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by John W. Locke

Words Matter
Registration, certification or accreditation?

For 20 years we've ignored the significant differences in the meanings of three critical words in the quality lexicon: registration, certification and accreditation. We tend to use them interchangeably. As a result, there's tremendous confusion in the marketplace. This seems strange, considering that professed quality practitioners (people who should understand the pitfalls of ambiguous definitions) use these three words constantly.

Let's consider how they relate to the quality of the output of two organizations that may soon merge--the International Accreditation Forum and the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation.

Registration is also called certification, especially in Europe, which adds to the confusion. Here we're talking about quality system registration (or certification). To receive it, an organization must have a quality system that's been assessed as compliant with the requirements of a standard like ISO 9001. Any organization can be examined for this compliance, but this only means that its quality system meets requirements. It doesn't attest to the organization's output--except, perhaps, by inference. But no one is checking the output; the output's quality can vary depending on the design specifications. Thus, a product's user doesn't really know how one producer's output compares with another.

When carried out properly, registration indicates that a user will receive what the producer has designed. But neither the product nor the production process is examined to ensure that, in fact, you get a specified product.

Product certification goes one step further than registration. It attests to the fact that the assembly process is adequate to produce the product you intended. Certification makes no judgment about how similar products compare. ISO Guide 65 offers guidelines for product certification, but it doesn't verify the production process through inspection or assessment. ISO defines about five different ways to provide product certification. One way is 100-

percent testing, wherein all products from the assembly line are tested to see if they meet the requirements. Another way is to build in a sampling procedure as well as other controls, a useful alternative when the test is destructive.

Based on certification, one can't tell which product is best. Using ISO Guide 65, one can only judge--through documentation and review--if the production process is adequate to meet the producer's design goals. Most product certifiers insist that the organization producing the product build a quality system into the process, and some require quality system registration, or at least ISO 9001compliance.

The term accreditation is also used ambiguously, a fact that isn't recognized by the quality community and those hoping to combine ILAC and IAF. Many assume accrediting laboratories is the same process as accrediting quality system certifiers, but the two are quite different.

On one hand, IAF accreditation bodies accredit certifiers by evaluating them to see that they meet the ISO standard for certifiers and that the quality systems of those certified meet ISO 9001 requirements. IAF can't accredit product certifiers as laboratories are accredited because there's no standard that states how certification and assessment should take place.

On the other hand, ILAC accreditation bodies assess a lab's quality system, examine its production process, and then judge the lab's competence to produce the intended product based on reproducible test methods. Laboratory accreditation requires that the product from different labs is the same--within the stated uncertainties--and is accepted as meeting the test method requirements. Further, ISO/IEC 17025 requires the lab to ensure that the testing requirements are understood and that the lab uses test methods that meet the client's needs. By contrast, ISO 9001 speaks only to the client's wants.

The goal of laboratory accreditation is to attain an acceptable test report everywhere in the world so that products don't have to undergo multiple and duplicate testing with attenuating time delays and increased costs. In other words, test data--a testing lab's product--can be directly compared with test data produced by all other accredited laboratories.

Laboratory accreditation not only makes judgments about an organization's quality system and production process, but also about the product's quality. Accreditation, in this sense, isn't the same as accrediting certifiers. Incorporating the IAF and ILAC into one organization may diminish the significance of the findings of a laboratory accreditation system because the two approaches are only loosely related.

Two conclusions seem eminently clear:

A standard for the conduct of product certifications, one similar in scope to ISO/IEC 17025, is needed to make an objective statement about a product's quality.

AF and ILAC differ in the depth to which they perform assessments, and even though they both use the word "accreditation," the term means different things for each body.

If they do merge, there will continue to be existing confusion.

About the author

John W. Locke is a former president of the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation and manager of the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.