The international quality standard, ISO 9000 has had rather a bashing of late. John Seddon's In pursuit of quality: the case against ISO 9000 highlights many of the charges against the standard, primarily that it achieves exactly the opposite - namely that certification has become synonymous with costly over-bureaucratisation. Ian Blair, senior consultant at Deloitte & Touche, flippantly sums up the entire certification process: 'Say what you do, do what you say and show that you do what you say.' A report produced by Manchester Business School last year suggested that 99% of the almost 130,000 companies in around 100 countries that have adopted the certification since ISO 9000 became standard in 1987 have become 'more efficient'. But with so many firms achieving the desired levels does the award still have value in the market place? Blair for one suggests that 'the high penetration ... leads to a law of diminishing returns'.
There may be some truth in the criticism, but whether we like it or not, ISO 9000 is here to stay. For a start, clients actively request it. Barry Sheldon, UK country manager for global express distribution company TNT Worldwide, says that he receives 10-15 questionnaires a week about quality systems. It is a hoop that you just have to jump through, he says, to continue growing and doing business, irrespective of whether your own quality programmes are better than ISO 9000 or not. Scott Steedman, director of engineering at international design engineering consultancy Gibb, agrees: 'Having ISO 9000 is taken as a given. We don't get taken seriously for bids otherwise.' Some countries actively require certification to let your products in. Mike Dillen, product quality manager at automatic telling machine manufacturer NCR, mentions the Middle East as one of these markets and tells how someone was flown over from Saudi Arabia specfically to check up on the company's certificate.
Still, say the sceptics, it is overly expensive for what it is. Although officially, it can cost as little as £1,000, there are reports of it having cost 50 times more than that if you add up the necessary twice-yearly audits. Steedman believes this misses the point.
'You have to ask about the benefit of getting it right first time - the cost of abortive work and delivering the wrong product. If you drive those down, the fixed costs of certification become less important.'.