Why ISO Systems don’t work in Thailand and probably most of Asia

A cultural mismatch.

Looking at all the companies in Thailand proudly presenting their ISO Certification(s) on their walls, doors, websites, emails, name cards, brochures, etc. it always makes me a bit cynical. Working in a Thai company that recently got their ISO 14001 certificate and visiting many other companies makes me realize that there is a dire need for a local version of the system. ISO systems are western inventions and as such totally in contradiction with Thai culture.

Let’s look at it by some of the pillars of ISO systems;

Sharing knowledge on the work floor, helping each other to learn and do the job right. In Thailand if you have knowledge, that is your asset and part of your value as an employee for the company, you don’t just give that away. So if a colleague doesn’t know what he is doing the others stand around and smile until the job is either done or totally messed up, in general no one will help. When the job Is messed up the one who can do it will tell the boss, I can do it, I’m not stupid, and increase his status in the group and with the boss. The one who lacks the knowledge will also not ask for help in fear of being laughed at and held for stupid. The culture of not asking anything starts at schools, where the few that understand things quickly make fools of the rest.

Another pillar of ISO is the bottom up mechanism of improvement, where workers are required
to constantly provide suggestions and corrections that make the systems work better, safer and more efficient. Nobody in Thailand will ever criticize or attack a system that wast put in place by his boss or an even higher boss, nor will a boss accept it. It ruins your career and makes the boss loose face because of the apparent failure of his system. Also this has it’s roots in the education system where even if you know the teacher is wrong, you will never say so or get in deep trouble if you do so and make the teacher loose face in front of the class. If the teacher says a rabbit is called donkey, it’s called donkey.

And than there is the part that incidents are reported, analyzed and learned from. Not in Thailand, incidents are preferable covered up immediately and have never happened. This can lead to dangerous situations, but when the building collapses in 10 years, none of the involved will be around to face the consequences. If the incident can’t be covered up immediately it’s common that the monkey passes from shoulder to shoulder, nobody acting on it, until it finally disappears. It’s remarkable how many problems, also in Thailand just disappear over time or apparently solve themselves. Another strategy is that the problem is pushed out of the company and lands at a supplier or contractor who is in a weaker position to fight it and has to put up with it. Certainly in consumer related business the problem can also be pushed on the customer, we have enough of those, so to upset a few is no big deal. Anything to prevent that you loose face by acknowledging your mistake and the incident has to be reported up the line to a manager and that he has to tell his boss that the schedule is not made and that it will cost more money to correct the mistake.

Last but not least, ISO works only if you are prepared to constantly innovate and are able to change your way of working rapidly. Here I stop, because changing the way people work is one of the hardest things I’ve encountered in Thailand and a story on it’s own.

My conclusion is that without a localized ISO system with working principles that fit with the working culture all these ISO logo’s are window dressing with some shoveling of paper in the background and no practical use.

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