Editor's note: The following article first appeared in the December 1997 issue of Quality Digest. There is no litigation relative to this matter still pending toward Quality Assurance Systems Ltd.
Just as you're starting to think about watching Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with your family, I'm going to play the quality Scrooge. I'm here to warn you about one purchase your company must make to receive the gift of ISO 9000 registration: registrar services. Don't skimp on your purchase, and don't make a rash, last-minute purchase without shopping around. A number of companies in Dickens' homeland are regretting the results of their shopping, and their quality systems may not be as perfect as the certificates they're wrapped in.
If you haven't heard what happened this year in the United Kingdom, let me recount two tales of woe. In May 1997, the United Kingdom Accreditation Service revoked the ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 accreditation of Professional, Environmental and Caring Services Quality Assurance Ltd., leaving more than 500 clients scrambling to transfer their registrations to other accredited registrars by August 23. The UKAS revocations were the first ever and occurred because of several problems, including PECS' unwillingness to cooperate with UKAS auditors after they discovered nonconformances in February during a regular UKAS follow-up audit.
UKAS and the registrars that offered to reregister former PECS clients haven't indicated whether these companies' quality systems conformed with ISO 9000 at the time of the revocation. Regardless, these companies faced the risk of lost customers, the cost of obtaining a new registrar and certificate, and doubts about the integrity of their quality systems.
Even more disturbing, Quality Assurance Systems Ltd., a nonaccredited UK registrar, was prosecuted for offenses under the UK's Trade Descriptions Act of 1968 and pleaded guilty in July 1997. The offenses concerned QAS issuing registration certificates containing false statements. The certificates indicated that firms had been assessed and approved to ISO 9002. At least five companies registered complaints about QAS in early 1996 with UK authorities. The complaints highlighted a pattern: A QAS auditor would "audit" the company's operations, then return several weeks later to present the company with ISO 9002 quality and procedures manuals, its registration certificate and an invoice.
Investigative re-audits of several complainants revealed that the manuals satisfied ISO 9002 requirements to a large degree but didn't match the companies' quality systems, and the systems themselves didn't conform to ISO 9002. QAS engaged not only in consulting -- i.e., providing a client with manuals -- and unethical, unobjective practices by auditing against the same manuals, it also engaged in outright fraud by issuing a certificate without verifying quality system conformance to ISO 9002. These real situations, involving real companies and real registrars both accredited and nonaccredited, serve as a warning from the ghost of Christmas future: Take responsibility for your quality system and registration process, or your company will end up in a dark grave! If Jacob Marley could haunt modern-day suppliers looking for registration or wanting to retain their certificates, his warning still would be: "Change your ways before it's too late!" In addition, I'd like to mention two other bits of advice Marley might offer today.
No pain, no gain. To build an effective quality system that will satisfy your company's needs -- and ISO 9000 and QS-9000 requirements -- you need to do the work yourself. Registration requires active participation; your company must build the system itself. While many companies use outside consultants to help create and implement various quality system elements -- for example, a company-specific quality manual and documented procedures -- your company should do as much of the work as possible, involving every employee who affects and is affected by the quality system. Rely on outside help only when your company lacks internal resources; even then, company involvement should continue.
Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. The registrar's role is to verify three things: your company's system conforms to the quality system requirements of ISO 9000 and QS-9000, your company uses the system, and the system works for your company. Registrars and other experts advise you to check references, investigate the registrar's ability to satisfy your company's needs and work with the registrar as soon as you find problems with any of its activities. Or, as one major registrar representative put it: "Do your homework! Learn about the processes and questions you should ask your potential registrar."
May all your gifts this holiday season be well-deserved.
About the author
James G. Mroz is senior editor of The Informed Outlook, a twice-monthly newsletter providing information and guidance on ISO 9000, QS-9000 and ISO 14000, published by INFORM (International Forum for Management Systems Inc.), 15913 Edgewood Drive, Montclair, VA 22026; telephone (703) 680-1436, fax (703) 680-1356 and e-mail email@example.com.