Japan has been rocked by the revelations of a decade or more of data falsification by companies providing materials and products that are used in automobiles, aircraft and consumer products. Examining them individually seems not to reveal any pattern. NGK released power line insulators without proper inspections. Hitachi falsified data related to encapsulation materials. Mitsubishi falsified data on pipe seals and o-rings. Toray shipped out-of-specification industrial fiber for use in automobile tires. Asahi Kasei faked data in construction piling projects. Kubota, Kobe and Nakayama all falsified test reports on steel and other metals.
But upon closer examination, there is a single common factor: one Japanese company has ties to all the scandals, while holding authority for ensuring they never happen in the first place.
The Japan Accreditation Board (JAB) acts as the nation’s official accreditation body for quality system auditing firms, called certification bodies or “CBs.” Those CBs audit the companies and issue quality system certifications based on internationally-recognized standards; the most famous is ISO 9001. When conducting ISO 9001 audits, CB auditors have unprecedented access to design records, manufacturing data, facilities and systems, and may interview staff at all levels of the organization.
The result is that companies with ISO 9001 certifications are assumed to be better, since a third party has attested they comply with international quality rules. With an ISO 9001 certificate in hand, the companies gain access to lucrative government, automotive and aerospace contracts; without ISO 9001, the companies would not be allowed to even bid on such contracts in the first place.
In all the cases mentioned above, the companies were issued ISO 9001 certificates by one of four Japanese CBs: JIC Quality Assurance, the Japanese Standards Association, Japan Chemical Quality Assurance, or Japan Quality Assurance Organization. Each of these is accredited by JAB, who audits the CBs every year to ensure they are not issuing certificates to companies that do not deserve them. The resulting ISO 9001 certificates are usually issued with two logos: that of the CB and that of JAB, together.
It should not be possible that so many companies, with quality certifications traceable to JAB, could hold certifications to ISO 9001 – which prohibits such falsifications – and not be noticed. Perhaps in one or two cases, but not in all. This can only happen when CB auditors conduct “drive by” audits, issuing certificates without proper audits, while the CBs and JAB look the other way, collecting payments from the companies along the way.
ISO and its various apologists roll out a canned script when asked how this happens. They insist that such audits were not designed to root out fraud, and are merely a snapshot taken over a few days in a plant. Those disclaimers do not appear anywhere on the actual certificates, however, which are the documents facing the public and handed in to win contract opportunities. In fact, the ISO 9001 scheme was invented specifically to root out fraud, to prevent companies from claiming to have robust quality systems when they did not. The apologists hope you don’t know this.
The certification scheme fails because each party pays the body above it, resulting in reduced incentive the higher one goes. Clients pay the CB, and the CBs pay JAB. De-certifying anyone cuts off that revenue flow, so auditors have learned to ignore major problems, and issue a handful of token “minor nonconformities” to keep up appearances. JAB has the most to lose in this scheme, even as they hold the most responsibility.
It gets worse. In each of the cases above, the CBs failed not only to find the problems, but then only suspended after the scandals were reported in mainstream media. In some cases, the certificates were never suspended, and the companies still hold their certifications to this day, despite the scandals.
JAB is entrusted to manage this scheme, and ensure the CBs do their job in accordance with international accreditation rules. By looking the other way, JAB allows CBs to issue certificates to companies engaged in fraud, and then only withdraw such certificates if they get caught… and even then, perhaps not.
So JAB represents the single point of failure in the Japanese quality scandals, and yet no one has investigated JAB or its records. JAB has refused to address the scandal, despite requests made to multiple JAB officers over weeks. Likewise, the International Accreditation Forum – a set of accreditation bodies that claim to police each other, of which JAB is a member – has refused to look into the problem.
The Japanese government must investigate JAB if it ever wants to understand the root of the nation’s industrial data falsification problem. Then it must strip these companies of their quality certifications, and the CBs of their accreditation, to ensure it never happens again.
Christopher Paris is an aerospace quality management consultant, author and industry watchdog. His company Oxebridge Quality Resources provides independent reporting on the ISO certification scheme and its conflicts of interest at www.oxebridge.com.© Japan Today