In order to understand organisations, it is often helpful to look into their history. We will do the same with the Standard to understand more about the tensions being experienced today. What was relevant and important at the time of the Standard’s genesis has changed as markets and organisations have evolved; the Standard has become an anachronism, bestowed with legitimacy by the institutions which have grown around it, but of questionable relevance to the everyday problems of performance management and improvement in modern times.

One has to go back further than 1979 (the year BS 5750 was introduced) to understand the Standard. Its earliest predecessor was a defence industry standard, in use during the Second World War, which in time was adopted by NATO and became known as the AQAP series (Allied Quality Assurance Publications). The Standard was introduced to solve a problem of the time: munitions were exploding in factories. It solved the problem by ensuring that munitions were made strictly according to procedures (the procedures being documented and independently checked).

At that time, thinking about the organisation of work was strongly dominated by notions of work specialisation and standardisation. Specialisation of work had its roots in the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Adam Smith, they showed how performance could be improved by structuring work in specialist functions. Standardisation was the secret of success for Henry Ford. It enabled significant reductions in cost. These tenets of management thinking still remain in most of our organisations. They have been challenged in recent years by quality theorists and have been shown to be impediments to performance improvement , but new and different ideas have made little headway against the status quo.

When organisational thinking is governed by ideas of specialisation and standardisation, the managerial role is to specify the standards and procedures to which people will work. Documenting procedures formalises this thinking and provides a means of control (have people done what the procedures say they should do?). It is a means of control which controls output (bombs don’t go off in the factory), quality thinking, by contrast, would lead to improved output. It is ironic that while many munitions factories in the UK were using such methods to control output, Deming was working with munitions factories in the United States to improve output through reducing variation.

Following the war, the idea that performance could be improved through ‘prevention of defects’ took hold in industry. The view was that prevention required planning and planning implied predetermining procedures. Verification (do they do what they say they do?) was conducted by the customer (usually the government department making the purchase). To save taxpayers’ money, the government decided that surveillance should be conducted by the private sector.

Industry’s response was to pass responsibility to their suppliers and conduct verification using their own inspectors. Naturally, there were differing views as to the necessary contents of a quality system and the establishment and assessment of differing systems consumed increasingly greater resources.

In 1972, the first British Standard, BS 4891, was published in an attempt to provide common guidance to industry. BS4891 contained clauses which were peculiar to defence requirements and was replaced by BS 5179 in 1974. Many non-defence contractors, however, still had difficulties with this document.

In 1977, Sir Frederick Warner reported to the government on the use of quality standards in British industry. Warner recommended a common standard for quality assurance, independent assessment and a register of those companies assessed as meeting the requirements. Hence the ISO 9000 (originally BS 5750) industry was born.

The birth of this industry coincided with large-scale redundancies of government inspectors. A Department of Trade and Industry scheme provided financial assistance to some firms which sought the advice and assistance of this new army of quality consultants. The consultants subscribe to the view on which ISO 9000 was originally based, that prevention requires planning and the evidence of planning should be documented procedures which can be independently verified. It is a method which, if successfully applied, will control output.

Deming, by contrast, taught the Japanese to manage their organisations as systems and to continuously improve performance by managing and reducing variation. It is a body of knowledge beyond the experience of the army of what Tom Peters called ‘the procedures merchants’.