Quality management: The Importance of ISO

January 1, 2007
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Companies know ISO standards may be good for them, but they may need motivation to get certified. Manufacturing sectors have adopted ISO 9000 for three reasons: the value of the standard, the sales and marketing advantage, and company requirements.

ISO cerification takes hands on management and resources devoted to the task. Sources: BSI

Companies know ISO standards may be good for them, but they may need motivation to get certified. Manufacturing sectors have adopted ISO 9000 for three reasons: the value of the standard, the sales and marketing advantage, and company requirements.
Companies appreciate how the standard can improve their business processes and reduce scrap, rework and cost. Second, manufacturers with similar products, service and price use the certification to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “It gives you a marketing advantage over the competition. It’s a differentiator,” says John A. DiMaria, BSI Management Systems (Reston, VA) product manager for business continuity for information security management and IT.

The final reason manufacturers adopt ISO 9000 is that they were mandated to do so. ISO-certified companies may require their suppliers to do the same. “It’s hard to do business with anyone-especially in manufacturing-if you’re not ISO 9000 certified,” says DiMaria, who has 25 years experience in international standards.

However, the certificate alone will not improve the company’s business processes. The goal should be improved business, not a piece of paper. Done correctly, ISO standards can improve an organization’s business processes and add value.

Robert King, president of ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB, Milwaukee, WI), has been involved with ISO standards for about five years and has learned how to get the most out of the standards. “The key is to actually implement it and get management involved,” King says. “ISO standards can help by actually saving money or improving a company’s environmental footprint.” 

A good quality process drives a company, and ideally, involves everyone in producing a quality service or product. When implementing ISO, King emphasizes senior management involvement. “I can’t stress that enough,” he says.

If a company wants to get certified, they should first look at what sort of standard they need and create a
quality manual-a business process manual-based on that standard. It also is a good idea to talk to other companies who have received certification and learn from them. Then, look for a certification body.
Some certification bodies are fairly broad, while others are niche players. Choose one with relevant business expertise, interview the management and lead auditor, and ensure that the lead auditor is a fit for the business. Consider using a local auditor to cut travel costs.

Some certified bodies are not as credible as others, DiMaria says. Some substandard certified bodies take a company’s money without adding value to the company.

Meanwhile, other manufacturers are only looking for a certificate, and a certification body to open those doors for them. “In our industry we call these badge buyers,” DiMaria says. “The company gives the rest of the industry a bad name.”

To ensure that a company is working with a reputable certification body, DiMaria recommends researching the history of the organization, checking at least three references and asking for auditors’ resumes.

After a qualified certification body is in place, the business process will be audited to find holes and point out nonconformances. Gaps should be expected because it is unrealistic to create a perfect system the first time out, King says.

ISO certification does take hands-on senior management involvement and enough resources devoted to the task, which may include the use of consultants. “I think they are an important part of our business, unless they have a good quality manager who’s done this before. You can’t do this unless you have a little experience in it or you’re a genius,” King says.

When considering a consultant, look at how many resources are available and the size of your organization. With consultants, the best ones are usually mentors, not doers. “They’ll do things, but they’re basically involving the company the whole time. The company is doing a decent amount of work themselves. The consultant guides them in the right direction. The better ones will be mentors; they won’t do it all for you,” DiMaria says.

Finally, as with certification bodies, check the consultant’s references and portfolio. Also, ensure that the consultant is not involved with the certification body, which leads to a conflict of interest, King says. 
After all of the people are in place and have bought into the ISO standards, it is time to begin the certification process. The timeline for implementing ISO 9000, from start to finish, can take anywhere from nine to 12 months, depending on the size of the organization, DiMaria says. It depends on how many people the organization can spare, and whether or not they use a consultant.

John Drengenberg, Underwriters Laboratories (UL, Northbrook, IL) manager of consumer affairs and a 38-year UL veteran, says, “Time to certification varies. It’s almost impossible to answer.” It depends on how much a company knows about what needs to be done, how quickly they pursue corrective action and how many resources are devoted to it.

Experts agree the the most important component to ISO  improvements should be attitudes within the company. Source: BSI

ISO Issues

Experts agree that the most important component to ISO improvements should be attitudes within the company. The business process is important, but unless there is a change in the company culture, it will not work.

Another obstacle to ISO certification is the silent resistance to change-the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude. The biggest mistake companies make is shoving the requirements down employees’ throats. Instead, companies should offer a training and awareness program to get people involved. “The good organizations are the ones that make the standard fit the company, not the company fit the standards,” DiMaria says. “Workers are intelligent people and they know when you’re putting things in place that do the company no good.”
King offers more help in locating the source of the problem. “If ISO hasn’t helped a company, they need to go back and examine the reasons they went after the ISO certification.” Perhaps the company was just looking for the certificate, instead of a process to improve every aspect of the business.

And as for ISO naysayers, King says, “It’s your business process. If it’s not working, look closer to home.” He often hears criticism on the minimum oversight that accreditation bodies worldwide provide. Though accreditation bodies do required audits and look at a sampling of certificates, they cannot personally review every certification. Instead, they look at gaps in a certification body’s system that may result in bad certificates. “For a system that works,” King says, “everybody has to be interested in making sure that every certificate means something.”

DiMaria compares ISO standards to a college degree: You get what you put into it. “If you’re a bum on the street, it doesn’t mean it’s the college’s fault,” says DiMaria.

ISO trends

More industry sectors now are embracing ISO and changing it slightly to fit their particular industry, fostering ISO certifications worldwide. “The growth is better than even I expected,” King says. China, Japan, India and Italy have all had good growth in recent years, he says, particularly in Asia, where companies see it as an international trade facilitator. “I expect it to continue. I wish my radar was good enough to tell you how much,” says King, who predicts continued steady growth even in base standards.
Though the rate of certifications has slowed after the initial rush to convert to ISO 9001: 2000, experts predict the manufacturing sector’s ISO certifications will continue to grow. While it may not be a household phrase, ISO awareness also is slipping into the public consciousness as companies publicize their ISO success. “I’m seeing more and more indications, even on trucks, that ‘this company meets ISO standards,’” Drengenberg says.  Companies have invested resources in it, and they are proud of it, he says.

ISO 9000 is slated for changes in 2009, but most do not anticipate an overhaul of the standard. “I don’t believe the next revision will be as dramatic as the last one,” King says. Industry specific standards are being released and will most likely be added to ISO 9001.

DiMaria agrees. “Using other standards is the road to improving ISO 9001 certification. History is really repeating itself,” DiMaria says, citing the aerospace standards. “Using a baseline of 9001, ISO is creating new and improved standards to address specific industries.” So no matter which standard is used, if ISO is properly implemented, it may be the best prescription for improved business processes.


  • ISO standards can improve an organization’s business processes and add value.
  • Get management involved.
  • Gaps should be expected because it is unrealistic to create a perfect system the first time out.
  • Make the standard fit the company, not the company fit the standards.

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