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Opinion: Do global standards really stand up?

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Opinion: Do global standards really stand up?

ISO9001 certification is helping to drive up standards yet it can still be attained even on poor quality products, writes Jonathan Smith.

ABERDEEN, Scotland - More than one million companies across the world are certified to the ISO9001 quality standard. A number of bodies are approved to deliver and audit the standard. As a result, ISO standards are recognised globally and should give customers and suppliers a level of comfort when contracting with an ISO-approved business.

However, in the era of continuous and forensic supplier approval processes, we can look back at how things have developed and take heart that, today, we are taking the proper precautions to ensure our supply chain partners are vetted prior to use. Standards of old remain and the industry has seen new ones come into play to reinforce the integrity behind those companies that are audited and approved.

The UK is a nation built on a great manufacturing foundation and for many decades has been leading the pack of global territories whose standards are revered. Much of this reputation is based on the inspection and test standards that our products are manufactured to, together with other recent influences such as health and safety, environmental compliance and so on.

Yet when comparing to one of our direct competitors, we have to ask the question of whether it truly is a level playing field out there? Can we be sure that all supplier approval bodies fully investigate every aspect of a company’s capabilities to deliver on the content of the ISO standard? Is there an influence in our respective markets whereby anyone can become approved simply by being a diligent form-filler?

Any business displaying a quality certification should do so with great responsibility. At its best, ISO9001 certification refers to tangible improvements in driving up standards: at worst, it can be attained on even poor products.

As an extreme example, imagine a company decided to manufacture concrete life jackets. Assuming the company’s documentation is clear on how it manufactures its concrete life jackets, and its people are competent to work to the procedures instilled in the business, technically it could gain 9001 approval for a useless product.

Quality alone is not a business differentiator and ISO9001 approval will clearly impact differently on companies subject to their infrastructure and capability levels, etc.

In addition to ISO9001, our customers are asking for a range of standards. Balmoral Tanks has seen many significant requirements in this area where ISO9001 used to be the cover-all for supplier accreditation. Then came the need for UVDB/Achilles Verify, closely followed by other standards including ISO18001, ISO14001, CHAS. The final piece of the jigsaw is the client’s own supplier approval process which forms part of the ISO9001 audit.

During a recent trip to South America we witnessed a perception that UK manufacturing is still held in the highest regard. The fact that we are a British manufacturer was actually a pivotal factor in securing a new business stream. The market there had experienced poor service levels from non-UK companies including tales of suppliers being hard to reach, lack of response to emails or telephone calls, not assisting with technical queries and only being interested in the purchase order number. The take-away from this is that poor customer service, which forms an important part of the ISO approval process, is quite common.

ISO9001 is a standard that sets out the requirements for a quality management system; it helps businesses and organisations to be more efficient and improve customer satisfaction levels. Too many companies focus only on the quality of their product to the detriment of what it takes to build world-class customer service levels.

We appreciate that customer complaint processes, NCR close-outs and similar post-problem records form part of certain approval processes but that’s a rather negative measure in terms of business/client relationships.  The ISO process is built upon seven quality management principles, the first of which is ‘Customer Focus’: “Customer focus. Meeting and exceeding customer needs is the primary focus of quality management and will contribute to the long-term success of your enterprise. It is important to not only attract but also retain the confidence of your customers, so adapting to their future needs is key.”

This dictates that a client must receive excellent after-sales support covering all aspects of the points made above; it is no coincidence that customer focus is a core value at Balmoral. 

It is also interesting that the clients in South America didn’t specifically ask about ISO or other such accreditations as these territories have their own standards and approval platforms that most or some of the UK manufacturers probably wouldn’t meet. They were more interested in the benefits of dealing with British business culture, in our client relationship skills and our commitment to servicing their account professionally. Other countries still look at us as a great manufacturing nation and top product quality should be a given. They are looking for us to be excellent at all of the points above, none of which are positively reflected in any of the current UK standards, nor maybe could they be.

It’s easy to see where ISO quality standards can add perceived value. Annual audits, scrutiny of processes, evidence of operational compliance are all very useful and provide assurances to the outside world that this company knows what it is doing. One could argue that a business that was required to meet these demands could set itself up to do so to ensure they are compliant as per our imaginary concrete life jacket business.

The requirement for an ISO stamp remains steadfast amongst reputable businesses. To that end, where is the stamp for world class customer service? ISO offers separate standards in customer service and satisfaction. Perhaps that’s where the focus should be which would align itself with the number-one quality principle captured in ISO9001.

These factors are the acid test of a company with commendable ethics and admirable integrity.

- Jonathan Smith is the sales director for Balmoral Tanks

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