The Manchester report is entitled: “ISO 9000 – Does it work?” The answer provided in the foreword by SGS is “….a qualified but confident ‘yes'”. The following ‘key findings’ have led to this conclusion:

69% felt that their expectations of the Standard had been met or exceeded; only 5% claimed to be very dissatisfied.

We can learn nothing from the report about what people’s expectations were and the data on ‘expectations met’ is not presented. However, data concerning level of satisfaction with impact of ISO 9000 is presented and it shows that 53% were satisfied, 26% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied and 21% were dissatisfied. These results show a similar ‘equivocal’ attitude to ISO 9000 as found in the Surrey and Vanguard research.

The three most important benefits of ISO 9000 were seen as better management control, greater awareness of procedural problems and promotional value.

Given that the approach to control encouraged by the Standard can itself cause sub-optimisation (see conclusions), this finding ought to raise concern. The report presents the ‘top ten’ benefits as follows:

Better management control
Improving awareness of procedural problems
Using the Standard as a promotional tool
Improving customer service
Facilitating elimination of procedural problems
Improving efficiency
Keeping existing customers
Increasing customer satisfaction
Aiding induction of new staff
Improving market share.

None of the results are quantified and we must remind ourselves of the problems of validity with such data. Even so, it is not an impressive list. Improved quality and productivity should perhaps be top of such a list, and improved customer satisfaction should go beyond satisfying ‘obligations’ – the report also tells us that most organisations focused on ‘external reasons’ when asked why they sought the Standard in the first place, supporting the previous research showing that ‘market-place obligation’ is driving registration (78% say our future customers will demand it, 58% report customer pressure).

Those most satisfied with the impact of ISO 9000 on their organisations had sought the Standard for better management control and improved customer service.

Given the nature of control encouraged by the Standard this could be telling us that those who are most satisfied have done themselves the most damage. We also can’t help feeling that ‘customer service’ in this sentence means satisfying market-place obligation as the Standard takes a strong ‘conformance’ approach to customer service which in many organisations gets translated into practices which result in poor service (you are expected to be happy that your problem/request/need is in the right procedure).

More respondents believed the Standard to be cost-effective than not.

Behind this statement lies more equivocation. The data reported show 468 cases claiming cost-effectiveness (over different periods), 399 cases claiming it was not cost-effective and 215 cases saying it is too soon to say. The headline could have said: Data shows doubts about the cost-effectiveness of ISO 9000.

This is an interesting paradox. What we know is that quality leads to increased productivity, reduced costs, improved market share and customer satisfaction. If the results from ISO 9000 registration are equivocal it lends support to the need to question whether ISO 9000 has anything to do with quality.

Companies with ISO 9000 certification showed a significantly higher rate of sales growth than the national average and were four times more likely to have survived the recent recession.

This was the finding that received the most attention from the pro-ISO PR fraternity. ‘You make more money if you are registered to ISO 9000’ is the claim. The first claim is made on the basis of comparing sales growth with GDP. Any undergraduate researcher would note that this tells us nothing about cause and effect. One possible reason for sales growth in registered companies is that only registered companies are able to tender for contracts.

The second claim is made from analysing the progress of 185 companies which had ISO 9000 in 1991. Of the 185, 130 were still registered, 53 were still in business but not registered to ISO 9000 any longer and 2 were no longer in business. These data are used to argue that the failure rate of ISO companies is 1.1% which compares favourably with the national average for failures (5.2%). What a terrible abuse of statistics. One could equally have reported ‘stopping registration to ISO 9000 won’t harm your business’. It might have been valuable to explore why the 53 decided they no longer needed it.

Chief concerns with ISO 9000 included time commitments and volume of paperwork, as well as the cost of implementing and maintaining the Standard.

What is the value of this time spent on the quality bureaucracy? Does it achieve a purpose which fits with the organisation’s purpose or is it a necessary evil? These problems give support to the view that ISO 9000 has nothing to do with quality. It is controlling output in a manner which could add to costs and become a barrier to quality improvement.

Company certification…has grown by 10,000 certificates a year since 1992…certification in Europe has doubled every nine months since 1993 and there are now 95,000 certificates world-wide.

If the results from the case studies are generalised to the world stage we are guilty of causing massive economic damage to our organisations. The good news is that of some three million businesses in the UK, less than fifty thousand are registered and the rate of growth in registrations has slowed.