To be awarded an ISO 9001 certificate, an organisation’s quality system must be assessed and approved by independent assessors. The assessors inspect the related and required documentation and then inspect the organisation to ensure that what is communicated happens in practice.
They are likely to make some recommendations, but if no major discrepancies are found, the organisation will be issued with a certificate of compliance. Further inspection visits will be made to assess the organisation’s continued compliance. If serious faults are found, the certificate can be withdrawn.
The benefits of ISO 9001 certification:
1. The advantage of any standard is that it gives both suppliers and customers the confidence of knowing exactly what they are agreeing to. Buyers know that an ISO 9001 registered supplier has a quality system of a recognised standard in place. By seeking quotations only from ISO 9001 accredited suppliers, buyers can more easily make direct comparisons between them.
2. By operating to ISO 9001, a supplier should be doing so more efficiently, gaining the cost benefits that flow from improved quality. These savings will usually be greater for those suppliers who have not previously adopted a systematic approach to managing quality.
3. The possession of an ISO 9001 certificate gives marketing benefits to an organisation. Many purchasers increasingly say that they will buy only from organisations with ISO 9001 accreditation, so the possession of it nullifies the advantage of competitors who have already gained certification. ISO 9001 certification can be used to enhance an organisation’s image and demonstrate to existing and potential customers that the organisation takes quality seriously.
Criticisms of ISO 9001
The ISO 9001 approach to quality does, however, have its critics. Indeed, some very large purchasing organisations do not value it and instead impose their own quality systems on their suppliers, believing these to be more appropriate and superior.
The main criticisms levelled at ISO 9000 are:
1. “It is bureaucratic”: The requirement to document procedures and actions can seem like a huge imposition on organisations that have not previously operated such a system. The process of certification requires a lengthy exercise to break down processes and their inputs/outputs and produce the Standard’s required documentation. There is scope for organisations to design their own procedures within the system, but the accusation has been made many times that compliance becomes an end in itself. Some organisations may in the process forget to do the simple things, such as analysing their successful endeavours with a view to emulating them.
2. “It is expensive”: The costs of installing ISO 9001 comprise the fees to the certification body and the work of consultants and staff preparing for assisting in the assessment. There are then the ongoing costs of running the system, including continuing registration fees. Certification fees vary, depending on the size of an organisation. If consultants are contracted, their costs have to added. Internal staff costs are difficult to assess, but these can soon mount up. Notwithstanding the argument that these costs should be seen as an investment, it is easy to see that for many small and medium-sized enterprises, ISO 9001 certification can be prohibitively expensive.
3. “It does not guarantee the quality of a product”: ISO 9001 does not itself require an organisation to set any particular standard for the quality of its goods or services. Indeed, the basis of ISO 9001 is that an organisation can specify any standard it likes. As long as its quality system ensures that its products meet that standard, it can achieve ISO 9001 certification. Customer satisfaction has, however, become more important in measuring quality performance as the standards have gone through revisions.
4. “Service organisations may not find it entirely suitable”: ISO 9001 was originally devised with manufacturing organisations in mind, and subsequent versions of the standards used the language and concepts of those who produce physical goods rather than services when discussing quality. More recent revision of the standards has aimed at being more acceptable to the service and process business sectors, reflecting a more modern understanding of quality. This includes a new focus on customer satisfaction and on organisations as linked processes.
5. “It does not improve quality per se”: The intention of ISO 9001 is to ensure that organisations achieve conformance to specification. It aims to achieve a specified standard rather than to raise that standard. As we mentioned previously, greater benefits may accrue to an organisation that had no formal quality management system in place previously. These may take the form of a greater level of conformance to a specification and a heightening of awareness about quality. It is certainly true that some organisations have cynically used ISO 9001 accreditation as a marketing ploy, rather than as a basis for improving their quality performance more widely.
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