I'm a supplier of parts for manufacturers. One firm I've submitted a bid to has requested proof of my "ISO 9000" certification. I've never heard of such a thing. Is this something I need?
Perplexed in Pittsburgh
ISO 9000 is a kind of "International Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." It's actually part of a series of standards referred to by numbers--ISO 9001, 9002, 9003 refer to standards for quality management; ISO 14000s refer to standards for environmental management, and so forth. These and other international standards are administered via the International Organization for Standardization (commonly referred to as ISO*), founded in 1947 and based in Geneva, Switzerland. (Several previous efforts at international standardization were halted due to WWII, and ISO took up where those left off.)
Early on, only engineers knew or cared about ISO standards. The national standards bodies from many countries got together to set up some common industrial standards to facilitate international trade and allow for mutually beneficial exchange of information, technology and science. Today there are 130 countries participating. Initially, they were focused on industrial topics such as temperature, weight, measures, material strength and other obsessions of the world's mechanical engineers.
In current times, you benefit every day from the ISO's work. For example, every time you swipe a credit card, load film into your camera, or run a ream of paper through your Xerox machine or printer, you are benefiting from an ISO standard. You can print your letters on any printer in the world thanks to ISO 256, which standardized paper sizes so manufacturers know how to build their printers and paper mills know how to cut their stock to fit. You can buy the right speed film for your fancy antique, non-digital camera in any country in the world. No need to pack a dozen rolls before you leave on vacation and risk running them through the airport X-ray machines. Your Visa card works fine in Toledo, Ohio or Toledo, Spain. And think of the standardization benefits for the computer and telecommunications industries . . . so necessary to our Global Village!
Your prospective customer wants to know if you're ISO 9000 certified so that he'll be confident he can rely on the conformity of your products or processes or services to ISO 9000 quality standards. Many industries require their suppliers to acquire this certification. It saves them time and money, and enhances quality and safety, regardless of the country of origin of the parts or products they may be using.
The ISO member body from the U.S. is called the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Each nation has an equal opportunity for input into developing standards. In addition to each member nation's official group, the ISO also works closely with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and hundreds of regional groups working on establishing various standards. Keep in mind that ISO is a non-governmental, voluntary association.
ISO 9000 specifically addresses quality management. Born in the 1980s and updated in the mid-1990s, it's still a work in progress. ISO recognizes the importance of small businesses in this chain of supply and manufacture and can point you to resources geared to firms of your size. And, if you don't want to wade through this standardization, certification and audit process on your own, you can always hire a consultant to do it for you. Underwriters Labs (UL) is probably the most familiar provider of these services.
The importance of Total Quality Management cannot be overemphasized. Committing yourself to ISO 9000 will not only help you expand as a supplier to the world's industries, but it will also help you focus on complete customer service--the critical ingredient in our competitive business environment.
No business is ever too large or too small to benefit from ISO's principles.