ISO 9000, and how it can help organisations through the COVID-19 crisis

Nigel H Croft

Credit: Maggie McCallThe year 2020 will be remembered as the year that changed the world. COVID-19 changed the way we look at our lives, the way we behave, and the way we do business. Even when the pandemic is eventually over, things will never be the same again. So how can a quality management system based on the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 9000 series of standards help organizations to survive, recover and eventually succeed during this crisis?

First, we need to understand a bit about ISO and how it works. Based in Geneva, ISO is a federation of National Standards Bodies from over 160 countries, including the British Standards Institute (BSI) in the UK, and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in the US. ISO standards are developed by subject matter experts nominated by their respective countries and represent state-of-the-art thinking on any one of a vast range of topics that are relevant for society. We often make use of ISO standards in our daily life without even realizing it, from the banal (think ISO “A4” paper size!) to highly technical and critical standards in the aerospace, medical, petrochemical, nuclear energy and financial services sectors, to mention but a few.

ISO 9001 (“Quality Management System Requirements”) is only one of ISO’s suite of over 22,000 standards, but is definitely the best-known. It specifies requirements that an organization has to meet if it wants to provide confidence to its customers that it understands their needs and expectations, and can consistently provide them with products or services that conform to their requirements, even in a rapidly-changing business context such as the current pandemic. Even if they are unaware of the technical content of the standard, many people will no doubt have seen references to “ISO 9001 certification” on company letterheads, brochures and even on the backs of trucks. This independent certification includes periodic audits (at least annually) to ensure that organizations continue to comply, and withdrawal of the certification if they don’t! There are currently around a million such certificates worldwide.

But it’s not only about addressing quality in the “narrow” sense. Over the last 35 years since ISO 9001 was first published, ISO has developed a whole suite of over 40 management system standards to address the changing needs and expectations of organizations and society as a whole. These standards now cover topics that include the Environment (ISO 14001), Organizational Health and Safety (ISO 45001), Food Safety (ISO 22000), Business Continuity (ISO 22301) and Anti-Bribery (ISO 37001) to name but a few, most of which are directly relevant in these difficult times. They can be used to provide confidence that an organization is managing its business in order to achieve its (and society’s) objectives in these important dimensions, which we often refer to as “broad quality”.

So how can ISO 9000 help organizations through the COVID-19 crisis?

ISO defines a “management system” as “the set of interrelated or interacting elements of an organization to establish policies and objectives as well as processes to achieve those objectives”.

Some of the core requirements covered by ISO’s suite of management system standards that can help organizations to survive, recover and eventually succeed during the COVID crisis include:

  • determination and monitoring of the organization’s ever-changing business context;
  • identification of relevant stakeholders and their changing needs and expectations;
  • leadership at all levels (including the timely deployment of action plans to address changing circumstances);
  • consideration of business opportunities and their associated risks (“risk-based thinking”)
  • planning and validating changes to maximise business opportunities and minimise disruptions
  • contingency planning
  • monitoring and measurement of performance by periodic internal audits and management reviews, to drive continual improvement using the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” approach.

At a more philosophical level, the fundamental principles of quality on which ISO 9001’s requirements are based are defined in the introductory ISO 9000 standard. Some extracts that will no doubt resonate in the current crisis:

An organization focused on quality promotes a culture that results in the behaviour, attitudes, activities and processes that deliver value through fulfilling the needs and expectations of customers and other relevant interested parties”.

“The quality of an organization’s products and services is determined by the ability to satisfy customers and the intended and unintended impact on relevant interested parties”.

“The quality of products and services includes not only their intended function and performance, but also their perceived value and benefit to the customer.”

For example, organizations that provide excellent IT support services to people’s home computers, but whose technicians do not use face masks or respect social distancing rules during the COVID-19 crisis are no longer delivering a “quality service”.

On the other hand, some supermarkets have excelled by providing free home delivery services to vulnerable people who are not able to leave their homes, thereby taking an opportunity to gain future loyal customers.

There are also situations where the needs and expectations of interested parties other than customers have to be taken into consideration. These include, for example, the needs and expectations of society that might lead to shops rationing customer purchases to a “maximum of three” items that are in high demand (such as toilet paper, hand sanitizers and so on), or catering to the needs and expectations of employees and workers by allowing greater flexibility for home-working; leave of absence to care for vulnerable relatives, and so on.

These are just a few very simple examples where the changing business context brought about by COVID-19 has changed stakeholder needs and expectations, and organizations have adapted accordingly in order to survive in the short-term and ultimately recover and succeed in the longer term.

For more information about ISO, please consult

About the Author

Dr Nigel H Croft (HF 1981) was Chair of the ISO Technical Subcommittee TC176/SC2 from 2010 – 2018, with overall responsibility for the ISO 9001:2015 and ISO 9004:2018 standards. He currently chairs ISO’s Joint Technical Coordination Group, which oversees the development of all ISO management system standards. Nigel is a Fellow of the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute, a Senior Member of the American Society for Quality and a Member of the Brazilian Academy for Quality.