EFQM and ISO 9001 – A comparison of approaches


A while ago I published a review of ISO 9004:2009. In it I noted just how “EFQM” it was. That sparked a short exchange between Mark Harbor and I on Twitter about the merits of the EFQM self-assessment approach and the limitations of the typical ISO 9001 audit-driven approach. Something from that debate concerned me and it was a while before I could put my finger on what it was. Now I think I have

It is my firm belief that when we compare EFQM and ISO 9001 the strength of one framework is the weakness of the other and vice versa. In other words, what one framework does well, the other does badly, and the match is almost a perfect negative

In this post I’m going to try to explain exactly what I mean by that

My history with EFQM and ISO

My involvement with each model goes well beyond academia. Those of you who know me from Capable People will be aware that I’ve been training ISO 9001 lead auditors for about ten years, however prior to that, in a past life (in the 1990s) I worked extensively with the EFQM Model. I assessed on numerous occasions for the UK Excellence Award and the North East Excellence Award, trained assessors for the North East Excellence Award on a couple of occasions, and also got involved in upwards of 50 internal EFQM self-assessments for various organisations. It is from these direct experiences that I draw my conclusions

The reason I found it necessary to describe my battle scars, particularly with regard to the EFQM Model, is simply because it works so well on paper. If you’d never been through the pain of self-assessment, and suffered the frustration of post-assessment inertia, you’d never guess it had a single fault … but it does

efqm model

The strengths of the EFQM approach

Frankly the EFQM approach has a few faults, but let’s start with the strengths, because the glass might just be half-full. I’ll try and list them;

  • Its criteria covers strategic processes in far more detail than ISO 9001
  • It does the “systems approach” better too
  • Its criteria are “weighted” and identify that some processes are more critical than others (which they are)
  • It does “leadership” in a more detailed and academically sound way
  • It makes a more concerted effort to direct assessors to identify cause and effect relationships (sometimes in vain of course, but it tries, nonetheless)
  • It includes financial/business results and some financial processes within its criteria (not simply “quality”)
  • It directs assessors to examine the integrity and breadth of “results” in a better way, including an appreciation of direct and indirect measures, and the benefit of a balanced range of metrics
  • It actually has criteria that support the “Involvement of People” quality principle
  • EFQM self assessment is surprisingly good fun, if you like that sort of thing

The weaknesses of the EFQM approach

Although it has strengths it does have its significant weaknesses or, in EFQM language, Areas For Improvements (AFIs). These are what I consider have always been the most significant ones;

  • The use of documented evidence or the requirement to provide “proof” (as opposed to testimony) within the self-assessment process is usually limited
  • Although the criteria, in theory, covers strategic issues, financial measures and results, the output from assessment will only ever be as good as the inputs allow. In my experience of going through numerous assessments, there is an almost universal reluctance from the senior team to allow unfettered access to this sensitive information “warts and all”. Therefore the principle of “Garbage In – Garbage Out” (GIGO) usually applies
  • Although the criteria includes financial performance, it does not do it in sufficient enough detail to allow a realistic assessment of the sustainability of the business. Assessors may well look at how budgets are allocated and managed, which is a good thing in itself, but sustainability is the $10,000 question. Consequently there have been numerous examples of award winners getting into commercial difficulties a very short time after receiving an EFQM based award. It could therefore be argued that the model awards a deceptively high score for companies that are going out of business albeit in an “excellent” way. This feature may well partially explain why it seems to have retained its popularity a little longer within the public sector in the UK. In this sector financial management more or less is management of budgets, and the issue of commercial sustainability is not really a factor in the mix
  • The assessment does not identify any clear “rights” and “wrongs” – just a set of “coulds” and “could do betters”. Fair enough, you might think, but in my experience that almost always leads to strangulation of the process by inertia once the assessment is complete. Typically the assessment will yield upwards of 150 strengths and 150 AFIs, with no direction on priorities (that is for the company to decide). The problem is that this wealth of data  usually completely overwhelms the organisation and brings the process of improvement via self assessment to a sudden stop. You can have too much information
  • The process, done properly, is incredibly hungry on resources and often struggles to satisfy even the briefest of cost versus benefit analysis

I must confess that between the years 1994-1999 there was no bigger disciple of EFQM than I. However, after a few years, Groundhog Day well and truly kicked in. I looked back over the fifty or so assessments that I’d been involved in and struggled to identify even a small hand full that had delivered real improvements. That is, improvements that I felt the organisation could not have identified anyway, simply by intuition. The fact was that most companies already knew fine well what their biggest problems were before the process began, and I could see in the faces of many a senior manager during the assessor feedback an expression that suggested “this is an expensive way of telling us what we already knew”. I’ve heard senior teams criticised on numerous occasions for a lack of “buy-in” or “commitment”, but sometimes you need to see things from their perspective. After a while I found myself asking, hand on heart, “is this an effective use of so much resource?”

My biggest criticism, however, is that these weaknesses have existed within the EFQM framework for almost 20 years. They are actionable, but the guardians of the model have done little to resolve them. Is that continuous improvement?

EFQM and ISO 9001

Each framework having more or less the exact opposite strengths and weaknesses actually carries a thick irony – the solutions are staring us in the face. To be fair, there has been some movement on the ISO 9001 side to incorporate some of the EFQM strengths. This was seen most obviously when ISO 9000:2000 was published. The under-pinning “8 principles of quality management” were introduced, as were some new EFQM-influenced criteria, most notably Customer Satisfaction and Continual Improvement. However, to my eyes, this was done in a very superficial and even a clumsy way. The clauses were brief and ill defined, leading to a large degree of elasticity in the way the are applied. Now we also have ISO 9004:2009, which moves even further in the EFQM direction. However, in Mark’s words, “does it ever deliver truly strategic information?” Probably not


And ISO 9001 does have its strengths

There is clear potential for a meeting of minds between the frameworks. For all its weaknesses, ISO 9001 has the inarguable strength that it requires auditability and proof. An ISO 9001 audit may not be strategic but, done properly, it should at least be factual, reliable and performed in a reasonably cost-effective way. ISO 9001 systems also usually benefit from two levels of independent scrutiny and regulation (again maybe not perfect but its there). Plus ISO 9001 certification is worldwide and widespread and it has found a way (by fair means or foul) to role out a commercially viable model and system of assessment

The conclusion? Put both frameworks in a blender and turn it on. We might just end up with a half-decent smoothie

3rd December 2009: Update to this article

Matt Fisher posted a very useful comment to this post yesterday and told us that the most recent EFQM revision has taken some of these issues on board

The criteria has in fact been expanded with regard to sustainability. On a first review it does appear to relate to environmental as opposed to economic sustainability (profitability in other words), which was the weakness to which I was referring in my post

Shaun Sayers

Contact the author

This is clearly a very popular post, it gets a lot of visits from University servers, so I assume it may even get cited! Anyhoo, if you want to ask me a question, you can contact me here

You can find more EFQM articles here

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Shaun Sayers

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25 Responses to EFQM and ISO 9001 – A comparison of approaches

  1. Matt Fisher says:

    Really interesting article and the issue of “ISO 9000 v. EFQM” has often been debated (and I expect will continue to be for some time to come). The EFQM Excellence Model has just been revised and a number of these issues were debated by the Core Team, particularly the issue of sustainability. If you go to the EFQM website, you can download a copy of the “Transition Guide”, which explains some of the changes.

    EFQM have taken on board many of the points raised (such as providing an Executive Summary, based on the Fundamental Concepts, to highlight the priorities from an assessment) and ISO 9000 is also trying to address the criticisms that it is too operational and doesn’t really drive improvement (we now get asked by the auditors if there’s any specific areas they’d like us to look at…). In a few years, we might not need a blender…

  2. admin says:

    Interesting stuff Matt. It’s good to see things being taken on board, albeit at a pace that is well out of step with the pace of change in the world (both frameworks MUST plead guilty to that). I’ll check out those threads and see if there it provides a new dimension to the discussion series for next week

  3. David Smart says:


    A long and thought provoking article. My own thoughts having knocked my head against the wall for over 40 years trying to sell the message on any system is that either office politics i.e. power struggles get in the way or no=one at a senior level takes the time to see benefits.

    I don’t think registration bodies or the CQI have sold true benefits and helped us at grass roots levels. However I am pleased to say this is beginning to gather momentum, but if were cynical “is this a sea change or just another way of generating cash for courses” We will see the track record is not good.

    We in the quality profession have a lot to offer, especially at strategic levels, but there is a lot of cynicism that we will need to overcome, but I remain hopeful and still committed to the cause

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for sharing your views, David. I must confess that I actually have a little more sympathy for top management than most “quality people”. Sometimes you have to look at it from their point of view. In many ways “quality” people are selling an approach, and like any sales pitch it has to stress clear and attractive benefits to the customer (in this case the top team). That is not always clearly spelled out, so I often ask the question “who can blame them?” when support isn’t forthcoming. I developed this theme in this earlier post http://blog.capablepeople.co.uk/2007/12/time-to-give-top-management-a-break/

  5. admin says:

    Hey, all you people clicking through from LinkedIn – thanks for taking an interest. It is appreciated. Can someone let me know which discussion group is pointing at this article? I’d love to see what sort of discussion is developing


  6. Cyril says:


    But one has to understand that 9000 is basic system, where the company or organization implements an documented procedure.

    While in case EFQM its basically the business model, where in the assessment true mirror on how the company is performing.

  7. shaun says:

    Thanks for the comment Cyril. I do understand what each model is. You are right in saying that ISO 9001 is a basic framework, and in the article I did not credit it for being anything more. The strengths I identified so far as ISO 9001 is concerned (in comparison to EFQM) is that it requires more proof to support the conclusions than EFQM typically does, and also that the assessment process is significantly less hungry on resources (which makes its use as an overhead less of a burden)

    EFQM does have a much broader scope, and it considers cause and effect a heck of a lot better than ISO 9001, so on the face of it, it is a far superior model. The key point I make about EFQM is that whilst it is academically quite sound in most (but not all!) ways, it is commercial viability is questionable as the current assessment process is ridiculously heavy on resources. I’d also question the statement that it gives a true mirror on performance. It has the potential to do this, but I’ve been involved in many EFQM assessments where this has been far from true. It is for this reason why I suggest that the ISO 9001 principle of needing to back everything up with solid evidence is a strength that an EFQM assessment process does not always share

  8. Pingback: Understanding customer focus | Capable People Blog

  9. Elearning says:

    Surely, one of the key differences between ISO 9001 and the Excellence Model is that the former attempts to be prescriptive, while the latter is a descriptive methodology. The latter is also cyclical (or should be), and therefore drives continuous improvement by its very nature. We have done some work here, outlining the differences between audits, standards and frameworks: http://www.qualityscotlandonline.co.uk

  10. Shaun says:

    Thanks for the comment, RW. I will allow the plug

    Both models require continual improvement and are PDCA based, so I’d argue that ISO 9001, properly applied, supports both. I’d also suggest that the EFQM Model is more appropriately termed as a diagnostic framework, than a descriptive framework


  11. modathir munarak says:

    thanks all ,I think we need to implement iso in the first begining of establishing TQMS which can be used as a avehicle or a very constructive framework to guuide and maintain the system,all problems with iso normally start with inperfect implementation (regardless to the concepts) and the sellection of the core procedures that lead the organization to TQM.EFQM IS A WONDERFUL model EVEN HAs ITS DIFFICULTIES IN IMPLEMENTATION but the problem is how the organization deal with the results of auditing and assessments feedback reports (corrective actions and action plan/s)for me it is essential to start with iso and for further improvements can be generated by adobting EFQM to cover all internal and external environmental aspects in which the organization operates the matter of risk and change management,sustainability,and general stratieges linked to the mission,vision and core objectives

  12. Ashok Deobhakta says:

    I got to see the article quite late, probably through Linked in. It is a well thought and researched material. I must say, the topic it self is quite bold to handle and only experts like Mr. Shaun can do justice. I suggest it needs wide circulation, of which I am not quite sure if it has been done.
    Further,the summary provided, by Mr. Shaun, in the reply is also thoroughly enjoyable.

  13. Shaun says:

    Thanks for reading my notes, Ashok, and the nice words.

    Nobody wanted the EFQM model to work more than me. I spent (wasted?) about 8 years of my professional life working more or less exclusively with it. However, after a period of waiting to see tangible proof that it actually worked, and never seeing that proof, you have to face reality. It only looks good, sounds good and works up to a point on paper.

    This post gets a lot of hits, strangely. Especially from Iran and UAE, so I assume something is happening with it in those countries


  14. Bob Alisic says:

    In the text ISO 9004:2009 is mentioned, but the process model used in ISO 9004:2009 is not presented in the text. The big difference between ISO 9001 and ISO 9004 is that ISO 9004 is starting with issues like How to manage an organization towards sustained succes, development and deployment of strategy and than planing of activities etc, but closing with: improvement, innovation and learning.
    Next to this ISO 9004:2009 contains also two tools for self- assessment, on a on strategic level and another one on detailled level.
    These two tools could give an organization necessary insight in strategies issues being underdeveloped or even missing.
    With regards,
    Bob Alisic

  15. Shaun says:

    Thanks for taking an interest in this post, Bob. I can understand your point about the POTENTIAL application of ISO 9004:2009, but it is now the end of 2013. How many companies do you know that use it in this way? I don’t know of any, and I get about a fair bit.


  16. Thank you so much for providing such useful information.Could you provide me experience of application of “ISO” and ” EFQM ” in area of social security health insurance.
    Your sinverely
    Dr.Mohamed Hassan Osman El Mahi
    National Health Insurance Fund, Headquarter.
    Health economist / Quality Director– Headquarter.
    PaladiaStreet,Block No.3.Bldg.10, Khartoum, Sudan
    Postal Address: P.O.Box 13267 P/C 11111 Khartoum, Sudan
    Khartoum, Sudan
    Mobile Phone: +249111360080
    E-mail: mhon2011@gmail.com , elmahi@nhif.gov.sd

  17. Mattias says:


    Very intersting article. I have been working with both systems as well for some years now and the expense of control-(or improvement) systems, and models, in general is always an issue for me.

    Models ogf course need to adapt to a changing Environment but they also have the characteristics of growing in complexity for the sheeer need of development, thus creating more work. I am a fan of simplifying as much as possible.

    I do feel that the fact of EFQM being an expensive model has to be compared with the cost of internal auditors and external certification auitors. These audits are also not small expenses but maybe has been around so long that they are sometimes seen as “normal”.
    The external audits might be cheaper in general but ususally also more frequent that external assessments.

    Otherwise i also think that there is merits to both models.

    Best regards,

  18. Shaun says:

    Thanks for taking an interest in this article, Mattias and for taking the time to offer your observations. Whilst I agree it is true that if we looked at Internal Audits and also Third Party Audits as process improvement tools, most would struggle to satisfy a cost vs benefit analysis, it must be remembered that they are not primarily used for that. Companies perform (ISO) internal audits because they are a requirement of certification. They seek and maintain certification usually only because it is a contract requirement. These audits are required to secure the contracts, therefore they do pay for themselves usually in that way. This point should be borne in mind by those people that the reason for adopting ISO 9001 is to achieve performance improvement, because it rarely does that. Also if customers stopped asking for ISO 9001 as a contract requirement, I would think that ISO 9001 would be used voluntarily at about the same level as EFQM is now. That is, here and there, in pockets.

  19. Munawwar says:

    Hi. Good article. However I have a few questions.

    1. “Consequently there have been numerous examples of award winners getting into commercial difficulties a very short time after receiving an EFQM based award”.

    As far as I have Googled, there aren’t many examples (honestly I couldn’t find even one). To the contrary there are studies showing long-term financial success of EFQM winners.

    “..but sustainability is the $10,000 question”

    Also at this point I am questioning whether it is ever possible to accurately assess sustainability, because it may depend heavily on factors that is yet to happen in the future (some disruptive move from competitors, economic recession, customer response to own moves or competitor moves etc). So EFQM is a tool that can only accurately assess the past and current, and help organizations to improve…the future is just a prediction. So maybe our expectations from this tool is too high.

    2. “The problem is that this wealth of data usually completely overwhelms the organisation”

    I am not aware of the depth of the assessment process, but thinking from a practical perspective, shouldn’t an organization know when to stop an assessment so that they can address the important ones? Also that might reduce some expenses and save some time spent on the assessment itself. (Just saying that the problem isn’t in the framework itself, but maybe with the ones using the framework).

  20. Shaun says:

    Thanks for taking an interest in my article, I appreciate it.

    I’ll try to address your comments one by one. First the failures of award winners and users. If you follow this link to UK Excellence Award Winners, you will find a few that are either no longer with us, or whose “excellence” has not been sustained.


    Furthermore in 1999, the British Quality Foundation published a paper that was supposed to provide “evidence” that users were more successful than non-users. It was a far from scientific document and written in a very promotional way, focussing on the success of a few companies that happened to “use” the model (however the extent of use and the hard cause/effect relationship between use and success was not described). Furthermore the companies cited in this report included Motorola, Eriksson, Texas Instruments and Rank Xerox. Over the next 3 years we could say that these companies maybe weren’t the best examples to use in hindsight.

    So far as sustainability is concerned, it is possible to develop means and metrics to determine the resilience of a business model, indeed the banking industry is going through such a “stress test” in the UK now. Some have done OK, some not, but a measure is used.

    I think your final point about how a company gets overwhelmed with the data needs to be addressed by direct experience. I have been through it many times and seen it happen on nearly every occasion. Other than repeat my direct experience (and with respect) I’m not sure how I can further argue the point with someone who hasn’t seen it happen.

    Nonetheless I thank you first for reading the post, but also for taking the time to think about my arguments and to challenge them. Have a happy 2015, and please come back and read/comment in the future – there are over 100 posts on the blog just now on all kinds of management topics.


  21. Steven Baele says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. I have a few questions though. What are, if any, the parameters/criteria for “selecting” either EFQM or ISO. Is there a “checklist” a company can use to evaluate which has the highest possibility of being a good “fit”. I understand that all models have drawbacks and EFQM possibly came to existance based on the fact that they considered ISO was lacking in some areas. Are ISO and/or EFQM learning from one another? is ISO still considered “too big” for SMB?

  22. Shaun says:

    Thanks for taking an interest in the blog post, Stephen. Actually your questions are ones that get asked very frequently. I think I will offer my views on those questions in a blog post in the coming days, so bear with me.

    Thanks for giving me an idea for something to write about – it is always a challenge.

  23. Pierre Rosset says:

    Thanks for this quite interesting blog i just discovered through Linkedin.
    I ha ve to give a speech soon about EFQM and ISo and you gave me a lot of information.

    As far as i am concerned, i think definitively that one of the clear advantage of aEFQM autoassessment is the deep implication of the people at all levels of an organisation, this is a big difference than an ISI certification.

    And of course the process must go on and on to reach the unattaignable perfection…. The organisation with his people must be commited and choice together the Better AFI, the one that give the bett reSults.

    I am still enthusiast with EFQM, but maybe a little too young in this story …

  24. Shaun says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Pierre. I hope that my article has helped you with your speech. Good luck.


  25. Mark says:

    Finally ISO acknowledges that IS0 9001 is only a stage on the route to excellence. But they hide it in an obscure place.See ISO
    18091:2014 Quality management systems —
    Guidelines for the application of ISO
    9001:2008 in local government and Figure 1 in particular.

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