not Six Sigma experts so we can’t comment on the appropriateness of the standard in this area, however, the approach and tools and techniques in ISO 18404 have been drawn from ISO 13053-1 and -2.
Achieving ISO 18404 certification
Certification for individuals is through the Royal Statistical Society and through a UKAS-accredited body for organisations. UKAS and the RSS launched a pilot project for organisation certification at the end of 2016, and there is an event in March 2017 aimed at preparing other organisations for certification. A similar event, for individuals, is taking place in June 2017.
The Lean Practitioner course is eight days (split into two four-day workshops) and costs around £2200+VAT. Between the two training blocks a candidate is expected to conduct a Lean project and prepare a portfolio of evidence. The course tutor is Prof. Tony Bendell. The RSS doesn’t state what the assessment comprises, however, an LCS article reports that it involves a written test, a presentation, and a panel discussion, alongside the portfolio.
The Lean Leader course follows the same structure as Lean Practitioner, costs the same amount of money, and is delivered by Prof. Bendell. It can be taken alongside the Practitioner course, or as a top-up course after Lean Practitioner certification. It covers the same topics as Lean Practitioner but also includes competencies that cover ‘driving improvements in an organisation’ and coaching.
The Lean Expert course is six days (two three-day workshops) and costs approximately £3000+VAT. In addition to the workshops and ‘in-house application’ of the candidate’s skills, there are also assessment and coaching visits (usually two) by the course tutor, a written test, and a development seminar. The other tutor on this course, alongside Prof. Bendell, is Roy Durdin.
The Six Sigma Green Belt and Black Belt courses are designed in a similar way to the Lean courses, but are taught over 10 days. They cost upwards of £3300+VAT.
We first learnt about ISO 18404 at last year’s European Lean Educators Conference during a presentation by Prof. Bendell. It was clear from the audience’s reaction that this was the first time most of them were hearing of it too, and there was a sense of deep dissatisfaction that many of Europe’s (and the world’s) leading Lean educators had not been involved in the consultation process.
Christoph Roser wrote a critical article on ISO 18404 just after ELEC2016, in which he called the standard ‘a highly questionable idea, with little benefit for the quality of lean manufacturing’. Dr. Roser’s argument is that a standard won’t improve the quality of Lean, but will simply funnel money to ISO and its connected certification bodies. He bases this criticism on the examples of other standards (e.g. ISO 9001 and 14001), where preparing the certification paperwork is almost a full-time job and merely demonstrates that the standard is being followed, not how good the standard actually is. In an invited response to Dr. Roser’s article, Prof. Bendell rejected the
notion that ISO 18404 was a bad idea, impractical to assess, and all about money. Prof. Bendell writes that any ‘cowboy’ can do, consult, or train in Lean, and that the standard was created so that organisations can ‘dfferentiate good from bad Lean’ and verify the quality of training and experience of applicants and consultants. He accepts that it’s possible to implement a standard poorly but, quite rightly, says that’s not a reason to condemn the standard. If individuals and organisations respect the standard and follow it properly, then it retains its quality and usefulness as a point of reference.
We found it humorous, and somewhat ironic, that a community that values process standardisation so highly would be so vehemently opposed to a Lean standard, but there you have it. We believe that there’s value in the standard and that ISO’s chosen method of assessment is, although costly, appropriate; certification isn’t just a tick- box exercise, it involves an exam, a portfolio of evidence, and an interview. We can hope that popularisation of the standard goes some way towards eradicating the cheap (or free!) and poor quality training available that undermines the fantastic work that Lean practitioners and consultants do around the world.
We’ve reviewed our training materials to ensure that they prepare individuals and organisations for ISO 18404 certification, and we’re happy to assure you that they do. We’ll be keeping a close eye on developments to both the standard and the assessment process, and endeavour to update you and our materials accordingly.
So, should you adopt ISO 18404?
From an organisational point of view, we don’t see much value in becoming ISO 18404-certified. We think it is unlikely that customers and contractors will adopt the same requirements for ISO 18404 as they have for, say, ISO 14001/9001. The reason that we say this is it’s not really in their interest to be concerned with the continuous improvement strategy of their suppliers (as compared with quality and environmental assurance). That being said, however, we welcome a response from companies/individuals who have reason to think otherwise.
The other side of this is requiring continuous/process improvement personnel to have ISO 18404 certification. There’s a logic to requiring it of new hires, and providing it to current staff under the guise of business/professional development, but you run the risk of alienating those who’ve been in the business for a long time and have no desire to re-certify or new, up-and-coming talent that can’t afford official training. As with pretty much everything else Lean (and life), the proof is in the pudding; there’s more to guiding and achieving change than a standard certification. We wouldn’t recommend rejecting someone o# the bat because they don’t possess ISO 18404 certification.
In terms of individuals becoming certified, we are somewhat supportive of the standard. Even if you choose not to attend the official RSS Lean/Six Sigma classes, then we believe there’s a lot of value and sense in finding training whose content is, at least, compliant with ISO 18404. We recommend this because in the eventuality that your organisation (or one you’re seeking to apply to) adopts the standard, then you can show evidence that your training has followed the standard, and, if needs be, go straight to the assessment. If nothing else, matching training with the standard takes a fair amount of effort, which should demonstrate that the trainers are serious and the training well thought out. As always there will be the rogue few who act deceptively and undermine the professionals but we can make that argument about “cowboys” until, well, the cows come home.
Adopt ISO 18404? For organisational certification: No. For individual certification: Up to you and your financial/business situation, but do make sure your training comes from a reputable source if it’s not from the RSS.
There, that’s it. What say you? And don't forget to get in touch if you are curious about effective and lasting change in your workplace processes.