Myths about management systems put to the test

Jun 17, 2021 Audit

Fact checking the management systems of three leading standards: ISO 9001, ISO 45001 and ISO 14001

Management systems are familiar to company leaders across industries. While they are generally regarded favorably, they are not immune to critical reservations, which have given rise to 6 myths in recent decades. It is worth taking a closer look at and correcting these misconceptions, as they fail to recognize the added value of management systems.

Management systems objectives:

  • Optimization of processes to achieve targets
  • Prevention of errors and extra costs caused by flawed processes and decisions
  • Trust building with customers, partners, employees and regulators
  • Long-term adaptation of standards based on experience and user needs
Eli Whitney developed the first quality management system over 200 years ago. He had observed recurring problems in his factory that led to inefficient and faulty processes and was looking for sustainable solutions. According to his theories, no process changes should be made without approval, tasks should be distributed only to those with appropriate expertise, and problems and their causes should be solved the moment they occur.
Whitney's ideas were taken up, further developed, concretized and are now internationally recognized. The first management standard to emerge from this was ISO 9001 (quality management standard), published in 1987. The concept contained therein was adapted by an environmental and an occupational health and safety group which developed ISO 14001 (environmental management standard) and ISO 45001 (occupational health and safety standard), respectively. They are now among the best-known and most widely used standards worldwide and are constantly being improved in committees with international participation using a consensus-based approach.
For all their popularity, some myths have developed around management systems, questioning their meaning and added value.

    Management systems require excessive documentation and administrative overhead

    Historically, this is correct. The first standard, published in 1987, contained 28 documentation procedures based on the needs of users at the time. Since then, audits for management systems have become more efficient.
    Fact: Current revisions to the previously mentioned standards do not include documentation procedures and contain the following comments, mutatis mutandis:
    • the documentation of an organization’s quality management system must contain the information deemed necessary by the company
    • the organization must document the information necessary for the operation of its processes
    But how does top management know which information is necessary and should therefore be documented?
    1. Estimate the cost-risk ratio
      Within an organization, there are simple to very complex processes with correspondingly low to very high risk and error potential. Management must make an assessment of which process documentations are worth the effort in order to avoid, for example, potential added costs and image damage caused by quality deficiencies or fines.
    2. Elicit and consider alternatives to documentation
      It is not necessary to document every process. Alternative control instruments can also be used to achieve the desired results. Management must therefore ask itself which alternatives can replace documentation. If this question cannot be answered satisfactorily, documentation may be the right way after all.
    Conclusion: Documentation optimizes and minimizes an organization’s processes and should therefore be regarded as a tool.