Certification – Who is the customer?

I am hoping the story that has broken relating to the PIP implant scandal and TUV Rheinland”s role in it will bring this debate into a sharper focus and, again hopefully, clarify the whole point of conformity assessment.

For those of you that may have missed the story about TUV Rheinland, here’s a link to it on the BBC website

The gist is that TUV Rheinland issued the safety certificates relating to the now infamously faulty and dangerous PIP breast implants and a French court has held them liable for (at the time of writing) about £150 million in compensation for “neglecting its duties of vigilance”. This figure could rise. The story should demonstrate emphatically to anyone who was unsure, the exact purpose of conformity assessment and certification. Too many times I have seen on-line debates that appear to assume that the certified company is the only entity that matters. They are the customer, and the certification is there to HELP them. In fact many certification bodies in their marketing even talk about their “partnership approach”. Hopefully we might all now be able to see JUST HOW WRONG THAT IS.

Whilst the certified company may well pay the invoices relating to the assessment, that does not make them “the customer” any more than a person taking their driving test is a customer of a test centre examiner. They are paying to be assessed, but they are not “in partnership” with the assessor. For years now my mind has boggled as to just how many people can’t see anything wrong with that.

A certified company wants to wear a badge, and it has to pay to go through the assessment process, but the badge is an externally facing attestation, visible not for the benefit of the marketing departments of the certified entity, but for the market. It is there to help customers make informed choices about their suppliers, and it is the market that has been, according to the French court, let down by TUV Rheinland – the attestation was unreliable, the products weren’t safe, they did not meet the standards against which they were certified, the customers were misled.

The size of the fines imposed are of a magnitude that I would think TUV Rheinland could find hard to bear should their appeal be unsuccessful. I would be very surprised if that did not send shock waves around the CB and AB community. It certainly should. Will other CBs continue to promote the cosy “partnership” approach? Will the ABs be as happy to turn a blind eye to it as they have been? I think the risk ratings on this whole approach have changed considerably. The scandal may bring down one of the biggest names in conformity assessment in the world, and frankly there but for the grace of god go the rest of them. Hopefully it will lead to the sort of shake up the industry needs. Things have simply got too cosy between the auditor and auditee of late, and it is time that the principles of independence and impartiality were enforced in their entirety, and the market got the reliable attestations it needs.

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