By Biff Matthews
In the payments industry, ISO means independent sales organization, but in many business circles it may also mean international standards organization. Such an organization issues rules and requirements that businesses and products must meet in order to gain ISO certification.
Examples of quality ISO certification programs are TQM, ISO 9000, Six Sigma and others that originated in the manufacturing sector but are now widespread within the service sector. In fact, service industries now account for the highest number of ISO 9001: 2000 certificates, according to the standards organization.
The focus of ISO is documentation: doing what you say you do and supporting that commitment with continuous improvement in the quality of both the end product and the process that produced it. Some programs emphasize detection and correction; others preach prevention. Each requires substantial documentation, flow charts, self-assessments and training, along with internal and external audits. Becoming certified may take as little as nine months; more often it's 24 to 30 months. Maintaining certification requires regular internal and external audits.
Achieving certification requires commitment, time and money over an extended period. Certification is always a positive. It looks great on your letterhead. But, as in life, the real benefit is the journey, not the destination.
CardWare International became certified to ISO 9000-2001 in the mid 1990s and maintained formal certification until just recently. Our staff continues to operate under the ISO 9000 principles, and the framework remains a major contributor to our success because it helps us maximize customer satisfaction and retention.
Achieving certification is a process toward systemization: Procedures are put in place that, in the end, help businesses run as efficiently and profitably as possible.
A colleague manufactures 500 electronic components, each part tailored toward client specifications. Before systemization, the company's lead time was two to four weeks. The expense of manufacturing and testing was rising as well, and the electronic technicians required hefty payment for their expertise.
Therefore, building a one-size-fits-all inventory of parts by competent, but not expert, technicians was not practical. So, over a span of 16 months, the company built a manufacturing system and semi-automated testing process that required fewer technicians.
Using the new system, hourly wage employees could build, test and package any of the 500 products within a day. Product quality increased and production costs dropped, allowing the company to reduce prices for its clients, which in turn increased sales, resulting in a considerably higher profit margin.
The company was able to systemize its business to make it run faster and better - not cheaper, just more efficient. The new system necessitated the use of better, higher-priced components, thus improving product reliability, while still permitting price reductions. Both outcomes increased customer satisfaction. What would it mean to your company if you could achieve shorter turnaround time with fewer employees?
Another colleague used a different system to design, build and manage municipal wastewater treatment plants. Her workforce is minimal for all aspects of the process. The system has made workers more accountable and directly responsible to both the company and the client. Above all, the time between concept generation and project completion was shortened.
Her system also improved the efficiency of wastewater plants, saving municipalities money for initial construction and system upgrades, and accelerating the permit process. Most importantly, her system raised the quality of the effluent, which dramatically reduced the amount of Environmental Protection Act-reportable incidents.
So, how are the experiences of an electronic components maker and a wastewater treatment plant builder relevant to the payments industry? If you know me, you know I am a stickler for checklists, particularly in the sales process. That also applies to every other aspect of the acquiring business.
A checklist is a critical part of any system, be it focused on quality, operations or software development. It is documentation, process control and quality assurance, responsibility and accountability, all in one package. Systems eliminate gray areas that, left unattended, often become black holes in businesses plagued with errors, personal fiefdoms and excuses. Here are three steps for creating and sustaining successful systems:
Step 2: Identify and eliminate bottlenecks in process flow, along with redundant or unnecessary steps to streamline end-to-end processes.
Step 3: Embrace failure and the corresponding Corrective Action Report as an opportunity to refine and improve the system.
In the end, what does the successful implementation of a system look like? Success entails:
The result is improved product quality, lower production costs, higher profit margins, satisfied clients and happy employees.
One word of caution, however: Never permit a system to become a barrier to the goal of delivering quality products and services. Meeting customers' expectations is the minimal goal, but exceeding expectations is preferable. Systems, therefore, should never be used as an excuse for failures.
Remember, implementing a system is more about the ongoing journey than the destination. As the German writer Thomas Mann once said, "You ask, what is the use of classification, arrangement, systemization? I answer you: Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject - the enemy is the unknown."
Biff Matthews is President of Thirteen Inc., the parent company of CardWare International, based in Heath, Ohio. He is one of 12 founding members of the Electronic Transactions Association, serving on its board, advisory board and committees. Call him at 740-522-2150 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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