Feature

Quality Assurance Through ISO 9000

Four school districts pursue a worldwide standard for efficiency and performance once reserved for business and industry by AMY ZUCKERMAN

What do school districts in Liberty Center, Ohio, Jefferson County, Colo., Claymont, Del., and Lancaster, Pa., have in common besides pizza day on their lunch menu once a week?

These districts, ranging from 1,200 students in northwestern Ohio to an urban system with 90,000 students, share a concern for quality education that is real-world oriented and based on efficient and consistent management.

To this end, three have qualified for the ISO 9000 international quality assurance standard and a fourth is close to doing so.

ISO 9000, created in 1987, is the first attempt to develop a worldwide standard to help companies and other institutions measure and monitor their quality efforts. A documentation-based process, ISO 9000 asks organizations to tap employees to act as internal auditors. This is accomplished by having employees and management alike assess work procedures and jointly develop a quality manual and corrective action procedures.

Although typically applied in manufacturing settings, ISO 9000 certification is being pursued increasingly by service-oriented organizations intent on upgrading their performance. The aim is to improve internal communication, increase monitoring of activities and adopt best practices from throughout the organization.

The application of ISO 9000 to school districts and other educational facilities is a fairly recent trend, according to Roger Frost, press officer for the International Organization for Standardization in Geneva, Switzerland, which has developed the ISO 9000 standards series.

"Only a few years ago, the idea that you could apply ISO 9000 quality systems to schools would have earned low marks," he says. "The teaching profession, like other professionals such as nurses, scientists, journalists, were wary of ISO 9000 because they did not see how you could standardize the creative and empathic aspects of their work."

Those concerns have been overcome, Frost explains, as educational facilities "see that ISO 9000 improves the operational structure they work in and the day-to-day processes. With less time lost on operational malfunctions, they have more time and energy for the creative and people aspects. In addition, the implementation of an ISO 9000 quality system by a school may give confidence to taxpayers that their money is being used effectively."

A wide variety of educational establishments in the United States, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Australia have implemented ISO 9000 in recent years. However, because ISO only publishes standards and the 50 accredited U.S. registrars operate independently of each other, no statistics exist on the number of school districts involved nationwide.

Craig Johnson, a management consultant based at Florida State University who heads up the American Society for Quality's education committee, says he knows of about 200 public schools, colleges and community colleges nationwide that have earned ISO 9000 registration. Many of the individual public schools are included in the school districts named here.

The A.V. Cato Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, just started the ISO 9000 process this spring, and two vocational technical schools in Ohio and Michigan are preparing to pursue ISO 9000, says Johnson. The Hershey School, a private school in Pennsylvania, received ISO certification last year.

Motivating Factors
The Liberty Center Local School District in Liberty Center, Ohio, is the smallest district to earn ISO 9000 registration. Located about 60 miles from the Indiana state border, the district has a total of 1,200 students in a K-6 building and a second school for grades 7-12.

What it lacks in size, the district makes up in forward-thinking attitudes that include partnering with local business and industry through a school-to-work program. Superintendent Thomas Lammers says it was through this program he first became aware of the ISO 9000 standards series, which many area businesses have adopted within their own companies.

"Northwest State Community College (in Archibold, Ohio) asked us if we have an ISO 9000 registration process and we thought it was intriguing," he says. "We could institute a quality management system in our district to improve education and make it more efficient. We had a continuous improvement plan in place to meet statewide accountability, so we were more interested in improving our overall performance. ISO 9000 took us to a new level."

Moreover, Lammers has wanted to promote greater collaboration with business and industry to better prepare students for the workplace. He hasn’t seen enough dialogue between schools and the private sector about what skills are needed to meet the demands of a new high-tech, global economy. ISO 9000 has been a tool in promoting that partnership, he says.
At the other extreme, the Jefferson County, Colo., district, with 143 school sites and 89,000 students, generates a great deal of paperwork that needs tracking and maintaining. The central office also has many external customers--in this case site administrators and teachers--whose needs must be addressed daily. Superintendent Jane Hammond had seen ISO 9000 in practice during her tenure as a district superintendent in Washington state and believes in its benefits.

Jefferson County opted to pursue ISO 9000 registration, says Cherie Lyons, executive director of planning, research and resource development, "because it provided a framework and structure to help us improve customer service (to individual schools), especially on the business side of our operation."

Adds Michael Mitchell, the school district’s executive director of procurement management: "Documentation was one of the areas we thought we could effectively improve in, especially business processes. And we did take an aggressive look at our documentation processes with an eye to reducing the internal costs of doing business and communicating to our customers what we're doing."

In Lancaster, Pa., Superintendent Vicki Phillips (left) admits she was not entirely enthusiastic when one of her school board members recommended the district pursue ISO 9000 after being involved in a company effort. But after learning about the standards’ many benefits, she says, "I became a big fan of ISO 9000 for education."

Her enthusiasm led Lancaster, with about 12,000 students, to become in February 1999 the first school district in the United States to earn registration to the standard.

In the Brandywine School District in Claymont, Del., Superintendent Joe DeJohn (left) figured ISO 9000 might be the best way for him to bring better management practices to the mid-size urban district with 11,400 students. He learned about ISO 9000 from Johnson, a retired professor of educational research at Florida State University, who has consulted with school districts on management issues.

"We wanted to improve and ISO 9000 has been largely a total quality management move," DeJohn says. "In TQM you have to say what you do, do what you say, prove it and improve it. That's what we were after."

Applying to Schools
The Lancaster district spent almost two years working on its ISO 9000 process. Phillips says the first concern was translating the standards’ 20 key elements, which were designed for industry, into educational terms--elements such as defining responsibility and authority within the organization and verification of resources and personnel information. The next concern was how to involve in meaningful ways a full range of staff members--from teachers to custodians, administrators and finance specialists.

"We did a lot of staff training, set up audit teams and got the documentation done. This took quite a while," Phillips says, noting that Lancaster now has been immersed in the process long enough to start facing surveillance audits that usually take place on six-month schedules--required of institutions that want more than one-time ISO 9000 certification. To maintain their registration, the district will have to submit to biannual audits from registrars.

The Jefferson County district earned its ISO registration last fall. The school district organized a management review team that's still functional. It includes two members of the superintendent's cabinet responsible for personnel, business services and instruction. The team meets bimonthly with the superintendent.

The focus has been on documenting the central administration functions, not individual schools, according to Lyons. "Right now we've documented central departments and operations for each school that include transportation, food services, procurement, etc. … All employees in central administration have participated in documenting work procedures, which we started in October 1998 and finished in August 1999. Besides documenting, we created flow charts, developed new procedures and a quality manual."

In Liberty Center, Ohio, Lammers says the district has been helped in its efforts by an existing policy manual and quality manual, both required by the state. With well-developed job descriptions already in place, ISO 9000 certification has gone fairly easily. "We've often been able to say this was largely done," the superintendent says.

En route to registration in June 1999, Lammers says the district ensured all school personnel were aware of the new quality policy under ISO 9000. Although not all teachers were involved in the process, he said the ISO 9000 did interview select teachers at the elementary school and high school levels about their work practices.

Liberty Center has just passed its first audit surveillance period under ISO 9000. That means the internal audit team can't simply rest on past laurels, but has to continually keep ISO 9000 practices in place and prove to auditors the quality system is doing its job.

Upfront Costs
ISO 9000 registration doesn't come without costs. Most school districts have paid at least $15,000 in one-time registration fees and far more when employee time is considered. To maintain registration, they can expect to pay $10,000 in annual audit surveillance fees.

"In terms of dollars, it's cost us $13,000 for the payment to our registrars for pre-assessments, audits and a site visit," says Lyons of Jefferson County. "We used our own resources to pay for employee time, and an ISO 9000 technician has been hired to handle corrective actions at a salary of $30,000 annually. And we face another $10,000 annually for surveillance."

Liberty Center has been able to defray ISO 9000 costs--$15,000 to earn initial registration--through grant money, explains Lammers. That's been spent, but he says the district is applying for more external support. "If we don't get those dollars, we're committed to paying the $5,000 per audit, or roughly $10,000 a year to maintain registration."

Despite these cash outlays, the leadership of all school districts involved in ISO 9000 agree they're willing to front the costs, at least for now. They see direct bottom line and performance benefits from implementing the standard.

"The benefit of ISO 9000 organizationally is having a business plan and model for the future, one that defines involvement by the entire organization and a commitment to quality and improvement in a way we haven't experienced in the past," says Mitchell, the executive director of procurement, who has worked closely with Jefferson County Superintendent Jane Hammond. "Our corrective action procedure is in place and is helping to solve problems and to do process mapping for the entire organization."

They are beginning to see concrete changes that result in cost savings. ISO 9000 has helped the district develop a procedure for grants management that streamlines the preparation process. Lyons says the time now needed to prepare a grant application has been cut from three hours to 20 minutes. Considering Jefferson County submits about 200 grant proposals a year, this contributes to significant manpower savings.

Also in Jefferson County, the central purchasing department is developing a process for textbook acquisition that Mitchell expects to save significant money over time. While the teaching staff is still responsible for text selections, the business department will for the first time negotiate bulk-purchase discounts with publishers. "There wasn't that cooperation between departments prior to ISO 9000," he says.

At Liberty Center, Lammers credits ISO 9000 with "catching procedural errors that weren't being taken care of appropriately. For example, some supervisors felt that certain paperwork was being carried out, but in some cases things were remiss. This process is making all employees conscious of doing what they're supposed to be doing."

Tangible Benefits
In Claymont, Del., DeJohn and his colleagues are immersed in the process of documenting work procedures, an ongoing, two-year effort. The superintendent expects the district to complete its ISO 9000 certification within the next few months.

Recently, the district studied what happens when a teacher orders a textbook. That means, DeJohn says, "what happens to that order, where it goes, how long it takes to go through, how many pieces there are in the process. And we found we could improve that process." He also credits ISO 9000 with inspiring the district to create a Web site so "any parent and teacher will be able to see what we're doing about instruction and discipline."

And in Lancaster, Phillips can tick off at least five ways that ISO 9000 has benefited the school district. These range from refocusing staff energies on the core mission of teaching and learning to establishing six areas to track in the community as indicators of how well the district is maintaining quality.

But mainly, Phillips says, ISO 9000 "opened up communication. People can audit what we do and there are methods for taking corrective actions. If something needs attention, it can get attention because there is a way to do that."

Pointing to an old purchasing process system in Lancaster that was cumbersome and costly, Phillips contended the district used to spend $200 in employee time for each $5 purchase a teacher made. "We saved over $500,000 by improving that process," she says. "Also, our business manager, by using the data and documentation approach of ISO 9000, was able to develop a proposal to refinance our bonds. As a result, we were the first school district in the country to refinance our bonds and sell them online."

Future Support
The superintendents in the four ISO districts realize that their governing boards ultimately will decide whether the annual payments for registrar auditing fees are worthwhile.

For now, Lammers says, "We like what we see at Liberty Center. Certainly the board of education will re-evaluate it. They like to see corrective actions and improvement of the quality of our overall education.

"As long as ISO 9000 does that and the costs don't get prohibitive, they'll be supportive of this program."

Amy Zuckerman directs A-Z International Associates, Teaberry Lane, Amherst, MA 01002. E-mail: azintl@crocker.com. She is the author of ISO 9000 Made Easy and International Standards Desk Reference. Tony Vlamis, a free-lance writer in New York City, assisted with research for the article.