The Business Improvement Network

Why bother with ISO 9001?

By Stuart McKean


When I first started Nine23 I was advised to get ISO 9001 as soon as possible as it is much easier to do when you start and are small. In other words, getting the certificate early on would be easier and you might need it for a tender in the future. 

Completely the wrong reason for getting ISO accreditation but that’s what we did. It’s not to difficult to put process in place for things that did not exist. We had a filing cabinet that an auditor could ask to see any document and all are processes were in a document/folder that would be rolled out each year and inspected. 

As is the way with the life of an SME that we had the rollercoaster ride, in two years we had pushed revenue to over a million and had grown the headcount to 25, we had found a US investor and then the wheels came off.. Not all at once but the actions of certain individuals had consequences that’s for sure. Anyway, that’s another story..

So by the end of year 3 we needed to act and so began our “re-structure”. The purpose was to firstly survive and then to repair what was broken or not working for us. In doing so we reviewed everything we did or thought we did ! We produced a lessons learnt document as part of are ongoing strategy and was gently reminded by our American chairman that it is not what you have learned but much more importantly what you have done about those lessons. 

One particular lesson learned was ISO9001 QMS – Pointless if not used!

To be clear this is not an advert for ISO or is it detailed in how to gain accreditation etc. It is just the lessons we have learnt along the way and how we have used ISO to help our company.

For those that have no idea about ISO (straight from Wiki), the International Organization for Standardization, is an independent, non-governmental organization, the members of which are the standards organizations of the 163 member countries. It is the world's largest developer of voluntary international standards and facilitates world trade by providing common standards between nations. Over twenty thousand standards have been set covering everything from manufactured products and technology to food safety, agriculture and healthcare.

Use of the standards aids in the creation of products and services that are safe, reliable and of good quality. The standards help businesses increase productivity while minimizing errors and waste. By enabling products from different markets to be directly compared, they facilitate companies in entering new markets and assist in the development of global trade on a fair basis. The standards also serve to safeguard consumers and the end-users of products and services, ensuring that certified products conform to the minimum standards set internationally.

We had been committed to the idea of ISO but we did it just to get the certificate, its as simple as that. So when we re-structured we asked why we had ISO9001 and if we thought it was of benefit for us. Clearly, in hindsight, we realised that we should be much more focused on how we operate as a business and that if we are going to learn any lessons then we should use the standards for our benefit not just to get a certificate. 
So, What we did about it.. 
It started by going right back to the beginning and understanding who we are and what we wanted to achieve. Interestingly the vision we had at the start of the company had not changed, we are still fully focussed on enabling a front line user the ability to use mobile technology securely. But we needed to really understand how we were going to achieve our mission. We worked hard on getting the company structure right and keeping the rule of keeping it simple stupid we followed a simple organisation structure of;

Board, Sales & Marketing, Engineering, Operations & finance.

Once we had the structure correct we then set about to define the way each element of the company works ie. what are the functions and roles for each element. So following the above structure and understanding what’s its function and the roles are we then went through each element to define the process of how they operate. 

Starting with the company as a whole, this sets the scene going forward and states your intent from which to build each element’s processes.  We didn’t try to re-invent the ISO standards in anyway, we just started to use them to help us set our own process for the good of the company. Whilst it does sound like a simple task it does take commitment from all parts of the business and you need to drive it through to completion at the same time as keeping the lights on etc. Even with our system in place we still needed to allocate time to completing this. We also allocated responsibility to heads of each element so that we had buy in from all staff. 

We have found that it really focussed us to become much aware of how we should be operating going forward but not be so prescriptive that we couldn’t operate without looking at a manual of process. It must be stated that we have not finished in any way and you never should, as one of the key parts of ISO is to continue to build on what you have built and keep improving.

It wasn’t till we had to re-structure the company that we decided to flip our accreditation and actually decide what we wanted from the ISO9001 system and not the other way around. This was a key moment in that we now re-focused on what we actually do and how we operate. This then enabled us to build our own system and gave the whole company a clear structure from which to build on. 
We still build on our process today but now have a system that clearly works for us not just get us a certificate.

'If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.'

W. Edwards Deming

About the author

Stuart McKean, Founder and CEO of Nine23 Ltd. Stuart is an ex-Military Aviator (Helicopter) and has run several companies in IT and Corporate Hospitality. His favourite saying is ‘Business is easy; Money in, Money out & People – It’s all about people...’.

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