Commitment required from top to bottom
Quality these days means more than checking goods before they leave the factory to make sure they are free from defects.
It means a total commitment that starts with top management and works its way down. Though leaders provide the vision, everyone at a company has to be involved in making it happen. That means an entrenched system of total quality management, or TQM. 'It's not just an issue of quality inspection,' said John Lo, chairman of the Hong Kong Quality Assurance Agency.
'It entails both products and services as well as how to operate more efficiently and effectively. That would include the behaviour and the commitment of each worker in the company to provide clients - both internal and external - with quality products and services. That means a company must inculcate quality into its culture.' In other words, more than a temporary driving force was needed to achieve a specific goal, such as ISO 9000 certification. TQM must become second nature, he said. Policies had to be implemented in such a way that standards were enforced, no matter what happened. A perennial problem in Hong Kong was rapid staff turnover. With TQM firmly in place, procedures would be carried out despite staff changes.
But that did not mean that once quality systems were effectively established a company could rest on its laurels. The world was changing and markets were becoming increasingly interdependent.
Customers were also becoming more sophisticated, more demanding and less tolerant of shoddy workmanship and lousy service, he said.
Firms wishing to survive and prosper would have to constantly look for improvements and that was one of the beauties of ISO 9000. Through its on-going appraisal system, it encouraged companies to keep getting better.
'By design, it's a very flexible system with just 20 guidelines,' Mr Lo said. 'They are flexible so that each company can design the system in accordance with its individual needs.
'Companies can set up systems that are compatible with the normal way they do things, with documentation and assurance that they are doing what they say they're going to do.' This meant it was appropriate for more than electronics manufacturers and construction firms, which had been the prime movers for ISO 9000 in Hong Kong.
'In Hong Kong, we have already certified certain departments of the police force as well as banks, utility companies and transportation,' Mr Lo said. He added that, in Britain, it had already been applied to schools and certain professions.
The benefits of ISO 9000 were varied and sometimes difficult to quantify, he said. There were the tangible benefits, such as lower costs and less wastage, and the intangibles such as enhanced company prestige and a happier, more productive workforce.
'It's an initial investment,' Mr Lo said. 'But, if the programme is carried out faithfully and effectively, the costs should be fully recovered within one to two years.'