The real benefits of ISO 9001 certification

ISO 9001, that part of the ISO 9000 series that defines the quality management system requirements, clearly means many things to many people. There are certainly people with a vested interest in promoting its virtues and (sometimes) overstating its merits in the process. There are also some very vociferous opponents, including some career critics who have made a good living from disparaging it. But let’s try to be objective and think things through clearly

Why do people seek registration?

I’m tired of seeing confused debates by so called quality professionals about the uses and benefits of ISO 9001. “How do we increase its take up? How do we get more companies interested?” … Why would you want to do that? If you have to sell something so hard, maybe the need isn’t there, and there’s only one result that comes from selling something that isn’t needed – Disuse. The simple inarguable truth is that most registered organisations seek registration to meet the requirements of an important customer, or an important prospect. It basically allows the company to bid for work they would otherwise be excluded from, as the customer has defined it as a condition to supply. Is this right? Well, we’ve talked about this in the past. The customer is king, if he says “jump!” we should all say “how high?”

Interestingly, when the benefits of ISO 9001 registration are debated, most people launch into often unquantified justifications revolving around control, conformity and efficiency themes, almost as if doing it mainly because the customer wants it is somehow something to be ashamed of. The fact that it opens doors economically is often overlooked. This obvious economic advantage of offering access to more contracts has to be a major benefit, and “quality guys” should not be afraid of recognising it

Is it a mark of excellence?
Some people might claim that it is but they are just plain wrong. There may well be a decent set of good business practices woven into that clumsy and badly written document, but the requirements set out in ISO 9001 are no more than a base line. Successful certification indicates that the bones of a documented QMS is in place, it is auditable and it is supported by a basic set of management processes and, if we’re lucky, a PDCA theme running through it. The company may be a million miles from world class and may even be going steadily out of business at the same time. So I’m saying, in quality terms, it’s no more than our starter for ten

Why the confusion then?
The ten thousand dollar question, but I can offer a personal opinion. From my own personal experience I find that quality guys don’t speak the language of business, and business guys don’t speak the jargon of quality. That means strategic, commercial and quality people often have parallel agendas and, because the communication and transparency are poor within the processes (the principle that we should all be seeking the same end result, a successful business), is lost in the ensuing conflict and battle for resources. How often do we hear the QA department moaning about poor top management commitment to quality? Time for a common language and a clear focus on what is important to the business and the customer, whichever way we want to badge it up

A business approach to managing quality
Another favourite theme, but let’s expand on it a little this time by exploring the cost of quality in economic terms. Quality, generally, is defined as “the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills requirements” or “conformity to requirements” or a variation on that theme. Often “quality” is stated only in product conformity terms, as if that was the only thing that mattered to the customer and, as a consequence, the lower the level of functional defects, the better things are. However there comes a point at which investing in conformity related improvements does not yield any economic benefits. Eventually we reach a point at which (at the current price) we offer the customer a tolerable level of defect, a lower rate of defect may come at a price that the customer is not prepared to pay. So “better quality” (in this situation) increases the chances the customer will seek a cheaper provider, possibly one with an inferior defect rate. So examining the likelihood of repeat business only from a conformity and defect rate perspective is a dangerous mistake to make. Customers care about lots of things. Once the level of defects is tolerable they start to care more about other things. After sales service, response times, ease of dealing with, user-friendliness of contact systems, flexibility, image even. If these are important to the customer, then they become the new conformity

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