Set out to achieve a high standard

Jez Abbott
Monday, September 25, 2017

It is one of the most widely used quality standards across the world and can not only help you increase business efficiency but boost customer satisfaction and help your company eke out competitive advantage. The ISO 9001 will tell you, among other things, how to standardise that print order form, exactly who signed it off, and, oh happy days, precisely where you can find it.

But before, and if, the money starts rolling in you need to spend a fair amount to notch up a certification that can take months of painstaking – some may say pathological – audit trails on almost every aspect of your business. Such microscopic scrutiny can also take its toll, throwing up uncomfortable home truths on you company’s efficiency, diligence and competence.

Fortunately when Cascade Group resolved to go for its ISO 9001, business was good and competency levels high. But managing director Richard Adler wanted to go that extra mile, and had no doubts on the level of work required or how uneasy closer scrutiny could be. Every aspect of his business, and everyone involved in its running, would come into sharp, critical focus.

The challenge

Unfortunately for the welter of reviews, audits and inspections that steer you towards the coveted ISO 9001, there are many aspects to Cascade Group, a print and design house in central London. Not least of these are its four offices offering a full range of services including lithographic and digital printing, print finishing, design, web development and marketing services. 

The company, which started 30 years ago as a Kall Kwik branch with one office, pulled out of the franchise game eight years ago and has grown steadily ever since. It now employs just shy of 30 staff across four offices, from the Southbank serving marketing and design agencies to Holborn and the City targeting solicitors and barristers, bankers and insurance companies.

“We first talked about going for the accreditation about two years ago and the reasons were twofold,” says Adler. “It would no doubt make a better story if I said there were lots and lots of things wrong with our business, but there weren’t. We had many informal quality assurance processes and customer satisfaction has always been very high.”

As a part of its looser quality control system, Cascade Group used – and still does - the Feefo independent online review system where customers give feedback on the service they receive. Cascade has an overall Feefo rating of 99%, says a proud Adler. But he wanted to formalise the processes across the group and prove “what we thought we were doing right was being done right.”

The second reason for going for the ISO 9001 had a hard-nosed business edge: Cascade Group was starting to look at bidding for tender work from the likes of central and local government. One of the primary requirements is for bidders to have an assurance that, in the words of the man about to take the plunge, is “purely a set of quality procedures ensuring that from the initial phone call from a client to final job delivery you are following those procedures laid down by the accrediting body”.

The method

Print companies treading the ISO 9001 path can go it alone. Few of them do, and neither did Cascade Group. There is, after all, a minefield of compliance issues; everything from the monitoring of equipment calibration or the criteria for selecting suppliers, through to records on training and qualifications and the enshrining of service requirements in a detailed record.

Adler went in search of a consultant and the BPIF had just the man. This was to be a crucial appointment: the consultant cost around £5,000 and would spend around a year scrutinising company records and changing procedures. Adler admits, “I felt a little nervous when the BPIF consultant first turned up” for what would become an intimate business investigation. 

Luckily he was “pretty impressed” with the way the company was being run. The consultant, however, identified 36 areas of what’s classed in quality-assurance jargon as ‘noncompliance’, most of them small areas needing only a small tweak. These included redesigning order forms to include a box for operators to initial and a more standardised order acknowledgement process.

And in some areas, Cascade Group was streets ahead on performance standards. Much of quality assurance is about reducing waste and when the consultant suggested reprint jobs should be kept down to 5% of all print orders, Adler laughed and was bluntly critical: “Cascade has it down to 0.047% and 5% is completely unacceptable and frightening for our industry.” 

All of these procedures went into a new quality standard manual laying down every print and personnel process, such as how to take an order, how to input it into the Cascade system and how to check each process throughout the system. Communication was the key, says Adler, especially as his team are spread across the four London sites.

“It took me a couple of days just to go around telling everyone what we were doing, why we were doing it, how we would benefit and why everyone should buy into the ISO 9001. Everybody agreed, but it’s hard because everyone does the same job similarly but slightly differently. We needed them to do everything exactly the same way.”

The result

Cascade Group gained its ISO 9001 three weeks ago, so it’s too early to quantify gains, results and outcomes other than the total cost of notching up the certification, says Adler. This amounted to £7,500 and took in the BPIF consultant’s fees, travel expenses and paying about £1,500 for a two-day re-accreditation that takes place every year. 

“Things are moving fast elsewhere, however. As an SME the ISO has helped differentiate us from competitors. We used to look at maybe two tenders a year and the small print always read the same: you needed certification. Yesterday – in just one day – we looked at eight tenders. Whether we want to work for local and central government is another thing, but we can now look at it.”

One of the biggest challenges was not so much systems based but involved the staff mindset. Every two months a meeting of management goes over areas of non-compliance, which amount to no more than one or two issues. The heads of each office look at what caused any discrepancies and how to avoid them in the future. This was quite a hard sell, explains Adler.

“We had to convince our staff that any mistakes or areas of noncompliance needed to be recorded on our internal extranet to ensure we could address them. It took quite a bit of explaining we would not use the ISO 9001 as a blunt tool to tell people off or punish staff for errors, which we all make from time to time, anyway. 

“It’s about making our service at every level better. We can now look at every stage of every job, from printing and finishing to artwork and design, and know it’s been done perfectly, which gives even more peace of mind to our clients and us.” 


Cascade Group

Location Central London 

Inspection host Managing director Richard Adler

Size Turnover: £2.5m; Staff: 27 

Established Mid 1980s

Products Litho and digital print and design including direct marketing, reports, brochures, large-format displays and banners, business cards and labels 

Kit Two-colour Heidelberg Printmaster, two large-format HP machines, one a Latex, an Indigo 5600 and Konica Minolta digital printers 

Inspection focus Achieving ISO 9001


Have a plan Make sure you understand every aspect of the ISO 9001, what’s involved in going for it and what you want to achieve from certification.

Define your goals Know exactly what quality assurance measures you already have in place and what state you are trying to achieve.

Win over staff Change is difficult at the start of any staff-performance process and can be met with resistance, so reassure and motivate by spelling out the benefits of ISO 9001. 

Work out finances Funds will be needed to pay for consultants, staff training programs and payment for auditors, certification and re-accreditation.

Hone your auditing Lack of experience in performing internal audits is a major challenge in implementing ISO standards, so beef up your admin skills.


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