Manufacturers know the value of ISO 9000 certification and the negative implications of failing to meet these international quality standards. ISO 9000 certification is a must for any manufacturing company to compete, bid and win business in a tough global economy.

Despite this knowledge, however, many companies still fail to seek certification--or have tried and failed. The main reasons for this include:

  • Lack of commitment from top management
  • Insufficient financing
  • Poor training, understanding and planning
  • Overall perception that certification is too expensive and unattainable.

Nonetheless, implementation costs have flattened over the years, and new strategies and tools are now available to help bring ISO 9000 within the grasp of many organizations, particularly small- and midsized organizations that otherwise wouldn't have adequate funding or resources to get certified.

Thanks in part to these strategies and tools, the number of ISO 9000 cer-tifications continues to rise. According to the International Organization for Standardization--the body that governs ISO--ISO 9000 certificates issued worldwide totaled 408,631 by December of last year. Between December 1999 and December 2000 alone, nearly 65,000 new certificates were issued, representing the second highest growth period in the number of certifications since 1993.

Whether a company is striving to implement an ISO 9000 quality management system (QMS) for the first time, managing an existing ISO 9000 QMS or upgrading an ISO 9000 QMS to the new ISO 9000: 2000 standards, the following tips will help make the entire process a time- and cost-efficient endeavor.

Management commitment
Earning ISO 9000 certification requires a high level of dedication and understanding from top management. Lack of management commitment is one of the biggest culprits responsible for a slow and expensive implementation. The quality management team responsible for establishing and managing the ISO 9000 program within an organization must thoroughly understand the standards and be committed to making the rigorous changes needed to bring current operations into compliance with the standards. The management team also should recognize that ISO 9000 is not the final solution. Instead, it's a framework for continual improvement of processes and products.

When researching the applicability of ISO to an organization, a few things to consider are the levels of commitment to improving quality, amount of funds and resources available to dedicate to the project, and operators' schedules and availability for training.

Once you have made the commitment to develop an ISO 9000 QMS, it is important to establish a timeline for achieving your firm's objectives. A consultant can help develop a realistic timeline. Depending upon a number of variables, an efficient implementation will typically take between eight and 12 months, whereas the upgrade of an existing ISO 9000 QMS to the ISO 9000: 2000 standards will take approximately four months. Based on established goals, a firm may choose a more aggressive or less aggressive implementation plan.

The audit to determine how current operations measure up to ISO 9000 standards should be headed by a team made up of representatives from a cross-section of departments within the company. This will ensure that when quality objectives are established, they are based on the needs and goals of every internal department, from finance and accounting, to product development and production, to customer service. Each area representative will serve as a catalyst for implementing quality within his or her department, training and empowering staff, and managing ongoing improvements as defined by feedback from departmental personnel and customers. Processes and procedures can then be fine-tuned accordingly. Internal quality audits should be planned and scheduled to take place at least once per year.

Hire outside help
ISO 9000 certification can be a long and trying process without guidance from a team of quality management experts. Hiring an outside consulting team will help ensure that certification is well planned and smoothly implemented. These experts will direct the audit; help the firm interpret the standards of its business; set realistic quality objectives and a timeline for achieving those objectives; expedite procedures and processes; and correctly manage training, communication, documentation and projects.

Criteria to consider when selecting a consulting team are industry track record, number of industries served, strength and size of company, and average timeframe of successful implementations.

An interview process with several different consultants can help determine which prospect is best suited to help your company achieve its goals. Questions to ask a consultant before hiring include:

  • How long does the average ISO implementation take?
  • How many ISO certifications has your firm completed?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • What are some of your company's industry affiliations and associations?
  • What are your industry specialties?
  • Does your company offer traditional consulting, as well as technology support?
  • Does your consulting organization provide any Web-based or software tools to help maintain the ISO system after certification?
  • What are some of your quality management consultants' past accomplishments and credentials?
  • Who are some of your clients?

When it comes time to select a registrar to perform the quality audit and issue the ISO 9000 certificate, it's important that the registrar is internationally recognized.

To qualify for this recognition, the registrar may be accredited by UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service--United Kingdom), RvA (Raad voor Accreditatie--Netherlands), DAR (German Accreditation Council--Germany), RAB (Registrar Accreditation Board--United States) or Inmetro (Brazil), among others. Without this accreditation, any "certification" performed by the registrar may hold little or no value. Also, beware of nonaccredited certification bodies that offer help for achieving ISO 9000, or award "certificates," without performing a full assessment of your system.

A consulting team can guide you through the selection process and prevent you from spending unnecessarily on hidden registration fees. Some registration bodies charge for the initial registration, in addition to the document review, on-site assessment and annual fee. There are a number of different registration packages available. The ISO consultant can help companies avoid unneeded fees, which can quickly add up. Reputable registrars typically charge between $10,000 and $25,000 for the entire package, depending on the organization's size.

What about software?
There is no doubt that certain steps of the implementation process require an on-site consulting team. The initial audit, for example, requires the expertise of a quality management team to ensure that the quality objectives defined are realistic and attainable.

For other parts of the process, however, use of traditional on-site quality management consulting services can be overly labor-intensive and expensive. Meanwhile, generic software packages used for self-directed ISO 9000 im-plementation are typically ineffective when applied alone.

The best strategy is to combine on-site consulting services with a software package that delivers documentation, training, collaboration tools and project management in a single platform. Purchasing such comprehensive software cuts costs by avoiding the need to invest in multiple software products from different vendors.

An often-made mistake that can plague a company when implementing an ISO 9000 program is overdocumentation of its system. The audit cannot troubleshoot how many documents exist within a QMS, only the content of each document. Therefore, before creating a new document, it's important to ask these questions:

  • Will the document help prevent quality problems?
  • Is there a simpler way to accomplish this task?
  • Can this information be combined with an existing document?
  • Can a process be changed in order to eliminate the need for this document?
  • What are the implications of not including the document?
  • Is the information stated in this document mandated by law or necessary for prudent business operations?

ISO 9000 training software can also help cut the documentation clutter by providing a template for organized, concise and easily updateable electronic documentation. ISO 9000 support software programs give operators greater freedom when it comes to implementing and managing a QMS. Software platforms offer access to ISO 9000 support and training from anywhere, anytime via the Internet.

New standard brings benefits
The new ISO 9000: 2000 standards offer a number of advantages to help make the certification process simpler. Benefits include:

  • Greater applicability to all types of organizations and industries
  • Easier to use and more understandable format
  • Clearer connection of quality management systems to company processes
  • Provision of a natural evolutionary approach to im-proved company performance
  • Greater focus on con-tinual improvement, custom-er satisfaction and resource management
  • Closer compatibility with other management standards, such as ISO 14000
  • Provision of a consistent basis to address needs of companies within specific sectors
  • Easier-to-implement and more flexible documentation requirements.

The new standards make ISO 9000 implementation more adaptable and conformance less rigid, resulting in a faster, more convenient and less expensive certification.

The benefits of certification are well documented. Companies that achieve timely certification can look forward to cost savings equivalent to 6% of sales in the first year. Sixty-two percent of ISO-certified companies have increased sales, 54% have increased market share, 57% have decreased the cost of quality, 37% have increased export growth and 20% have increased employee retention.

With the right planning, support, and resources, your firm, too, can look forward to a cost- and time-efficient ISO 9000 implementation for maximum profitability and return on investment.