THERE was a time when quality control meant little more than subjecting your manufactured goods to inspection before they left the factory. This was an expensive and time-consuming operation and, even then, about 15 per cent of defective goods went unnoticed. This resulted in damaged reputations, excessive warranty costs and the like. Experience shows that most dissatisfied customers do not complain - they just do not come back. In Britain, a move towards improved quality and efficiency in industry led to the development of a national standard for quality. This became the model for standards all over the world and emerged in 1987 as an international series of standards for quality systems and management standards called ISO 9000. Today, the European Community (EC) and nearly all other major trading countries have adopted this standard. Hongkong's own Quality Assurance Agency (HKQAA) was set up three years ago as the certification body for quality schemes as measured against ISO 9000. What does accepting the International Standard mean for Hongkong businessmen? It means assuring the quality of your product: fitness for purpose, reliability and value for money. It means managing quality by introducing a system which effectively plans, implements and monitors production in all its phases from design and purchaseof raw materials, through to manufacturing and marketing to delivery of the finished product or service. The standard covers a wide range of business activities, both in manufacturing and services for companies large and small and is, therefore, written in general terms which can be adapted and developed to suit individual circumstances. In fact, each company usually writes its own quality system plan based on ISO 9000. A company then applies for recognition of its standards through an independent certification body - in Hongkong, the HKQAA. Britain has the most advanced certification scheme in the world with over 300 sector certification schemes which are, themselves, endorsed by the National Accreditation Council for Certification Bodies (NACCA). Companies in Britain found that being certified against ISO 9000 resulted in better quality; more competitive goods or services; a better spirit among employees (because quality control involves everyone); a greater degree of internal control; a better company image; more new business; less loss of existing business; and a fall in quality-related costs. In short, more efficient and cost effective production and, ultimately, higher profits. Many companies in Britain have found that being first to be certified in a particular service or industry puts them ahead of their rivals by as much as two years. The certificate sends a signal to existing and potential customers that the supplier is able to fulfil a commitment to provide a consistently reliable quality product or service. British businessmen have found certification a good marketing tool, too. A certified company is entitled to be listed in the Department of Trade and Industry's Quality Assurance Register which buyers use as a means of identifying reliable suppliers. The current list has about 15,000 names. These days, an increasing number of customers, especially larger ones, are demanding third-party certification. More are happy to accept this as an assurance of conformity to certain standards of quality, rather than, as in the old days, insisting on their own checks. Certification, therefore, cuts costs for all concerned. Certification guarantees, not only quality, but evidence that a management system is organised in accordance with modern practice; the company itself as well as the customer benefits from knowing that the organisation is being run efficiently and economically and can consistently supply the right product. This is why formal certification is becoming essential for any company wanting to be taken seriously in world markets - and why it is so important for Hongkong to join the club. As world trade develops and as developing countries become more competitive, the need for mutual recognition is more important than ever. The fact is that more stringent expectations of quality are a worldwide trend and, as more and more companies recognise the benefits of international standards of quality and performance, those that do not will be left behind. The pressure is likely to increase as environmental issues and consumer rights become more important. The ISO 9000 quality standard has been adopted in 51 countries. It is the basis of a truly worldwide quality assurance system and ''one-stop'' certification. This will be of great importance in easing the current problems of technical barriers to trade, so many of which are linked to national certification and testing practices. The HKQAA has played a vital role in introducing quality assurance standards to Hongkong industry and the signing of the agreement is an important step in the right direction. Now that Hongkong has officially accepted the need for international standards of quality, I hope that Hongkong businessmen will take advantage of their new position of strength and apply to the HKQAA for certification. It is their passport to international markets.