All non-gynaecological cytology laboratories in England and Wales (n = 212) were surveyed by telephone. The aim was to investigate what concepts of quality applied in this context and to establish what tools and techniques of quality improvement were used. The overall response was 146 (69%). The respondents mainly comprised NHS Trusts and University Departments. The study showed that there was a diverse approach to quality. All types of quality assurance and customer focus procedure questioned were undertaken but to a varied extent; three laboratories (2%) used a complete range and three (2%) used no procedure at all. Accreditation was associated with staffing adequacy and use of surveys, but not quality assurance (QA) or user focus. Laboratories with a high priority for quality performed more QA and reported a higher staffing adequacy. Critical incident analysis was dependent on workload. Computerization did not affect quality procedures and involvement in the Breast Screening Programme did not result in different quality measures. The time since last update was independent of all factors and external quality assurance (EQA) was not widely available. The study suggested that an integrated approach to quality had not been adopted in English and Welsh cytology laboratories and that there may be a need for a more strategic approach with greater availability of EQA, guidelines on quality tools, closer linkage of accreditation and quality procedures and the production of minimum and ideal standards. The ideal standard could be the complete range of procedures, and the minimum standard could comprise those processes in most frequent use, i.e. critical incident analysis, correlation methods, action on information, analysis of what is done with diagnostic information, a complaints procedure and customer surveys.