What a way to run a certification scheme

I have long been of the opinion that Certification Bodies should not be allowed to have a high influence on the review process where management system standards are concerned. Personally I don’t think they should be allowed a voice at all. It is literally none of their business. The simple fact is that Certification Bodies have a clear commercial conflict of interest which, I would strongly suggest, will heavily influence their views on the standard, what it should contain and, more to the point, how difficult it should be to achieve. The simple truth is that it is in the CBs commercial interest to achieve as many registrations as possible. That is not opinion, that is plain fact, and the easier a standard is to achieve, the more registrations are achievable. In the past I have likened this to allowing a traffic warden to paint his own yellow lines. This, I would argue, is a very large problem, and until CBs are put in their place, then a steady degradation in the credibility of standards will be the result, as they gradually become easier and easier

However, there is obviously nothing inherently wrong with certification schemes as such. After all they seem to work quite well in, say, the restaurant and hospitality sector. But schemes for rating restaurants and hotels are administered differently. There are fewer commercial conflicts of interest and they are more clearly run for the primary benefit of the consumer, not to suit the interests of the establishments. Notably, hotel and restaurant “star rated” schemes tend to incorporate an element of “mystery shopper”. These things are not so true of management system certification schemes, and in this post I suggest that this might be the real underlying reason for the credibility crisis, and not the ISO standard itself

To illustrate the point, and for a bit of fun, let’s just consider what would happen if the Michelin Star Restaurant award were run along the same lines as third party QMS certification

We’ll start by eaves-dropping on the strategic management team meeting at Michelin Star HQ …

Michelin Star Award Scheme – Annual General Meeting

“Thank you all for coming to this special meeting today, gentlemen. To start, I think it would be appropriate if I summarise things so we can all agree on where we stand. (Ahem) Since the inception of the Michelin Star restaurant recognition scheme in the early nineties, the scheme has grown to the point that it now recognises over 170,000 establishments in the UK alone, reaching a peak of 195,000 in 2001.  Over the past 7 or 8 years we have seen a slight year on year decline in the number of recognitions, and the time has come to act on the causes of that decline, to protect the future of the scheme. There is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that suggests that the scheme may be suffering a credibility crisis as a result of some negative press. Negative press not from our customers, you understand (the recognised establishments), but from the food consuming public”

“The peasants are revolting!”

“Ha ha, very good Reg. But seriously we must find a way to shut them up because they are starting to become bad for business”

“What do they know anyway? They need to respect our assessment expertise. We’ve assessed more hot dinners than they’ve … had … hot … dinners … oh, that metaphor doesn’t really …”

“A valid point nonetheless Reg. But the fact remains that they are noisy and irritating and we need to do something to put a stop to their continual moaning”

“What sort of things are they saying anyway?”

“Oh, I’m surprised you have to ask. The usual rubbish about it being too easy to achieve a Michelin Star, the old accusations that we want to issue as many stars as possible, stars are meaningless, that sort of thing. As an example, the other day I got a complaint asking me how we could award a star to Café Joe on Dewsbury High Street, as it was, in their words, ‘a shit-hole’ – pardon my French”

“How did you respond to that?”

“I simply explained the facts. That the Michelin Star is awarded based on a sample generated at the time of the assessment and that we can only make our recommendation based on what we witness at the time of the assessment”

“Did you also explain that we give them two months notice, turn up only by appointment and only speak to members of staff that we have agreed well in advance?”

“Er, no – I thought it would only confuse matters. Oh, by the way Reg, how did your assessment of Il Polio go yesterday?”

“Oh very well, very well. Infrastructure was sound, doors, tables, floor, that type of thing. Work equipment was in order, plates, forks etc. Food tasted like a tramp’s underpants, but the process for putting it on the table was sound, so the system met our criteria”

“So you’ll be recommending recognition?”

“Absolutely. After all, it’s about system and process – that’s what is important. When are the great unwashed going to wake up to that fact?”

“Probably never, but back to the job at hand. What we need to do is to inject some sort of credibility into the scheme”

“You’re a mad man – it cannot be done!”

“Quiet Ron! – I believe it can. What we need to do is to conduct a high profile review of standards, to prove we’ve got them right. We do need to demonstrate that the stars actually mean something”


“So as a starter, what I’d like you to do, Reg, is a customer survey – find out what the customer thinks – we are, after all, a customer focused organisation”

“Ask the general public?”

“Oh Christ no – we already know what that rabble thinks, thank you very much. No, our customers – those great establishments who pay their fees and dues to the scheme. We need to find out what they think”

“What sort of things do you want me to ask them?”

“Well Reg, basically just ask them if they think the scheme is fair, or whether they would like us to make it more difficult for them”

“Oh … right. How many do you want me to ask? All of them?”

“What??? Have you been drinking? No! You’re an auditor for god’s sake … a random sample of, say, two hundred will be just fine”

“When you say random sample, do you mean random sample or ‘random sample’ …?”

“Well ‘random sample’ of course. We certainly don’t need to go looking for trouble. Especially from the up-market west end brigade”

“You’re right there. I did an assessment in the west end last week, you know, one of these posh places. Assessment went well enough, a few observations …”

“Like what?”

“Just the usual. Portion sizes too small, prices too high, no childrens’ menu, ambience could be improved by the addition of generic piped muzak, not everyone likes rabbit – consider the addition of some family favourites such as lasagne or gammon & pineapple … – just the type of findings you’d expect from one of these places. Anyway, I’m sitting in the closing meeting with the owner of the place, going through these observations and he starts changing colour, then steam starts coming out of his ears – literally”

“Medical condition?”

“That’s what I thought at first, then he starts turning the air blue with all manner of abuse. You know the type of stuff, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ve never ran a restaurant …”

“Ah yes … if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard those old chestnuts …”

“Exactly. So I say to him that actually I do know what I’m talking about because I’ve personally issued over 500 Michelin Stars – 180 in Rotherham alone – and I gave him a few practical suggestions”

“Quite right, after all, the assessor should try to add value …”

“Exactly. I gave him some examples of good practice that I’d seen at Il Polio. The massive portions at low low prices … the pet’s menu … the karaoke corner … cheesey chips …”

“I bet that shut him up”

“Huh, you’d think, but no. Made him worse if anything. Told me what I could do with my star. Have you ever had Jamie Oliver telling you to ‘thtick your thtar up your arthe?’ Good job I was wearing my anorak”

“Hah! He’ll be back”

“Yeah, no doubt, but I had the last laugh on him. Because of his attitude towards my best practice suggestions I gave him a non-conformance –‘ failure to consider benchmark data for continual improvement’ …”

“Ha ha you got him there Reg!”

Bang to rights!”

“People like him just haven’t embraced the continual improvement philosophy. In fact he probably can’t even spell it”

“That’s right. He’s dyslexic”

“Er, yeah right, so back to the job at hand. Don’t waste your time with that load of pretentious so and so’s. They’re in the minority thankfully, and we need to focus on where our bread’s buttered. So can you conduct this vox pop and get back to me with the results in, say … a year?”

Or thereabouts?”

“Yeah, yeah, a year or thereabouts”

Two years later …

“I’ve got the results of that customer survey you asked for, sir”

“Oh, that’s great Reg. What are your findings?”

“Do you want me to read out all 200 responses or just the summary?”

“Erm, just the summary if you don’t mind Reg …”

“Right you are. Well, the vast majority of the respondents overwhelmingly indicated that they didn’t want the standard to be raised at all”

“That’s fine, anything else?”

“Yes, a little. Some establishments, mostly the Michelin Star takeaways and burger vans, commented that if the standard was raised, they would be worried whether they would be able to meet the higher criteria and that they might have to drop out of the scheme”

“Oh no no, that would never do. There are bloody loads of them – we’d be ruined”

“Exactly. So do you want to hear my recommendation?”

“Yes, go on”

“We leave it alone”

“But what about all this noise from the great unwashed? How are we going to address that little problem of perception?”

“Well, we could publicise the fact we’ve conducted a review …”

“ That won’t be enough – they really want us to do something about our standards, but go on …”

“We could change a few words and re-date the scheme criteria? Recommend a more regular review at unspecified intervals – that might kick it into the long grass for a few years …”


“I’ve also got an idea for extending the scope of the Michelin Star scheme to embrace the not-for-profit sector”

“Not for profit? What does that mean?”

“Well, works canteens, army messes, prison kitchens, homeless shelters … there are LOADS of them!”

“Brilliant – great job! Let’s do it! What are you up to tomorrow?”

“Just a routine surveillance on Il Polio – but don’t worry – I’m taking a packed lunch”


What if all schemes were run like this ….?

*if you want to join the CapablePeople Community Forum on LinkedIn, simply send a request to join and, provided I like the cut of your jib, I’ll be happy to welcome you in so you can join the debate and get all the links and things that get posted. Shaun

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