Quality Leadership: ISO9001:2015—Breaking Down the Emphasis on Leadership

Employees at every level are instrumental to the success of the quality management system, even if commitment to certification starts at the top.

Quality starts with a vision. Someone somewhere decided to create and sell a product or service with the expectation that it will be of value to a specific market. That vision starts with a leader at the top and extends throughout all employees of the company. To achieve the vision, it is important that leaders incorporate the following four frameworks in their organization:

  1. Structural: Set goals, policies, and procedures to establish boundaries.
  2. Symbolic: Set the cultural tone and inspire employees.
  3. Human Resource: Identify needs, skills, and relationships of employees.
  4. Political: Use their power to advocate for change and improvement.

The updated ISO9001:2015 standard emphasizes the role of leadership in everything from accountability and compatibility with the strategic direction of the company, to promoting improvement and supporting the concept of process ownership as ambassadors to their areas of responsibility. This article focuses on the leadership-specific elements of the updated ISO9001:2015 standard, addresses the meaning of each one in the context of the four frameworks, and shows how any company can help ensure proper implementation.

Executives must provide the structure and resources to set the foundation during implementation and through ongoing internal audits, corrective action, and continual improvement. ISO9001:2015 Section 5.1 (Leadership and commitment), Part 5.1.1 states that general top management shall demonstrate leadership and commitment with respect to the quality management system by:

  1. Ensuring that the quality policy and quality objectives are established for the quality management system and are compatible with the context and strategic direction of the organization. (Structural)

Establishing a mission and vision drives the strategic direction of a company recognizing major forces working for and against it (Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal,  “Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership,” 2nd ed.; San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997; 180). A vision without a strategy is just an illusion. It is important that the strategy drive the quality policy, and that the quality policy set the framework for establishing company goals, objectives, targets, and continual improvement toward realizing the strategy. Without this guidance, employees can be left without a path laid out in front of them, causing them to be less efficient both in their day-to-day and longer-term tasking, as well as stray from the company’s strategic goals. Without structure, employees will invent ways to complete tasks rather than follow established processes.

  1. Promoting the use of the process approach and risk-based thinking. (Symbolic)

One way to integrate the requirements is by organizing the quality management system with a process focus, rather than a standards focus. In a process-based quality management system, the executive team identifies management as process owners. Process owners are those who are responsible for ensuring procedures, work instructions, standard operating procedures, and forms are written to describe actual practice while meeting the needs of the international standard. Effectively incorporating risk-based thinking means taking those questions that are always left in the back of the mind, bringing them to the forefront, and documenting them in a process flow.

  1. Ensuring that the resources needed for the quality management system are available. (Human Resource)

For small to mid-sized companies, especially those dependent on specific market sectors, going lean is the new normal. Executives expect middle management and their employees to do more with less in the day-to-day activities while providing quality products and services. ISO9001:2015 seeks to change some of the drawbacks of going lean by putting a stronger emphasis on analyzing the resources needed to provide a quality product and/or service. These resources include infrastructure, operations, and the ability to adequately monitor and measure results. The ISO standard also requires consideration for the operational environment, including social, psychological, and physical factors.

  1. Communicating the importance of effective quality management and of conforming to the quality management system requirements. (Symbolic)

When it comes to communication, some companies have an active leadership team, providing needed resources and a solid support system for employees. In these companies, the lines of communication between top and middle management are excellent, and the importance of conformance is passed on to all employees. In companies where the leadership team is more reticent, communication often falls short, being as passive as the company’s internet page. Communicating employee responsibilities for quality management throughout all levels of the company starts when the process owner is identified, when an employee is hired, or when his or her position changes. Creating a master list of process owners’ respective procedures, providing an overview of the quality management system, drilling down to the responsibilities of the new hire to ensure adequate training occurs, and discussing changes in responsibilities due to a new position are all important for communicating requirements and ensuring conformance over time.

  1. Supporting other relevant management roles to demonstrate their leadership as it applies to their areas of responsibility. (Political)

Depending on the size of the company, process owners can identify user representatives who might be responsible for ensuring other employees understand and perform their duties according to the established procedures. Members of the executive team can demonstrate leadership by creating opportunities to talk to employees at all levels of the company. Improvement of the quality management system for their process area should be at the forefront of their dialogue. Executive management could make it a goal to talk to employees at least once a month about the importance of the company’s goals, their role in achieving them, continual improvement, and any elements of risk they see from a new or changed process.

Responsibility for implementation, training, internal auditing, corrective action, and continual improvement of each process generally lies with middle management as the process owner, but leadership and direction from executives is paramount to the success of a solid quality management system. If there is a strong leadership at the highest level, in all four frameworks, employees will buy into the system. Employees at every level are instrumental to the success of the quality management system, even if commitment to certification starts at the top.

Carrie Salters received her Masters of Public Administration in Environmental Policy & Management from the University of Washington in 2001, and her Bachelor of Science degree in Science, Technology, Environmental & Public Policy from Michigan State University in 1997. She holds certifications as an ISO14001 Lead Auditor and as an internal auditor for ISO9001, including an ISO9001:2015 transition certification. She has more than 11 years of project management experience working with Freer Consulting Company in international standards implementation, training, and internal auditing throughout the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. She also works with Freer Consulting Company in the environmental regulatory management field, specializing in stormwater and wastewater permit compliance. Prior to that, she worked for seven years as a program specialist implementing a new software system for a large company in the United States and Canada.

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