The dynamics of efficiently operating a service organization are both varied and fluid. They include the unique background and approach of each individual service representative and the needs and desires of each individual client/customer. For any service organization, customer service (that includes customer satisfaction) is the end product of that service. For social services organizations, less than timely or efficiently delivered service can have a devastating effect on individuals, families and even the communities that they are dedicated to serve. Therefore, social services must be delivered with consistency and with an eye toward continual improvement. Consistency in a dynamic, fluid environment can only be achieved with a solid basis or frame-work for operation that ensures quality service is efficiently delivered. Such a frame-work is found in the ISO 9000 family of management systems. ISO 9001, the universal standard for "quality" management can be readily implemented in both product-based and service-based organizations, and is an obvious choice for addressing the inconsistent delivery of policies and procedures too often apparent in how social service organizations (including government, quasi-government and private sector agencies) operate at the "customer" level. For the social services organization the "customer" must be seen to include both the direct recipient of service (the client) and those "stakeholders" that provide funding to the service delivery organization (often, the taxpayer). As it is both customer and quality-service focused, ISO 9001 is not only well suited as a frame-work for such social service applications, it should be deemed requisite, as being in the best interest of those the system is designed to serve.

The ISO standards were developed by The International Organization for Standardization in Geneva to ensure the consistent quality of deliverables (products and services) and thereby secure global acceptance by member countries. ISO 9001 is the core standard in the ISO series of standards, and is the most widely adopted and implemented management system standard in the world, with more than one million certified organizations¹.

ISO 9001 is a written standard that describes and defines the basic elements of a management system designed to ensure products and/or services meet or exceed customer requirements (needs) and expectations. The implementation of the standard ensures that product/service meets required specifications on a continuous basis by focusing on the process of producing that product/service, as opposed to the product/service itself. The system is internally audited at regular intervals to ensure both compliance and efficiency. The organization is externally audited periodically, as well, by a registering body that ensures the integrity of implementation at a higher level. Ongoing internal auditing augmented by periodic surveillance audits by an external body, in tandem with a robust corrective action system, serve to ensure compliance with the standard and drive continual system improvement.

The basics of ISO are simple: align your processes to be compliant with the ISO standard, document your processes as procedures, (to include a quality manual, standard operating procedures and work instructions, as necessary), and adhere to those procedures in your day-to-day activities (while providing "objective evidence" that you are doing so). By having an objective standard to which they are working and by which they can be measured, there is a greater level of accountability and clear evidence of performance.

The ISO 9001 standard for management systems has clearly been shown to optimize process performance and provide increased return on investment². Social service organizations, by continually improving their processes (which include the quality of services delivered) ultimately benefit both the client and the community they serve.The mechanism for continuous improvement, intrinsic to the ISO 9001, is in the form of quality objectives - measurable goals that must be established at functions of the organization that are consistent with overall policy; the requirement to analyze collected data regarding system performance (such as is found in customer feedback, internal audit results, etc.) and by a corrective action methodology that includes problem identification, an analysis of root cause and an action taken to prevent the problem's recurrence (which is later reviewed for effectiveness).

According to ISO 9001, quality is defined as the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs. The features and characteristics are identified based on the needs of the customer. It is the customer who evaluates whether the services meet the specifications that have been determined. Thus, quality really means meeting customer needs. For a social services organization, quality service that is capable of meeting the needs of the customer would, among others, include features such as the availability of services to the needy; an accurate assessment of needs; the timely delivery of service; reliability and a demonstration of the social graces (such as courtesy, politeness, etc.). As ISO is a customer focused system, an inherent component is a requirement to assess customer satisfaction as an indicator of the overall system's effectiveness in delivering the desired services. This is often accomplished by an evaluation of feedback received through various channels that include, most commonly, customer surveys. Complaints, especially those that result in corrective action, are also evaluated as indicators of system weakness.

The implementation of ISO 9001 brings about numerous benefits including less "firefighting" or dealing with repeat or ongoing problems and a reduced need for intervention in the organization's operation of the business. This is achieved by providing staff with the means to control their own operations by identifying the tasks to be performed (and means to perform them) to yield the desired results. ISO also provides a means of documenting the organization's experience in a structured manner, providing a basis for education and training of staff as well as systematic improvement of performance. An ISO 9001 management system can provide a means for identifying and resolving problems and preventing their recurrence, but more importantly, it provides the means for enabling everyone to perform tasks right the first time. This is achieved by providing work instructions, effective controls, appropriate and adequate resources, training, motivation and an environment conducive to quality.

For social services organizations, true service must have customer satisfaction as the desired end result. Trying to achieve such a result without a formal management has been, to date, a quagmire for social services organizations. Only by embracing a formal management system structure, such as is offered by ISO 9001, will social services organizations be able to provide a dependability of service while continuing to operate more efficiently and in the best interest of the client/customer, including all stakeholders and the community.

For more than ten years RH ANDERSEN has been a leading proponent of ISO 9001 for government, quasi-government and private sector service providers including social services and health and human services organizations. We have yearly submitted proposals and recommendations to administration management in nursing homes, hospitals and government agencies in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts (and are currently expanding our "boundaries"), and offer a free consultation to any service provider needing guidance on ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 22000 and OHSAS 18001.


1. Lo, Chris K.Y.; Yeung, Andy C.L.; Cheng, T.C. Edwin (2007), "Impact of ISO 9000 on time-based performance: An event study", World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology ; Buttle, F. (1997), "ISO 9000: marketing motivations and benefits", International Journal of Quality & Reliability Management ; Santos, L. (2002), "Benefits of the ISO 9000:1994 system: Some consideration to reinforce competitive advantage", International Journal of Quality & Reliability Management

2. International Services Organization "The ISO Survey 2009" as of December 2009 shows 1,064,785 implementations of the ISO 9001 Standard worldwide.

ISO for Social Services
by Stephen R. Rubino
Understanding ISO 9001
Continuous improvement
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