Can you trust a trust mark?

It was above everything else supposed to be a mark of trust and quality, certifying that the recepient had attained commendable, even world-class levels of organisational excellence.

To earn the Singapore Quality Class for Private Educational Organisations (SQC-PEO), private schools would have had to statisfy a bevy of independent assessors on a whole range of performance indicators covering management processes and results.

It is appropriate that the prestigious trust mark -- a spin-off from Singapore's top business excellence accolade, the Singapore Quality Award (SQA), was stripped from the Nanyang Institute of Management last month after allegations of serious commercial misconduct. But how did it even get awarded in the first place -- a mere nine months previously?

The rigour of SPRING's assessors is not in question – after all, despite the proliferation of quality marks with technical-sounding names such as Six Sigma, ISO 9000 and EFQM, quality assessment is hardly an exact science.

Quality certification systems originated soon after World War II from the need to ensure that vendors delivered supplies according to exacting military specifications. It was quickly adopted by manufacturers as a means of exerting some sort of control over assembly lines and factories. During the manufacturing heyday in the 1980s, particularly in Asia, earning a quality trust mark was often a prerequisite for doing business with global MNCs.

As a result, an entire ecology of auditors, trainers and consultants has sprung up world-wide to support companies seeking certification marks in just about every aspect of business: from environmental practices to customer service and innovation.

More recently, quality certification systems have evolved into business excellence models like the SQA. They attempt to take into account a more holistic overview of complex modern businesses beyond mere compliance with production standards. Assessors now look at a range of “soft” factors such as staff morale, leadership and social responsibility.

Certification doesn't come cheap -- it can cost an organisation thousands for the initial process as well as mandatory recurrent audits to make sure standards are kept up, not to mention the massive internal housekeeping required.

But it is often the price of admission to lucrative contracts in the US and Europe. And apart from the obvious prestige factor, there can also be more direct benefits. Recipients of the SQC-PEO, for example, enjoy “green lane” administrative processing, waivers of security deposits, and overseas promotion by IE Singapore.

Government institutions have embraced quality certification with particular enthusiasm. Lacking a clear bottom-line with which to measure organisational success, public sector institutions look to quality certification as benchmarks of corporate governance. So the Housing and Development Board, Inland Revenue Authority and Civil Aviation Authority -- all winners of the SQA -- can claim to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with corporations like Sony, 3M and Motorola as top-rate, well-run organisations.

Even the mainstream education system has jumped on the bandwagon. Since 2000, the Ministry of Education's School Excellence Model (based loosely on the European Business Excellence framework) has been used by schools to assess their programs and management. Quality certification is a selling point for some schools which may otherwise lack established brand recognition.

Still, sceptics have long been familiar with the shortcomings of putting too much stock in quality marks as a measure of sound business practice.

It is sensible when you are making things -- say televisions or hard drives -- to ensure that products rolling off the assembly line meet consistent standards, including safety.

More nebulous is the problem of what quality assurance means exactly for a service-oriented field, such as a design firm, or a school. You can make sure for instance that accounting practices are in order and that employees have the right qualifications. But there's no sure-fire business formula for producing an inspired creative design or a brilliant, well-rounded student.

Certainly, enlightened companies do make judicious use of quality models to guide growth and spur improvements in their business. It can be a potent tool, particularly for fledgling ventures learning how to run like the big boys, and a proxy indicator of management commitment and competence.

But old hands know it is also possible to force-fit an organisation's existing work processes, management philosophy and figures into any model, with a bit of PR and a lot of frantic paper-work when the assessors come round.

When you buy into a trust mark, it is fair to make certain assumptions about the quality of the product or service on offer, not to mention basic honesty. But really, you are buying into a stated method of doing things. As the joke among detractors goes: they may not have a good cake recipe, but they can certify their ability to make mediocre cakes consistently.

Recent cases suggest that if you're really looking for assurances of fuss-free quality, it is still best to trust the old adage, caveat emptor.