A Small Business Guide to ISO 9000

An Internationally-recognised management standard, ISO 9000 can boost the profile of your small business instantly. Here's how...

A Small Business Guide to ISO 9000

ISO 9000, a series of standards for the manufacturing and service industries, can help your business greatly.

Not only can you use the industry-wide standards to improve upon your own processes, you can improve your image amongst current and future customers too.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of ISO 9000 – or ISO 9001, the standard against which your business will be certified – never fear.

In this article we explain exactly what this set of standards is, outline the benefits it could bring to your business, and go through some of the costs entailed in setting up such a system.

What is ISO 9000 and what are its benefits?

Set up by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), ISO 9000 is by far the most widely recognised set of quality assurance standards in the world, with more than a million businesses currently certified.

A quality management and assurance system like ISO 9000 can bring a number of benefits to your business, including:

  1. Improving quality – ISO 9001 can be more rigorous than many in-house quality assurance systems and provides you with an objective ‘gold standard’ to measure your business against.
  2. Customer satisfaction – Built-in to the ISO 9000 standards are systems for collecting and acting on customer feedback, so you can measure efforts to improve against customer reaction.
  3. Managing growth – Having a system makes it easier to stay in control, and ISO 9000 contains guidance on taking on new staff and projects.
  4. Customer peace of mind – Customers and clients in many industries often expect companies they deal with to be independently ISO 9001 certified, so having this system in place ensures you are not left at a competitive disadvantage.

What is ISO 9001?

ISO 9001 is the most widely-used of the ISO 9000 family of standards.

It is an internationally-recognised standard that certifies your internal quality system as being consistent with a number of key principles, to ensure you maintain a consistent level of good practice.

Organisations can be independently certified against ISO 9001 to signify they comply with these standards.

A quality system that meets the ISO 9001 standard will cover all aspects of the customer management process, and will contain measures for ensuring the standard is working properly. The key features of ISO 9000 are the eight quality management principles.

The eight quality management principles

The core of all ISO 9000 standards, ISO 9001 is based around eight principles that your quality management system should recognise and be compatible with. These are:

  1. Customer focus
  2. Leadership
  3. Involvement of people
  4. Process approach
  5. System approach to management
  6. Continual improvement
  7. Factual approach to decision-making

Adhering to these eight principles will give your small business a universally recognised symbol of quality. Larger companies, in particular, like to deal with clients that are ISO 9001-certified, as it shows a real commitment to quality. So it may be especially important if you are a small company vying for preferred supplier status.

However, getting ISO 9001 certified will require a certain amount of investment in your business; designing and implementing it will cost money, in addition to obtaining ISO 9001 status and the additional ‘certification’ visits this entails.

How do I get ISO 9001 certified?

ISO 9001 is not a rigid, prescriptive quality system on its own; rather, it is a method for assessing whether the quality system you have in place meets international standards.

To get ISO 9001 certified, follow the steps below:

Design and set up your own internal quality system and put it into practice

For help on how to do this, see below. You might need to bring in a specialist to help you, or use someone in your organisation with experience. Most ISO 9001 certification bodies will not assess you unless your system has actually been in place for more than three months.

Find a UKAS-approved certification body

UKAS is the UK accreditation body for standards assessors. Non-UKAS approved certification will lead to credibility issues with your ISO 9001 certificate.

Set up a visit from the certification body’s auditors

This rigorous inspection will look for evidence you are complying with every aspect of the standard.

Receive feedback

The auditors will tell you where you are falling short of the ISO 9001 standard; if it is only a small number of minor problems you can still be certified, on the caveat that you correct these problems as soon as possible. More or larger problems may see the auditors refuse to certify you until you have corrected them.

Prepare for repeat visits

ISO 9001 certification bodies are required to carry out regular visits on their companies to ensure they are still meeting standards. This will normally be an annual process, taking place on agreed dates. If problems have arisen, you will usually be given time to deal with them before they withdraw your certificate.

How do I set up my own internal quality system?

To become ISO 9001 certified, you first need to have a good quality system already in place in your business.

This will involve looking at the way you currently do things and finding ways to improve upon weaknesses.

Follow these steps for a broad overview:

Look at your current practices in vital areas

When identifying which areas are ‘key’, look at areas where failings will directly affect the customer experience. Practices which are causing you particular concern should obviously also be targeted.

Plan your approach for improvement and put them into place

Talk with employees about your current business processes and discuss how to improve them – agree a way of recording how processes work in practice, and get staff to document them in the agreed format. Think about the costs involved. This is the stage where you will almost certainly need help from an outside expert. Give staff easy-to-understand details of how the new practices are to work, and give them any training they need.

Check the new practices are working

Errors might arise if employees do not understand the way the new processes work, or there has been a change in circumstances necessitating a different way of working.

Correct any problems

Review where you have gone wrong, revise the processes, and again ensure employees understand and are given training to follow the new processes.

What will it cost to obtain ISO 9001 certification for my business?

There are a number of costs involved in obtaining quality certification for a small business.

Employee involvement will more than likely be your largest cost as the more employees are involved in designing the quality system the more likely they are to rigorously follow it.

Trying to save money by shutting employees out and not giving them the proper training will only lead to greater problems in the long run.

Unless someone within your company has gone through the process before – perhaps with a former employer – you will need to get outside help in designing and developing your internal quality system.  Your local business support organisation might be able to help you in this regard.

Furthermore, certification fees for independent accreditors cost upwards of around £800, depending on the size of your company.

When shopping around for quotes, make sure you look at what is included in the price – does it just include the cost of the initial audit, or the repeat visits as well? If you are a small business, many providers offer small firm-specific discounts.

ISO 9001 requires you to train someone within your company to carry out internal checks that the system is working. For more information, see the International Register of Certified Auditors.

To help with the cost of developing an ISO 9001-certified quality system, there may be grants available for businesses in your sector.

Contact your local business support organisation for more information; grants in this area normally cover about half the cost of a systems consultant.

How do I ensure the system I have works?

In their rush to become ISO 9001 certified, many businesses fall into the trap of introducing needlessly complicated systems, wholly inappropriate for the needs that they have.

In order to ensure an efficient, lean and quality assurance system, you may wish to consider a number of options.

Firstly, use electronic and IT systems smartly to keep paper documents to a minimum. Use working documents as a way of keeping ongoing records, rather than opening a new file for every occurrence.

Secondly, carry out internal audits regularly and use the results of these smartly to identify where you can make improvements to efficiency. Create a system for managing change which is formal enough to maintain management control, but flexible enough to introduce change promptly when it is needed.

Finally, compare your system to others. Use tools like questionnaire and supplier assessment audits to see how you measure up to other companies using the ISO 9001 standard.

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