In 1993, Vanguard Consulting published the first major study of the impact of ISO 9000 (then BS 5750) on organisation performance. The results cast doubt on the claims made for ISO 9000 registration. More recently we have seen the publication of two studies sponsored by organisations with a pecuniary interest in ISO 9000. (see Appendix 1 and Appendix 2).

A weakness common to all three studies is that they were (in the main) studies of opinion. The reliability and validity of such data will be influenced by respondents’ knowledge, perception and emotional investment. The Manchester Business School report (Appendix 2) makes claims which go beyond what can be interpreted from the available data.

Following the publication of our 1993 research, we visited five of the companies in the small group which had claimed ISO 9000 registration to be positive in all respects. In every case we found activity which we would argue to be damaging economic performance, which was present specifically because of registration to the Standard.

To date, there has been no research which teaches us about cause and effect – what are the likely consequences to an organisation if it goes about registration to ISO 9000? Seventeen years have passed since the ISO Standard first appeared (as BS 5750) and we have no knowledge of its impact on organisation performance and competitive position. These three case studies were undertaken to learn more about cause and effect.

In each case, the companies had argued that ISO 9000 registration had been beneficial. Perhaps all registered companies would feel obliged to make such a claim as they have invested the time and effort and have the ‘award’ to prove their worthiness. The purpose of each case study was to understand what registration had meant in practice and how it affected performance.

While each of the cases is different, they show similarities in their approach to ISO 9000 registration. It is argued that ISO 9000, because of its implicit theory of quality, will lead to common problems in implementation; problems which damage economic performance and which may inhibit managers from ever learning about quality’s potential role in improving productivity and competitive position.

For readers who would like to know more about the origins of the Standard, a brief history is provided in Appendix 3. Many advocates of the Standard cite its history as though it bestows legitimacy. In this appendix we explore how the Standard’s history illuminates where we went wrong.