Quality standards fall from grace: Businesses say that requirements are coercive and self-defeating. Matthew Rock reports

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THE RESIGNATION of Michael Sanderson, chief executive of the British Standards Institution, goes to the heart of British business's attempts to gain a competitive edge.

The official reason for Dr Sanderson's resignation earlier this month was that he strongly disagreed with other board members on important matters of policy and management.

However, there are deeper matters that cast doubt on the handling of the quality movement in the UK.

The BSI is the chief promulgator of quality standards, among them the notorious BS5750 quality management system, which claims to offer unrivalled customer reassurance but has been widely attacked as time-wasting, bureaucratic and expensive. The average time for registration is 18 months, and it can cost thousands of pounds.

But the discontent has moved on. Small businesses that have received 'no BS5750, no contract' letters from large companies and government authorities (usually disguised as vendor assessment questionnaires) claim the standard is coercive and being used to protect preferred suppliers. 'This thing is becoming a monster,' said one businessman. Because it takes away the onus of responsibility for a job well done from the individual doing the work, the very concept of BS5750 drives down quality, said another.

While chief executive, Dr Sanderson himself highlighted another problem. Partly as a result of the Enterprise Initiative scheme, rogue quality consultants had proliferated, he said in an interview with Director magazine. They were sometimes extremely misleading in advising companies on what was needed because they had a vested interest.

In an attempt to salvage its reputation, the BSI set up a small firms committee under the chairmanship of Roger Dunn, the chairman of Arcontrol, an engineering company employing 70 people. 'We understand and appreciate that some smaller businesses are having difficulty introducing BS5750 quality systems,' said Dr Sanderson in February. 'Through this new committee, we aim to listen to their needs and explore ways of making the benefits of BS5750 accessible to all organisations, no matter what the size.'

Even this initiative has brought problems. While the BSI has been firefighting, the Government has taken to the idea of standards with ever greater zeal. Three departments already administer standards and three more are in the pipeline, including one for prompt payment and another for good practice within the health service. 'The small firms committee has become horrendously political,' said one member.

The status of the standard has also been brought into question. The Department of the Environment's public works circular of August 1992 stated: 'An authority should not reject a tender solely on the grounds that a company does not have, or does not intend to have, a quality management system, provided it is willing to offer other acceptable assurances or evidence of its capacity to carry out work according to specification.' It has been suggested that companies are abusing trade practices by insisting on BS5750 registration,

Controversy is also raging over the marketing of the standard. Although it does not guarantee product quality (it is a quality management system), BS5750 has been used in advertising campaigns to suggest that products of BS5750-registered companies are superior. Such adverts have had to be withdrawn. A spokesman in the BSI's legal services department admitted: 'We spend half our life telling people that the statement 'products are BS5750-certified' is meaningless.' Meanwhile there are strange cases, such as the one where a Spanish shoemaker claimed its products conformed to a hot water bottle standard.

Then there is the role of the accreditation bodies. It emerged that anybody could set themselves up as an accreditation body, regardless of whether they had BS5750 or not. The BSI itself also seemed to be enjoying privileged status - its 1993 grant for standard-setting activity is around pounds 9.9m, at a time of disquiet over the idea of standards.

Meanwhile, registration activity in the UK is burgeoning. There are around 25,000 registered companies already and 400 more are going through the BSI's books every month. In continental Europe, however, the reverse is true. BS5750's European equivalent, ISO 9000, has a minimal take-up. According to the Deutsche Institut fur Normung, the BSI's opposite number in Germany, France is leading the way with 480 ISO 9000 registered companies. Norway and Austria have 17 each.

The BSI also has domestic problems that may have contributed to Dr Sanderson's departure, including the recent loss of its contract to provide standards to the Ministry of Defence. However, its primary concern must be the future of standards themselves. Commenting on Dr Sanderson's resignation, a spokesman said: 'I don't know of any single issue that is problematic.' Understatement of the year?

Matthew Rock is associate editor of 'Director' magazine.