ISO Certification

Good for operations…and for the bottom line

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification can be a daunting concept for any organization, and may seem downright impossible for a small business. The stringent requirements that ISO demands can leave a business asking, “Is it worth it?”

As quality director for SpecAir Specialty Gases, a division of Maine Oxy located in Auburn, Maine, my answer is a resounding yes. ISO certification not only provides a payoff in internal structure and organization, but also can provide an advantage in marketing, sales and public perception of your business as well as an improved quality assurance program.

SpecAir Specialty Gases was one of the first independent specialty gas producers to achieve ISO 17025:2005 accreditation for calibration and testing scopes. We have found that ISO certification, be it 9000, 9001 or 17025, carries a very distinct stature in today’s business climate. Successfully completing the ISO certification process shows customers and your peers that you take quality seriously. A business that is willing to undergo the planning, preparation and compliance required of an ISO certification really says something about the level of dedication and commitment they have toward quality and excellence in what they do.

SpecAir chose to be accredited under 17025—laboratory-directed certification—instead of under the more common 9000 or 9001 certifications common in business because it is laboratory specific and because it encompasses the elements of 9000 and 9001 quality. For us to meet 17025, we had to meet quality demands similar to 9000 and 9001 and then meet the technical specifics for a laboratory function. In essence, we hold ourselves to a doubly high standard for quality processes and laboratory work processes.

The Power of ISO
The impact accreditation has had on the organization is profound. We are an employee-owned company with a commitment to ISO, beginning with our CEO, Bruce Albiston, and running through the company. As employee owners, we are directly connected to every action we take. When we talk about taking pride in our work and producing quality products, we have a direct ownership stake in what goes out the door with our name on it. The employee ownership of Maine Oxy and SpecAir has helped create an environment where all employees—from production to shipping to customer service and billing—work together to find solutions to problems and encourage open communication between the various departments and people working on an order.

SpecAir Specialty Gases

The reach of ISO certification goes beyond simply getting employees to work well together; it creates a systematic way of looking at work flow and the work product. We approach our work in a different way under ISO, looking at each step in a process as an opportunity to refine the work flow and, in turn, create an impact on the final finished product.

Lab Room

Calibration, gas analysis and certification of quality standards are some of the tasks performed in the lab.

ISO also requires a commitment to documentation and recordkeeping specific to tracking and reporting ISO activities. There are several forms related to ISO that we use, and while some may be tempted to think of it as just more paperwork, ISO requires us to document the issue as well as the steps taken to correct the problem and keep it from happening again. We have found it incredibly helpful to have a record of each business challenge, each success and the innovative ideas we developed. Several of the proprietary innovations SpecAir has developed in our production processes have come about as a result of the ISO-influenced thinking within the SpecAir team.

ISO and the Marketplace
While ISO can unleash team member creativity and bring changes to the approach and function of day-to-day work within the production laboratory, there have been changes to the sales and marketing components of the company as well.

According to Ernest Glynn, Spec-Air’s senior sales manager and a 15-year veteran of the specialty gas industry, being ISO certified has elevated us above our competition in many areas, quality being chief among them. “We are one of the few remaining independents in our region for this business; many of our potential customers are larger firms and accounts that are also ISO certified, and are looking for a supplier who is also ISO accredited,” Glynn says. “When I can talk to them ISO-certification to ISO-certification, it opens a whole new door for us to present our products and services.”

Specialty Gases lab

The SpecAir Specialty Gases lab is used to certify the quality of gases prior to distribution.

Glynn says that many customers recognize the ISO certification as a mark of quality and are far more willing to do business with an ISO-accredited supplier than with a vendor without it. The fact that we have voluntarily chosen to hold ourselves to a known international standard speaks volumes about the commitment that SpecAir has to our process and our final product. Glynn has even incorporated the ISO certification into his marketing and price presentations, and has found that ISO has been considerably helpful with price-driven accounts. He has found that people are willing to pay for quality and excellence, and that he has had accounts where SpecAir was not necessarily the lowest bid going in, but the fact that we were the only one offering an ISO-certified product, the account chose to give us the business—at our price—because they were willing to pay a little more for the commitment to quality.

Key to Future Growth
We see the ISO accreditation as key to future growth. SpecAir Specialty Gases’ focus is to continue to grow market share, which involves reaching out to customers outside our current local distribution network and increasing access to national and international accounts. ISO 17025 allows SpecAir to present its high-end quality product lines to customers worldwide.

While ISO certification is a commitment that requires ongoing support from all aspects of the company—starting with leadership and ending with all employees—the rewards it brings are well worth the investment of time, resources and energy to your gases and welding distributorship.

How To Become Certified
 
ISO certification can be a lengthy process requiring both a financial and time commitment from companies wishing to achieve and maintain the accreditation. The first step is to determine which accreditation makes sense for your company. Factors such as the type of industry, the size and location of your business, and what your competition and industry peers are doing, all play a role in your selection.


Based on the type of certification being sought, the accreditation body providing that certification will be selected. For many companies, this will be determined based on both price of accreditation and on reputation of the accreditation body within the industry. Knowing what others within your industry have used will give you an idea of which firms are known and respected in your area of business. It is important to make sure that whoever is chosen is a reputable and credible firm and carries the proper certifications to grant an accreditation.

Knowing that your certification is going to be valid is particularly important if you are looking to do business in a specific part of the world. For example, if you do business in Asian markets, many companies in that region have opted to only recognize an accreditation from a firm that is certified by the Asia Pacific Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (APLAC).

Typically, a company seeking certification begins the process several months to a year or more ahead of the initial accreditation survey. Some may choose to develop one or more internal people to guide the preparation process; others may find it more economical and convenient to hire a consulting firm to assist with preparations. At SpecAir Specialty Gases, we brought in a consultant to help guide us through the initial certification. Over time, we developed our own in-house expertise to manage the day-to-day processes, and call on the consultant as an expert resource—a second pair of eyes, as it were—to review our work and documentation. The consultant was also helpful in choosing which accreditation to pursue and in keeping us up-to-date on changes in the 17025 process.

Because accreditation is an ongoing process with renewals occurring on a regular basis, some accreditations can be an annual or bi-annual event. That’s why it’s so important to maintain a good quality management system to track your certifications. Renewals are just as important, perhaps more so, than your initial round. After a fairly substantial investment in making sure you reach certification, it is vital to make sure you keep the good work going to maintain and even improve on your initial quality levels that got you certified in the first place. That is where having outside help can be the difference between moving forward and falling behind.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association

Clark Phinney Meet the Author
Clark Phinney, STS, WSO-CST, is the safety director for Maine Oxy and the quality director for the SpecAir Division located in Auburn, Maine, and on the Web at www.specair.com and www.maineoxy.com.