I have just returned from a short trip to Varanasi. One leg of the journey was by rail. I took a train called the Shivganga Express from Varanasi to New Delhi. Why am I writing about this? Because the North East Railway, which runs the train, had proudly displayed an International Standards Organisation (ISO) 9001 certificate, issued by an Australian quality certification company.
Not bad, I thought, for a train from Varanasi, which is not only the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, but arguably also the most chaotic. Millions of devout Hindus travel to Varanasi every year. So do tens of thousands of foreign tourists, drawn either by Varanasi’s eternal mystique, or the desire to visit nearby Sarnath, where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon.
So what kind of experience was in store in this ISO-certified train? Pretty much similar to what one gets on the thousands of other trains that the world’s largest railway network runs every day.
It left 20 minutes after its scheduled departure and reached its destination almost three hours behind schedule. Some regular travellers told me this was routine. The food was standard railway fare, served cold, in battered aluminium plates perched incongruously on maroon plastic trays. The toilets were admittedly cleaner than some others I have seen on other trains, and the soap dispenser actually dispensed soap. And yes, they had a system which pumped some air freshener into the air-conditioning system.
So is this what its all about? Soap and air freshener?
Not by a long chalk. The ISO is a network of 155 national standards organisations (including India’s Bureau of Indian Standards). The ISO’s own definition of what it stands for, and what the certification means, makes for interesting reading. For developing countries, it says, “by defining the characteristics that products and services will be expected to meet on export markets, International Standards give developing countries a basis for making the right decisions when investing their scarce resources and thus avoid squandering them.”
For consumers, ISO claims, “conformity of products and services to International Standards provides assurance about their quality, safety and reliability.”
A random trawl threw up an interesting assortment in India, ranging from the University of Jammu, which says it is “India’s first ISO 9001:2000 University” to multinationals like Accenture and Hewlett Packard, to something called New Glory Orthopaedics in Kerala.
I am not for a moment suggesting that any of these institutions do not meet global quality norms. But the bewildering number and variety of products and services with the ‘ISO’ tag raises the question of whether a quality mindset is widespread and deeply entrenched in India.
That is because ISO’s 9000 and 14000 range actually certify quality management processes, and not quality per se.
Their immense popularity the two are implemented by some 887,770 organisations in 161 countries would indicate that the world (and India) are awash with satisfied customers being delighted by international quality products and services.
You are a customer. Judge for yourself. Personally, I prefer something more tangible than a framed certificate.