Myth Number One - The Meaning of Certification


Myth Number One - The Meaning of Certification
There would seem to be no doubt that the benefits of ISO 9000 certification have been oversold. Either
that or certification bodies have underperformed in the way they provide certification. As a representative
of a certification body even I would not support the statement ‘that if they were dealing with a supplier that
held an accredited ISO 9000 certification then they need do nothing; the product will meet their
requirements’. But what is it realistic for the customer to expect? I believe it is true that customers have
not seen an increase in supplier performance as a result of certification. That is certainly the experience in
the United Kingdom.
So what can a purchaser expect certification to tell him about his suppliers? That they have a quality
management system which meets ISO 9001. This is a good foundation but is it sufficient to guarantee the
quality of delivered products and services? Probably not. But it should give the customer an assurance that
a supplier takes quality seriously and has the capability to meet customer expectations. However, the way
in which the system is applied to meet specific contract requirements is perhaps an area in which the
customer should have some involvement. I have always said that one of the benefits of dealing with a
certified supplier is that a customer knows they have the basic systems in place and need not spend time
performing basic systems audits. This then allows the customer more time to concentrate on the things that
are important to him. For example, how the system is applied to the products or services being purchased.
Certification provides evidence of the capabilities of a supplier and is a good indicator that a supplier will
be able to meet the customer’s expectations, however, the customer cannot stand back completely from
becoming involved with suppliers on contract specific matters.
I believe there is confusion between management systems certification and product certification. The latter
requires that in addition to being manufactured under a quality management system, samples of the product
are independently tested to verify their compliance with the appropriate certification. This provides far
greater assurance to a customer that a product will meet their expectations. Many customers seem to
expect the same level of assurance from management systems certification.
Despite understanding the difference between systems certification and product certification, it is
reasonable to ask how a product that does not meet the customer’s expectations can be delivered to a
customer if it has been manufactured under an ISO 9001 quality system. Why did the system not prevent
this happening? Surely if there are any deficiencies in the product, the system should detect that this is the
case before the product is despatched. But unfortunately the connection between a failure to meet a
customers expectations being caused by a deficiency in the quality system is rarely made. It is, therefore,
not surprising that customers are questioning the effectiveness of certification if it allows suppliers to
deliver non-conforming products, does not trace this back to a failure in the system and does not ensure
appropriate actions are taken to identify the root cause and prevent a recurrence. Customers buy products
and services and quite rightly expect them to meet their expectations. If the system allows products that do
not meet their expectations to be delivered then they have every right to question the value of certification.
Because my customers have told me that if I do not gain certification I can no longer supply to them. How
many organisations were told this, particularly back in the 1980’s and early 90’s? In fact many
certification bodies promoted this fact as a means of attracting applications, rather than extolling the
positive benefits that could be achieved. It was certainly true that many major purchasers were making
these demands, especially as they were cutting back on their own auditing activities. One of the problems,
however, was that this resulted in many organisations seeking certification because they were told to, not
because they wanted to. To many, certification was seen as a necessary evil and not as something which
could contribute to making them a better business. ISO 9000, even the much maligned earlier versions,
provides opportunities to increase efficiency and improve customer satisfaction, if it is implemented in the
right way. However, those organisations that implemented the standard and achieved certification for the
wrong reasons were probably not even looking to achieve these benefits. To them it merely became an
additional cost to the business. If they had approached it in the right way they could have used it as a
means of driving their business forward, reducing duplication of effort, streamlining processes and
reducing failures thereby saving money, whilst at the same time improving customer satisfaction.
Something that today we would describe as a ‘win, win’ situation.
Fortunately, market research has shown that there have been converts along the road. Whereas, the original
motivation in seeking certification was customer pressure, many organisations have also seen the benefits
and state business efficiency as the main reason for retaining certification.
The main objective of certification to ISO 9001 is to provide purchasers with an assurance that a supplier
has the ability to consistently supply products which meet their expectations. To do so an organisation
must implement its quality management system effectively and continually improve its effectiveness. This
is verified by an independent audit of the management system by a certification body.
Every audit is a sampling exercise and no audit can look at everything. The size of the sample, however,
must be large enough to be representative and to give sufficient confidence that the system has been
implemented effectively and that products do in fact meet customer expectations. Sufficient time,
therefore, must be allocated to conduct a meaningful audit. Otherwise only a superficial audit will be
possible and this will not be capable of providing customers with the level of assurance they are seeking.
Auditors must have sufficient knowledge of the products and processes they are auditing to be able know
what is important. They should concentrate their efforts on those things which are important and which can
make a difference. This may mean sometimes having to work outside their comfort zone. It is easy for an
auditor to raise findings relating to measuring equipment being out of calibration but raising one relating to
a lack of management commitment is something entirely different.
Auditors must be flexible and have an open mind, being willing to accept innovative ways of meeting the
requirements of ISO 9001. They are no longer ticking boxes. They should be looking for conformity and
for opportunities for improvement not seeking out non-conformities. Auditors, unlike parking attendants
are not measured on the number of tickets they hand out. They should be measured on the value of the
audits they perform and the benefits the audit brings to the organisation to help them improve. They should
be performing effective process audits aimed at ensuring customer expectations are met. As mentioned
earlier the link must be drawn between the failure of a delivered product to meet customer expectations and
a failure of the quality management system. Something must have gone wrong with the process
somewhere if a customer receives product that does not meet his expectations. Auditors should make this
link, follow audit trails to get to the bottom of the problem and ensure that effective action has been taken
to find the root cause and to prevent a recurrence. They should put themselves in the position of the
customer and understand that to a large extent their role in performing an audit is that of the customer’s
Competition amongst certification bodies is a fact of life. If operated effectively it is of benefit to the
organisation seeking certification as it gives them choice and the opportunity to see how well the
certification body’s service standards meet their requirements. However, over competition can also result
in cutting corners and the temptation to reduce auditing time and, therefore, costs in order to win business.
Not all certification bodies play by the same rules, which means that not all certification is the same or
brings the same benefits.
Certification has become a multi-million dollar business globally. There are over 750 management systems
certification bodies around the world. Unfortunately, not all certification bodies are reputable. In fact the
great demand for certification has meant that some view the opportunity only as a means of making money
and do not provide certification which is of benefit to the certified organisation and its customers.
There are International Standards, published by ISO that specify requirements for the effective operation of
certification bodies and their certification services. These are well established standards and are recognised
around the world as defining good practice for certification. The International Accreditation Forum (IAF)
has also produced guidance on the implementation of these standards in an attempt to establish a consistent
approach around the world. Two of the most important cornerstones of certification are independence and
impartiality. In particular the issue of managing potential conflicts of interest and ensuring they do not
impact on impartiality must be addressed by all certification bodies. The mere fact that a certification body
receives a fee from its clients is a potential conflict of interest. Will a certification body withdraw the
certification of its largest client which could be responsible for 2 – 3 % of its annual turnover? The
responsible certification body would.
Unfortunately, not all certification bodies are complying with the requirements of the appropriate standards.
Some in fact offer a service of consultancy and certification making statements such as ‘no certificate no
fee’ or ‘we will prepare your quality manual for you and will hand it over to you with your certificate’.
The question has to be asked whether certification provided in this way has any real meaning or value. It
would certainly be difficult to argue that it is either independent or impartial. On the other hand it may well
be the case that the quality management system of the organisation is effective.
One of the main things customers are looking for certification to provide is confidence. Confidence that
suppliers have an effective management system and confidence that they have the capability of supplying
products and services that meet their expectations. This confidence can only be provided if there is
confidence that the certification is independent and impartial. The only way that can be achieved is where
there is objective evidence that the certification body is working in accordance with the appropriate
recognised International Standards. This is normally by insisting that the certification body is accredited by
a nationally recognised accreditation body that is a member of the International Accreditation Forum.
I have mentioned previously the importance of accreditation in providing the assurance that a certification
body is conforming to appropriate standards in the way it provides its services, especially in confirming the
independence and impartiality of the certification. Accreditation should provide the ‘level playing field’
which gives both suppliers and their customers confidence in certification.
Accreditation bodies use the recognised International Standards in assessing certification bodies. In order
to ensure a consistent approach to the application and use of these standards they, through the International
Accreditation Forum have issued guidelines to the application of these standards. These contain, for
example, guidance on the time that should be spent on assessment and on relationships that could
potentially compromise impartiality unless they are managed effectively.
Do the various accreditation bodies around the world apply the rules in a consistent manner? I can tell you
from personal experience that they do not and I only have personal experience of dealing with three
accreditation bodies. Despite them using the same standards and the many pages of guidance there are still
variations. In fact there have even been examples of accreditation bodies ignoring IAF rules and
introducing national requirements which are additional to the agreed guidance.
A number of IAF members are signatories to a multi lateral mutual recognition agreement. This is aimed at
establishing equivalence of the accreditations issued by the signatory accreditation bodies. Whilst it may
make a statement about equivalence, what it does not, unfortunately, provide is true mutual recognition of
accreditations between bodies. Therefore, for example, the fact that my organisation is accredited by
UKAS in the UK and ANAB in the USA did not prevent us having to gain accreditation from NABCB in
India so that our clients there could qualify for grants from the Indian government. This is despite the fact
that UKAS, ANAB and NABCB are all signatories to the mutual recognition agreement. There are some
international certification bodies that have in excess of 25 different national accreditations. They do not do
this because they want to, they do it because it is a business imperative and without it their certificates
would not have the recognition their clients expect.
Trade today is international which means that certification must have international recognition. Certified
organisations want one certificate which is acceptable to all of their customers wherever they are in the
world; not a UKAS certificate if they are selling to a UK customer, an ANAB certificate if they are selling
to an American customer and a NABCB certificate if they are selling to an Indian customer. Similarly, I
want to issue my clients with a single accredited certificate which is recognised globally. To achieve this I
need a single accreditation which is recognised in every country that my clients have customers.
One of the benefits of third party quality management certification when it started back in the late 1970’s
was that it could reduce multiple assessment of suppliers by their customers. There has certainly been
some progress in achieving this aim. However, we are in danger of seeing this replaced by multiple
assessment of certification bodies by national accreditation bodies if we are not careful. I know that many
of the accreditation bodies around the world are working hard at looking how they can co-operate better but
instead of co-operating to provide multiple accreditations they should be working collectively to establish a
global accreditation system that provides certified organisations with a single accredited certificate which is
acceptable to all of their customers wherever they are in the world.
Consultants are a vital support to many organisations when they are developing and implementing a quality
management system. Many organisations would never succeed without the help of a consultant. The
important point for the organisation is that the consultant advises them in such a way that the system is
effective and of benefit to them.
There have been many examples of consultants providing ‘off the shelf’ quality systems to their clients. It
has been said many times that every organisation is different and that their quality management system
must be specific to their organisation. By providing an organisation with a standard system which has not
been tailored to their unique situation, a consultant is not providing them with the opportunity to gain the
full benefits that implementing a quality management system can bring. What is right for one organisation
is not necessarily right for another. There is no single right way of doing something that is appropriate to
all organisations.
Another common problem is designing the system to pass an audit rather than to be good for the
organisation. There, is sometimes a tendency for the system to be over designed so that there will be no
doubt that the audit will be successful. The risks are, of course, that it will include elements that are either
unnecessary or over complicated. It is of course perfectly understandable why this may happen. The
consultant wants to be paid at the end of the project and will probably be judged on whether or not the audit
is successful. An audit failure could result in the client refusing to pay the consultant; therefore, best make
sure the audit is successful. It is very difficult for an auditor to comment on where the system may be over
designed, especially if the consultant is present during the audit. I can tell you from personal experience,
many years ago, that you do not want to be in the position of having one of your auditors openly criticise
the work of a consultant to their client. The consultant, quite rightly, gets very upset.
In both the case of the ‘off the shelf system’ and the over designed system there is every likelihood that the
organisation will find that implementing a quality management system costs them money rather than makes
them more efficient and saves them money. The aim should be to provide the organisation with a system
which is right for them, tailored to their needs and from which they can derive real business benefits.
None the issues I have covered can be taken in isolation. They each contribute to an effective and
meaningful certification system. If quality management system certification is to continue to flourish all of
the interested parties must work together to improve.
In conclusion, there are serious questions being asked about the value of certification and there are
improvements that need to be made. None of us can solve these matters in isolation, so let us work
together and ensure that collectively we can secure the future for quality management certification.

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