In September last year an assessor from the Quality Scheme for Ready Mixed Concrete entered the depot belonging to a small readymixed concrete producer in Northern Ireland to carry out a routine annual appraisal.
As normal, there was no warning of the assessors arrival. What was found is, and will remain for ever, confidential, but it was enough for the assessor to recommend the immediate suspension of the depots QSRMC certification.
Thus QSRMC announced in October that City Concretes certificate had been suspended for a failure to comply with QSRMC regulations which could directly affect the quality or quantity of concrete supplied.
These days, all major specifications demand that suppliers of goods and services hold some form of independent certification of compliance with the international quality assurance standard ISO 9000. The certificate on the wall is effectively a licence to trade. Members of QSRMC who have their certificates suspended or withdrawn usually make strenuous efforts to get them back again.
However, City Concrete chose another option and took advantage of a transfer scheme to obtain a Kitemark from the British Standards Institution. Without a prior inspection by BSI assessors, it was given a new certificate and continued to trade.
QSRMC reacted with predictable fury, but there was little it could do at the time. Now, however, it seems the ripples from City Concretes cunning plan are likely to bring about a sea change in the whole system of quality assurance certification in the UK.
Of the dozens of organisations offering independent third party certification services in the UK, around 50 have their competence and integrity independently assessed by the UK Accreditation Service. BSI and QSRMC are among these 50. But QSRMC is also one of the 15 organisations accredited to offer product certification and it is the little-understood difference between quality assurance certification and product certification that is at the heart of the problem.
Both are based on ISO 9000 principles, says UKAS National Accreditation of Certification Bodies head Roger Brockway. But product certification goes deeper. There is more emphasis on sampling and testing.
In effect, product certification underwrites the product, while quality assurance certification confirms that the management of the company has systems which can deliver the product to the customers specification.
UKAS first public reaction to the complaint from QSRMC was to ban BSIs transfer system. (NCE 4 December 1997). Behind the scenes, however, the row accelerated an ongoing review of the whole basis of UKAS operations. Since April last year we have been using a more European style of appraisal, Brockway says. Before, we concentrated on the competence of individual assessors, now we look much more closely at the management itself.
What UKAS now looks for, he explains, is the way the certification body responds to a request for certification, and in particular its competence in putting together a team of assessors with the right sort of skills. Auditor competence is now left to the International Register of Certified Auditors, an offshoot of the UKs Institute of Quality Assurance.
The result, says Brockway, is that certification bodies can be given broader scopes of accreditation, for straightforward QA certification at least.
But product certification is less straightforward. A working party under the chairmanship of Professor Tony Cusens has been considering the whole question for almost a year, and it was this working party that was handed the hot potato of readymixed concrete certification.
It is clear that there is a wide gulf between the two accreditation organisations. QSRMC certifies more than 1,100 depots, BSI Kitemarks less than 50. BSI assessors also visit by appointment only whereas QSRMC always turns up unannounced. But readymixed concrete is only one of 300 products to be Kitemarked.
Brockway, however, is anxious to avoid any acrimony over the relative merits of the two schemes. That wouldnt be very satisfactory, he says. We would rather see the construction industry decide to back one scheme which could be operated by more than one accredited certification body.
Most insiders see this as an unlikely prospect, in the short to medium term at least. In the meantime, Cusens working party has come up with draft proposals which will soon see major changes at UKAS.
They have highlighted the need for UKAS to understand the sector concerned when accrediting product certification schemes, explains Brockway. Were still exploring the depth of technical knowledge UKAS will need in such cases, but we hope to have a new assessment methodology in operation this year.
UKAS has also moved to address another area of complaint the background of the five full-time and four part-time assessment managers it employs. These nine, backed up by around 80 freelance experts, carry out a minimum of two inspections a year on each accredited organisation. Accreditation costs around 10,000 a year on average. For this amount of money, some product certification bodies have muttered, they would have expected assessors with some experience of the sector concerned.
Brockway acknowledges there was no-one with a construction background on the team until recently, and that membership of the International Register of Certified Auditors is desirable but not obligatory.
Weve always looked for people with as wide an industrial background as possible, says Brockway. But the most important requirement is a thorough understanding of ISO 9000 and the international standard for certification bodies. And good auditing skills.
He adds: We have never pretended to have expertise on everything. But we now acknowledge there is a difference between quality assurance to ISO 9000 and product certification.
At the moment, says the QSRMC, there is a two level system in operation. Product certification schemes for items such as steel reinforcement, bricks and readymixed concrete offer a greater degree of protection to the customer than alternative UKAS accredited certification schemes.
However, UKAS points out that its job is to establish minimum standards and it is for customers to decide how much more assurance they really want. The problem is that few customers, if any, are capable of appreciating the difference between competing schemes.
The efforts UKAS is making should help reduce these differences, and as such must be welcomed by all concerned.
But more needs to be done, not least to explain to the construction industry exactly what certification means in practice.
And while there are still many cynics who question the whole point of QA, there will be a whole lot more if companies can play silly games with the certification process.