Last reviewed 23 August 2012

Many SMEs in the logistics sector may already have ISO 9001:2008, or customers or contractors who do. Some would argue there is a competitive advantage in achieving ISO 9001:2008 both in terms of the core logistics role and customer experience. Alan Field looks at the pros and cons of achieving ISO 9001:2008, and what to look for before deciding to proceed.

Overview

Quality Management Systems (QMSs) have their origins in inspection and testing regimes in the manufacturing sectors and have evolved into continual improvement-focused management systems for all types of organisations. QMS principles have been around a long time but it was Japan’s economic expansion in the 1960s that led to their worldwide adoption.

Today, almost every business sector would claim to use quality management principles in some shape or form, and ISO 9001:2008 is one of the best known “badges” in QMS.

To achieve and maintain an ISO 9001:2008 certificate is sometimes a contractual condition and/or a prerequisite for invitation to tender. If these drivers are not present, ISO 9001:2008 is not necessarily the best option for every business to pursue. For those who do adopt it, the focus should be on making it work for the business rather than simply doing things to please auditors. This may sound obvious but it can become forgotten as an implementation progresses.

Options for the logistics sector

If it is not a contractual requirement to achieve ISO 9001:2008 registration, an organisation could decide to adopt alternative approaches, eg Excellence Model or Six Sigma. Many of these approaches can be implemented to meet the requirements of more than one management system, eg implementing the ISO certification and Investors in People (IiP) together.

In the logistics sector, a process-based management system can assist in four key areas.

  1. Managing time-critical processes: not just the end deliveries but essential elements that make this final goal possible. Defining and mapping processes help an operations team see the beginning, middle and end of a process, not just “fire fighting” along the way.

  2. Quality professionals do not replace logistics, HR or customer service experts; rather, they help engineer policy and objectives, and support senior management in defining what is being aimed at within a customer-focused management system. In other words, they can provide a co-ordination point to ensure everything is delivered, not just delivery of the customer’s goods but the key support processes as well.

  3. Process-based management systems encourage a business to define competency and verify that appropriate training takes place and is monitored. For example, warehouse picking within a logistics company could be more efficient after both a process review and looking at how staff are selected and trained.

  4. A logistics business may have specific aims to realign service provision to target key areas of customer expectation or to better understand customers’ experience. On-time delivery is only one measure of satisfaction. Certainty, suitability and verification all fit well with QMS thinking and, more importantly, are core expectations from logistics customers and other stakeholders.

The downside

Adopting a process-based management system such as Six Sigma or ISO 9001:2008 is not automatically to a business’s advantage. The following points should be taken into account.

  • Consider opportunity cost. Resources could be devoted to other projects that will have greater benefit to the business.

  • Logistics is a very results-driven sector. This means that a process-based management system could distract from key customer requirements or from developing approaches to overcome specific challenges. This is where other options such as Six Sigma or IiP could be more appropriate.

  • Seek opinions from members of staff who may have worked for competitors with ISO 9001:2008 or who use systems such as Six Sigma. Some businesses might even want to ask a few trusted customers who have ISO 9001:2008 what they see as the benefits, or otherwise, of having this certificate. Bear in mind, however, that their comments may not all be positive.

  • Some argue that management systems lead to bureaucratic thinking and more paperwork. While this can be true it can be mitigated by ensuring, from day one, that each and every element of the system implementation is used to support a customer outcome rather than to please auditors. However, there needs to be management time available to keep such a close eye on any implementation.

Achieving ISO 9001:2008

This article does not attempt to discuss all the requirements of ISO 9001:2008 in detail. Rather it explains some of the practical issues to consider before looking in detail at the requirements.

Occasionally, there are still references in business literature to BS 5750 and earlier versions of ISO 9001 (eg 1994 and 2000). These are no longer recognised by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and so can be ignored.

ISO 9001:2008 is not a product or service certification: it is one of a family of International Standards for quality management systems. Neither does it set a subjective benchmark of quality or service that must be delivered. These are common misunderstandings that customers of a logistics business may occasionally harbour.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) does not assess applicants against ISO 9001:2008 requirements themselves. Rather, an organisation decides which certification body (CB) they will instruct to do this. There are many to choose from. Some CBs are small, specialised businesses while others are global players who can assess clients worldwide.

If a business is undertaking ISO 9001:2008 for contractual reasons in the UK, they should be careful to ensure the CB they propose to use is currently approved by UKAS (the United Kingdom Accreditation Service).

The number of days of initial assessment required from a UKAS-approved CB depends broadly on two factors: the number of staff and the number of locations being assessed. While UKAS lays down minimum assessment periods, CBs will sometimes interpret these slightly differently. CB day rates also vary. Some charge a fully inclusive day rate, others charge a day rate plus the assessment team’s expenses. Some CBs charge management or administration fees in addition to the day rate. When a business seeks a quotation, the CBs should clarify upfront what the total fees and charges will be. For a small logistics business of, say, 50 people the assessment fees would be in the region of £3–4000, ie four to five days of assessment in total, allowing for variation in day rates.

CBs will also quote for the ongoing assessment costs; after a successful initial assessment there will be further assessments every six to nine months depending on the size of the business. This is a UKAS requirement and if these ongoing assessments are not successfully completed then the ISO 9001:2008 certificate will eventually be withdrawn. Typically, a company could complete an ISO 9001:2008 implementation within three to six months but it is worth remembering that many CBs will need a similar lead time to start an assessment from the date of application.

There is no obligation to use consultants to implement an ISO 9001:2008 management system, although it can be quicker and more efficient to do so. Some consultancy businesses suggest that a business can achieve ISO 9001:2008 with little or no pain although, of course, any such claims need to be treated with caution.

Equally, if a business decides to implement Six Sigma or Investors in People, for example, it is worth investigating in advance what the timelines and costs are likely to be before looking at what the detailed requirements and ramifications are of adopting them.

Conclusion

At this stage, a business can now look at ISO 9001:2008 requirements in detail and also consider some alternatives. A business should consider which of these approaches either helps them move where they wish to be in the future or deals with a specific obstruction. Another driver would be harnessing technological changes along with monitoring enhanced customer experience.

ISO 9001:2008 should be seen as neither a bureaucratic millstone or an instant enabler to success for any organisation. Top management support and ongoing review is needed, not just to decide how to proceed but to set the tone to ensure that any implementation achieves the desired results.