What is ISO9000?

Brendan McGuigan

ISO9000 is a standard laid out by an international body, the ISO. The term ISO is not an acronym, as is often assumed, but is rather short for the Greek word isos, which means "equal." In English, the group is known as the International Organization for Standards, and in French it is known as the Organisation internationale de normalisation. Were an acronym used, it would result in different names in different languages — IOS in English and OIN in French, for example.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

This standard is designed to help consumers and governments know at a glance whether a business conforms to a basic level of quality. The first ISO9000 was developed in 1987 and derived directly from the British standard BS5750. In 1994, the standard was updated in an attempt to fix some flaws in ISO9000:1987, but the general procedure was the same. In 2000, it was once again updated, this time with some drastic changes that were intended to make the entire accreditation process less bureaucratic and more in line with the stated goals of the ISO9000 mission.

The ISO itself does not grant certification to organizations. Instead, third-party groups are vested with the power to issue ISO9000 certifications by their respective national accreditation bodies. These groups all stay in close contact to ensure that any group certified by an accredited body will be accepted as compliant throughout the world. There are a number of key documents used to determine compliance to these standards, each of which are used by auditors when examining a company. Many companies build up their own bodies of literature to specifically address the ISO9000 standards, in the process often missing the overall quality-control purpose of this certification and instead focusing on the exact numbers and rules of the system. The ISO9000:2000 update was meant to address this single-minded focus on the documents, rather than the underlying principles, and to some extent it has succeeded.

The ISO9000 documents include an overview of the system and the sorts of quality control it is attempting to accomplish, the requirements for a business to meet certification, and how to continually improve the business to keep raising the bar of service and product quality. The specific goals and guidelines of the ISO9000 are different for various industries, and most countries have specific groups which have been set up by industry leaders to interpret the standards for their sector. These groups are often differentiated by a two character abbreviation prefacing the 9000. For example, the group of best-practices for the telecommunications sector is TL9000, and the guidelines agreed to by a number of car makers is QS9000.

A number of critiques of ISO9000 exist, mostly attacking the vagueness of the standards themselves, which often require industries to come up with their own interpretations, particularly when the products or services they offer are not standard. Critics also complain that it forces some companies to adopt a set of standards that may not be appropriate for their business, simply because of the perception value of being certified.

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