One of the common discussions among U.S. companies regarding ISO’s global quality standards revolves around the question of certification and its value as an exclusive marketing tool. While ISO certification is a laudable path that many industries choose to pursue, it is not the only option for businesses wishing to promote the quality of their products and services under the umbrella of the International Standards Organization.
Having developed and published more than 19,000 voluntary international standards covering most aspects of technology and business, ISO provides companies with ample opportunities to help make their industries more efficient and effective. However, subscribing to ISO’s state-of-the-art specifications for products, services, and best management practices does not require certification as the endgame. In fact, ISO is not involved in the certification to any of the standards it develops. That service is performed by external, independent certification bodies or registrars, which are largely private.
Companies pursuing certification of their products, services, or management systems must go through a lengthy review and audit process, one that can take nine to 18 months to complete, or even longer, and cost upwards of $2,000 per day per reviewer or auditor, including travel expenses, plus application fees and later renewal charges. The length and expense of the process depends on such factors as the extent of certification desired and the degree to which a company has already implemented a documented standards-improvement program. When successful, the process results in a company’s certification to ISO standards or requirements, but only the specific products, services, or processes reviewed and audited are certified, nothing else. Also, while companies may proclaim ISO certification through their advertising and marketing efforts, ISO does not permit its logo to be used by anyone in connection with certification.
As an alternative to committing additional time and financial resources to the certification process, some companies simply issue a self-declaration of conformity to ISO standards and then engage in a marketing campaign promoting that declaration. Although they cannot use the words “ISO certified” or “ISO certification” in defining their processes, products, or services, they can still outline and promote their adoption and implementation of ISO standards, requirements, or guidelines. This strategy is especially popular regarding ISO’s family of management system standards: 9000/quality management, 1400/environmental management, and 3100/risk management. It is important to note, though, that these standards specify requirements for a management system, not the technical specifications of any products or services.
Currently, ISO’s independent organizational structure encompasses a global mix of members from national standards bodies representing 164 countries. The United States is represented by the American National Standards Institute. Two of ANSI’s standards that are characteristic to U.S. industry were used as source material, along with other countries’ guidelines, in developing the ISO 9000 quality management series, still one of the most accessed set of standards. It is currently reported that more than 20,000 businesses in the United States are ISO 9000 certified.
Whether or not a company chooses to seek certification, the value of ISO’s standards alone remains as an exclusive marketing tool for participating enterprises. International standards help harmonize technical specifications of products and services, making industry more efficient and breaking down barriers to international trade. ISO reports that 80% of world trade is impacted by international standards, and that an 84% reduction in global transportation time has been realized due to standardization of shipping containers. Conformity to ISO standards also assist in reassuring consumers that products are safe, efficient, and good for the environment.
Aside from the overall benefits of cost savings, enhanced customer satisfaction, access to new markets, and increased environmental sustainability, there is an added benefit of ISO certification for U.S. industries under the 9000 series. Certification reduces the concept of multiple-supplier audits because it helps to eliminate organizational paperwork and manpower shortages that can result from having to continually review the quality of supplier products and services.
Moreover, certification can help to limit the liability of losses through litigation, according to legal sources. When a company’s quality system is under control, the elements relating to potential customer injury from products during actual use are going to be minimized. Punitive damages can also be reduced or even eliminated because a company cannot be cited for dereliction of responsibility in monitoring the quality system that produces the products.
Undoubtedly, the number of U.S. companies considering ISO standards as quality and performance guidelines is on the rise, if for no other reason than to be more competitive in both domestic and international business. And it is projected that more contractual obligations between companies, customers, and suppliers in the future will require ISO certification, or at the very least, legitimate declarations of conformity to ISO standards and best practices.
Today, virtually all global continents have embraced ISO standards to some extent within their public agencies and private industries, and U.S. companies are increasing their certification activities for specific products and services, not just their quality management systems. The Federal Drug Administration was a staunch advocate for adherence to ISO standards as far back as the 1990s. ISO consultants suggest that U.S. companies consider certification if they deal 50% or more with European and Asian business enterprises, and particularly if a European or Asian operation contributes more than half the value of a product manufactured or service offered in the United States.
Christopher J. Scolese, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, summarizes, “People sometimes forget that standards evolve with time. This is a job that ISO and the ISO community do very well. They adapt as we learn things. International standards are the repository of our knowledge.... They explain it and maintain it well; they are the caretakers.
“At the same time, we are constantly learning and updating our standards. This is done through a formal process to make sure that everyone understands the same thing. Our duty is to communicate the correct information, not only to the current generation of engineers, but to future generations of engineers and scientists.”