John Navarro  |  08/01/2008

Exceeding Expectations

A “can-do” attitude helps a nonprofit achieve ISO 9001 registration.


Today’s competitive environment requires many businesses to register their quality management systems (QMS) to ISO 9001. Although debate on the overall effectiveness of registration continues, each year an increasing number of organizations seek it. So what’s significant about acquiring ISO 9001 registration? What makes the following case study about a nonprofit association achieving ISO 9001 registration particularly compelling?

What’s compelling is the “it can be done” spirit and the collective commitment of the management team and each employee to collaborate throughout the registration process. That was the path followed by this nonprofit, the Life Options, Vocational and Resource Center (LOVARC), which demonstrated a positive outlook, a truly compassionate effort, and a deep involvement in each stage of compliance to the standard. In fact, LOVARC embraces this work ethic every day supporting enlisted personnel at Vandenberg Air Force Base, located near Santa Barbara, in Lompoc, California. LOVARC manages a full food-service operation for the 30th Space Wing headquartered at Vandenberg, doing everything from receiving raw goods to preparing food and cleaning up.

The nonprofit was established to provide options and life-changing opportunities to those facing challenges that most of us will never encounter. LOVARC is required to hire and maintain a staff of at least 75 percent severely disabled employees to qualify and retain the federal contract that supports the organization. There are a number of qualifying conditions, including legal blindness, developmental disability, paresis, hearing impairment, and noncommunicable disease.

The journey begins

LOVARC has a longstanding affiliation with NISH, an organization that assists the severely disabled. This Vienna, Virginia-based organization was established in 1974 as one of two nonprofit agencies designated by the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled (a federal government agency) to support nonprofits participating in the AbilityOne Program. The AbilityOne Program provides employment opportunities for people who are blind or have other severe disabilities by procuring federal contracts for goods and services. Through NISH and the AbilityOne Program, more than 600 nonprofits collectively employ nearly 40,000 individuals with severe disabilities.

LOVARC was established in 1964 by a group of parents concerned about the lack of services available to children with developmental disabilities. In time, the focus of this Lompoc, California-based group was redirected toward helping high-school graduates and adults with disabilities find appropriate employment opportunities.

In 1995, NISH approached LOVARC to consider working together on a proposal for the food-service contract at Vandenberg. LOVARC had minimal food service experience, and insufficient staffing to support such a contract. Nonetheless, NISH was impressed by the “can-do” attitude of the LOVARC staff and felt that with the right level of assistance and some hard work, the project could be a success.

The challenge of providing expert services learned overnight was not the only difficulty. “There were other misconceptions to overcome, which included preconceived expectations involving the appropriateness of people with disabilities in preparing and serving food,” says Bill Reardon, LOVARC CEO. “The management team also needed to improve the training structure and implementation of a quality management system (QMS) to hire and operate a full food service with a 75-percent disabled workforce.”

In June 1996, LOVARC won the Vandenberg contract and began providing full food service, knowing that it faced these misconceptions as well as a workforce that would require significant investment in training.

LOVARC provided exceptional food service through the implementation of an appropriate Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system, food-borne illness training with a risk/safety plan, a quality assurance plan, extensive employee training, and sanitation inspection programs.

Registration to ISO 9001

In 2002, LOVARC determined that to provide a more organized and effective service to its clients and customers, it needed to systematize its processes into a comprehensive QMS. After careful consideration, LOVARC concluded that ISO 9001 had many of the attributes for such a system.

With financial and direct support from NISH, LOVARC held an ISO 9001- registration kickoff meeting in September 2006, with the projected goal of registration in less than 12 months. There was a redirection of energy when LOVARC entered the competition and won the annual John L. Hennessy Award for excellence in food service, an award presented to the installation having the best food service program in the U.S. Air Force. Despite the extra pressure of the Hennessy competition, in November 2007, LOVARC passed the ISO compliance audit and achieved ISO 9001 registration shortly thereafter.

The rationale for pursuing ISO 9001 registration was threefold:

1. Although already providing the Air Force with exceptional service, creating a QMS brought cohesive structure to LOVARC’s processes.

2. Procedures already established were reviewed and streamlined to minimize redundancy.

3. LOVARC wanted to secure additional contracts. Under the guidance of ISO 9001 (document control, corrective/preventive action, quality procedures, etc.) it devised an effective system to actuate new contracts as they became available.


The ISO 9001 implementation process was successful for many reasons, such as:

Senior team. From the start, the senior team was actively involved in obtaining registration. Team members representing the core functions of project management, quality, human resources, and finance were available to meet on a regular basis and make time-sensitive decisions to keep the program moving forward.

Commitment to improve . All employees adopted the belief that “it can be done.” Employees worked in earnest on process improvement with the spirit of “How can we make this better?” Interestingly, LOVARC management has noted that the majority of the team desires the recognition that comes with a job done to the best of their collective abilities. It doesn’t break down to nondisabled or disabled, but rather the desire to succeed as a team. Some individuals, because of their disability, require more frequent oversight, but their performance is their best. The challenge of continual improvement is a motivation rather than an obstruction. People not interested in exceptional performance, teamwork, and accepting people for who they are will not receive a warm welcome from the rest of the team.

Training . At LOVARC, training was identified as the key to success. Assistant project manager Edith Chaney took the initiative and developed a program that complied with ISO 9001 criteria and incorporated LOVARC and Air Force training guidelines. It is a well- documented and organized training system that includes annual training schedules and standardized forms that become records for reference.

Management review . LOVARC completed multiple management reviews prior to the registration audit. This gave LOVARC a clear picture of its progress, summarizing and identifying strengths and weaknesses, identifying what needed to be completed, and showing where the organization could improve. At the time of its pre-assessment, NQA, LOVARC’s registrar, had a detailed understanding of the nonprofit’s progress, which gave NQA a high level of confidence in the LOVARC system.


The passionate leader

The food service team requires a strong and knowledgeable leader, and LOVARC found that person in Deborah O’Brien. With an extensive culinary management background and extremely skillful management practices, O’Brien has the experience to lead a large food service operation such as this one.

What is more relevant is her insistence on excellence from her entire staff, which she achieves by the example of her own performance. I witnessed this during my first tour of the facility. O’Brien was performing an audit as well as giving a tour, providing real-time feedback and praise. She always provides unconditional feedback; she praises and critiques with the goal of improvement, putting aside any hint of personal judgment or criticism. With justifiable pride, she shared all of LOVARC’s training processes and documents. Although it was obvious that she and her staff took pride in their improvements and processes, the question was, “How can we make this better?”

Initially, the level of professionalism was difficult for many employees who had not experienced that level of commitment before. As time proceeded, it became the standard for the entire food service operation. O’Brien’s employees know what she expects. Staff are always praised and given credit; she never waivers in her requirements from herself or her staff, and she gives consistent, open feedback. She is a visible, passionate, and empowering leader; she has aligned her staff to the self-empowering philosophy and has staff members who can easily step in when she moves to a new position.

Confronting bias

Bill Reardon’s observation that “There were other misconceptions to overcome, which included preconceived expectations involving the appropriateness of people with disabilities in preparing and serving food,” was the tactful way to say that LOVARC faces prejudice. The reality is that there are many misconceptions not only about people with visible disabilities but also in the attitudes and beliefs within nondisabled organizations.

LOVARC never doubted that its efforts would be successful. At one time there were many outside doubters all too ready to declare failure. Although the LOVARC team did not completely understand ISO 9001 at the outset, it was its unwavering belief, pride in its work, and common goal of completion that moved LOVARC forward. There was no bias or concern about having a 75-percent disabled workforce. They believed, therefore, it was done.

There may always be some degree of prejudice that people need to contend with, but that is where LOVARC and similar organizations can assist. Reardon has been involved with catastrophic and vocational rehabilitation for the past 38 years. Unfortunately, he has been witness to many instances of overt and cloaked prejudice. Often it is due to people not knowing how to associate comfortably, and very rarely the fault of the individual with the disability.

Reardon recalled a small degree of awkwardness with some of the customer base when LOVARC first started the food-service contract. That rapidly disappeared as customers grew to know the staff, their capabilities, and their friendliness. Although it is not a definitive period of time, there comes a moment when the disability issue evaporates and the human dynamic materializes. There is a brilliance to that achievement that overshadows almost everything else.

During a presentation to a prospective customer, Deborah O’Brien was asked, “How would you train an individual with disabilities to be able to serve food to our guests?” It was then that we realized how differently people can think if they have never been exposed to an organization like LOVARC. Having a quality management system that includes a standardized training program, it was easy to demonstrate that any individual, disabled or nondisabled, could be successful in his or her position and would meet customers’ expectations. Any corporation can extrapolate on LOVARC’s achievements with some additional training and consistency. The time involved benefits everyone, and the corporation ends up with an excellent, long-term employee who will be a positive influence on everyone else.

In 1996, LOVARC needed to quickly hire and train a staff of disabled employees to provide full food service for a very visible Air Force base. This required quickly building a system that would ensure a food-service program that recognized the strengths and challenges employees had to overcome, some on a daily basis, to complete their specific tasks. By properly assessing and establishing specific assignments for employees, LOVARC organized the staff to properly complete each assigned job. The apprehension of having a disabled team did not distract LOVARC in its mission to provide exceptional service.

Closing thoughts

LOVARC began the certification process with the belief that “it can be done” and with commitment from the management team to achieve registration to ISO 9001. “Continually Focused on Exceeding Customer Expectations” is LOVARC’s vision. Sounds simple. It is if you believe.


About The Author

John Navarro’s picture

John Navarro

For nearly ten years, John Navarro of Navarro Consulting, located in El Dorado Hills, California, has provided guidance to organizations in a variety of industries to improve their profit and loss by combining business practices with quality improvement methods. Prior to the start-up of Navarro Consulting, he was a senior team member for a division of Western Digital. With the team’s support, the division expanded exponentially, adding millions to profits. Visit online at