There are few academic papers addressing the relationship between lean software development and the practices covered by ISO 9001. Most articles says that the divergence between these approaches is big, but some also point that these concepts can be complementary and gains are much higher when using both approaches.

Academically it is very beautiful, but in practice is it anyway?

So here's the question: do you work or worked at companies applying both Agile as ISO 9001? What is your perception? What is really good and what is inappropriate?

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    As you read the answers, contemplate the words of Richard Buetow, who was Director of Quality at Motorola in 1993, when the quality programs fad was getting into full swing: "With ISO 9000 yo can still have terrible processes and products. You can certify a manufacturer that makes life jackets from concrete as long as those jackets are made according to the documented procedures and the company provides the next of kin with instructions on how to complain about defects."
    – Blrfl
    Jun 4, 2011 at 14:04
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    AFAIK iso 9001:2015 was simplified. Most comments here are older.
    – guettli
    Mar 2, 2020 at 21:45

5 Answers 5


ISO9001 gets a bit of rough press because most companies try to get auditted and fail first time, then make the mistake of increasing their process documentation. But that's never the point of ISO9001.

I have, in a previous life, been an internal ISO9001 auditor. While I leave that off my CV nowadays, what they do is pretty simple:

  • Ask someone what they're doing
  • Ask them how they know that is what they should be doing
  • This should lead to some documentation which should match

This should be easy in Agile. You should have your processes documented on a wiki but they should be very simple and lightweight. That should be enough for an auditor.

Related anecdote: Back in the day, I was with a company that was trying to get ISO9001. They paid for my accreditation. After several failed attempts, the way we did it was to rip up the 19 ring-bound folders of process documentation (I kid you not, it was 2 whole shelves, in which none of us could find anything when challenged) and bring it all down to one less-than-full folder of useful docs.

ISO9001 doesn't insist on masses of processes, just that you have enough and that those you have are followed.

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    Great answer. :) Did you ever come across a good, lightweight book on ISO that would suit an Agile mindset?
    – Mal Ross
    Jan 24, 2012 at 16:49
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    great anecdote and having worked somewhere that did ISO9001, I agree completely. We had like 2 pages of documentation for each of the major role types (like 30 pages of which you only looked at a few) and steps to ensure signatures were stored showing you signed off on completion of each of the steps detailed in those docs. They at some points had tons more doc than they needed, and others went quite bare, but our internal auditors were generally happy as long as we proved we did what we said we would. Jan 15, 2013 at 20:52

Uh, no. ISO 9000 doesn't work well with anything, not even itself.

I have never met anyone who implemented ISO 9000 and said it improved their company. They only did it for government or client requirements. I have never heard anyone say they were happy they implemented it, or that it was worth it (other than qualifying for contracts).

Agile on the other hand, works "in the wild" (aka outside an academic paper).

Answer: Agile - good; ISO 9000 - only for qualifying for contracts, not to actually follow.

Edit I don't know the small writing in ISO 9000, but it might be possible to implement agile with ISO 9000, basically meaning you document your agile processes to the letter. But I doubt this would qualify you for ISO 9000 certification. Worth looking into though if you have some contracts you're eyeing and they require ISO 9000.

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    Isn't one major friction between Agile and ISO9000 the openness of Agile to change? It seems if you're changing your process (to some extent or the other) every 2 weeks it goes against the goal if ISO9000. Also, ISO9000 is all about process and documenting that process. Agile, in the manifesto even, values people and interaction over process. In my experience the two are not compatible. Jun 4, 2011 at 12:23
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    @Dave - If your processes are documented in a wiki, you can change them as much as you like. If a developer, for example, is subscribed to all the processes that affect him, that would actually look very good to an ISO auditor.
    – pdr
    Jun 4, 2011 at 13:49
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    @pdr: But who has time to make sure the wiki reflects exactly what your new processes are. The maintainence of ISO 9001 is the big problem.
    – richard
    Jun 4, 2011 at 19:07
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    That is certainly the reason that ISO9001 has become largely irrelevant (although still the military expect it), but that is true whether your processes are Agile, Waterfall or anything else. Processes change and it's a lot easier now to keep your docos up to date than it used to be, and yet still in the real world people often don't, until they get a new starter. But the question here is "are the two incompatible" and they're not; getting ISO9001 with lightweight Agile processes in a Wiki should be easier than it was with heavyweight processes printed and bound.
    – pdr
    Jun 4, 2011 at 20:33

All ISO 9000/9001 requires is that your process is documented and that you follow that process.

It doesn't say what that process is or how good or useful it is. The idea behind it is that you can guarantee that you can produce what ever it is you produce in a repeatable, auditable manner.

Years ago when the company I was with at the time decided to go for ISO certification we made the mistake of thinking we had to have a good process in place. This caused the whole procedure to be a long, drawn out affair that distracted us from our real work. What we should have done is just documented what we did and then after getting certification gradually improved the process.

So if you are following an Agile methodology you can get ISO certification - but, as others have said, not for it's own sake. The real benefit is that it allows you to bid for more contracts.


The elevator pitch for ISO 9000 is "say what you do, do what you say, prove it". In the US, each part of the 3 clauses is turned into huge piles of documentation. This makes ISO 9000 a horribly inefficient process.

Dilbert explanation 1
Dilbert explanation 2

Academically it is very beautiful, but in practice is it anyway?

I think the best answer to your question is the following aphorism:

In theory, theory and practice are the same.
In practice, they're not.

From Yogi Berra.

  • 1
    Oh how I wish I could see those Dilbert comics still! All I get is a 404 page now.
    – ronlybonly
    May 16, 2018 at 2:31
  • @ronlybonly I've updated the links.
    – Tangurena
    Jun 1, 2018 at 22:09
  • Oh man. It was totally worth the wait! Thanks for updating it @Tangurena!
    – ronlybonly
    Jun 9, 2018 at 20:16

I am a medical doctor and a freelance ISO Auditor in the USA. I feel it is not fair to say that the ISO per se is a failure. It depends on how the company looks at it. If you are determined to marry the certificate alone yes they cannot achieve much,but we cannot blame the standard for it. You can achieve a lot if only you have quality processes in place. ISO is not a "documentation demon" as some portray it to be. The idea is that "do what you say and document what you do" I feel ISO can really gel well with the lean methodology of Six Sigma as it need not be limited to manufacturing processes. As for as Agile is concerned,I see it as a subset of the already existing Iterative type of the SDLC. It is hard to imagine though that there is no importance to documentation. What happens to the lessons learned if you do not document. I feel wit quality processes and the right documentation,Agile goes well with ISO and I go a step further to suggest that the lean of Six Sigma,ISO 9000 and Agile methodology do interact gainfully and can save you on time money and resources. Also the CMMi model which is essentially built around the ISO standard can go hand in hand with the trio of ISO,Agile and lean Six Sigma. Patience is the key word and I bet no standard or methodology can fetch the company profits only on getting certified in the respective decipline. Initially you need that much hard work to implement them and follow them in the right spirit.

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