From the January 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Consider your business's global reach. Now answer the following question: What's your competitive advantage? Unless "quality" tops your list, you could be at a disadvantage, regardless of your product or service.

Adhering to the formal set of quality standards published a decade ago by the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is becoming increasingly important for global success. "No one has made it a requirement, but it's the trend," says Michael Ehsani, president of the American Institute of Consultants Quality Services Inc. in Houston. Every year, his business helps a handful of firms complete tedious and complicated ISO 9000, ISO 14000 and QS 9000 certification procedures, which have already been adopted by more than 98 countries and organizations worldwide.

Put simply, ISO 9000 refers to the set of standards established for quality management and assurance. Any type of company can apply for certification, from staffing businesses to pharmaceutical companies. Businesses can also apply for ISO 14000 certification--a management system designed for operations directly impacting the environment. And QS 9000 sets the standards for the automotive industry.

Certification gives you an edge and emphasizes to potential customers and suppliers worldwide that you've made a serious effort to ensure your products and services meet the highest quality standards possible. It also opens your business to opportunities you'd otherwise miss, because ISO-certified firms will usually only do business with other certified firms.

"If [companies] don't implement such a program, they're not going to continuously improve the quality of their products and services like they should to stay competitive and profitable," warns Ehsani. "And if they don't do it and their competition does, the competition is going to beat them to the punch in every bidding situation."

For More Information

  • At the American Society for Quality site (http://www.asq.org ), you'll find detailed information about ISO certification; helpful books, journals and software programs; and ISO seminars and training programs. Call (800) 248-1946.
  • The nonprofit organization American National Standards Institute (http://www.ansi.org ) offers detailed certification information, training services and a catalog of official standards. Call (212) 672-4900.

Front Runner

Obtaining ISO certification is not an easy task: First, a business must evaluate its weaknesses, then formulate an action plan detailing the necessary improvements. Next, a 50-page document (called a quality system manual) is produced, specifying the company's philosophy and policies pertaining to ISO standards. Step-by-step procedures on complying with the standard, drafted for all your company's internal departments, must also be compiled, along with several months of documented evidence proving the systems are working. The last step? Bringing in an official registrar who assesses the system, then decides if certification is deserved. The entire process can take up to 18 months.

Despite the enormity of the job, in 1994 entrepreneur Chuck Irvine applied for ISO 9002 certification. "We felt it was necessary to be the first in our industry, to lead the way with our customers and suppliers," says Irvine, chair and founder of Des Moines, Iowa-based Prime Alliance Inc., an international distributor of thermoplastic resins.

Since establishing the quality management system, Prime Alliance has significantly heightened its productivity and efficiency, while consistently minimizing customer complaints. Irvine says he's even formed better relationships with clients and energized his work force along the way. Says Irvine, "I would absolutely recommend it to any business."

Contact Sources

AIC Quality Services Inc., (281) 497-7878, ext. 2, http://www.aicservices.com

Prime Alliance Inc., 1803 Hull Ave., Des Moines, IA 50313, (800) 247-8038