By Eva Normell, Partner at Purple Ivy AB

A year and a half has passed since the release of the updated ISO standards for quality and environmental management systems, and so far only about 10 percent of all certified companies have transitioned. There isn’t much time left – only another year and a half – and according to those who have completed the process there is no reason to wait.

I have trained 500+ people on the subject of the new standards over the past two years, and my Purple Ivy colleagues and I have also provided individualized assistance to several companies via tools and coaching. I’d like to take this opportunity to share my reflections on the changes that have created the most value for our clients and what their biggest challenges have been, and conclude with some tips for companies who are just beginning their journey.

The changes that create the most value
The new version of the standards has a sharper focus on the importance of management and the identification of subject areas that will create real value for an organization. This is achieved via new requirements that relate to understanding the future, linking up strategies and priorities via risk management, and prioritizing the areas where the management team has set clear goals. This is driven further by the fact that the new standards advocate work processes guided by goals as opposed to an over-reliance on detailed instructions.

The PDCA thinking that I described in my January blog post is key in guiding how the organization is driven in terms of its processes, projects, departments, internal audits, and so on. Time and again, we’ve seen how this way of working lights people up across the organization, across all different kinds of roles, helping them to understand priorities and verify the effectiveness of their approach.

The risk management aspect of the new ISO standards is vital because it helps an organization prioritize its goals and – equally important – identify areas that are not prioritized, and provides a solid basis for explaining these decisions to employees. Unfortunately, many companies that believe they have a risk management process in place have actually only done the analysis part and are therefore not getting the full benefits. While their analysis may be solid, if they are unclear about the purpose and the evaluation, they end up lacking clarity in their prioritization of goals.

The broadened environmental perspective in the new standards is another important change that creates significant value, opening up for organizations to focus on the environmental issues that are most relevant to their particular business rather than being limited to managing direct impacts. This change makes employee engagement much easier, as they are suddenly able to see the connection between the organization’s environmental goals and their daily work.

Aside from the fact that the new ISO thinking is much easier to understand and explain, it is also easier for each organization to find its own way to do the work. I did it my way! That’s precisely the point. It’s exciting to see how companies are taking the opportunity to create systems that mirror their brands and cultures in a way that makes the management system truly relevant to their way of working.

The main challenges
To meet the new standard, an organization must have a documented description of what is included in the management system, why it is included and how the various aspects will be managed. The starting point is to establish a common understanding about where the organization stands today and where it wants to go (based on the materiality and shareholder analysis). This is where the organization shows its new thinking about the management system and its purpose, which is difficult but very useful. This is also the time when the management team must consider how to measure and follow up to determine if the management system is effective for its purpose.

The new standard is clear that it is no longer necessary to “document everything” – goal-steered thinking and clear assignment of responsibility is much more important. This sounds smart and attractive but can be more difficult than it sounds.

The requirements for a systematic approach to materiality analysis, stakeholder analysis and risk analysis are vague in the new standard. But since these tools can be more or less new for many companies it is necessary to consider what use/value your particular organization will get from them, and then define an approach for each that will enable your organization to meet its specific needs.

Many companies already have good management tools in place to manage their strategy and goals. However, some only use their existing tools for operative management, choosing to handle sustainability issues relating to the environment and the working environment separately. This is problematic because managing sustainability issues separately makes it difficult to integrate them into the core of business.

A few tips
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that the structure of your management system and the roles within it are going to have to change. In the new standards, the roles of the person who is responsible for the management system and the experts in environmental issues, work environment issues and quality (for customers) shift toward coaching and supporting the process owners, since they are the ones responsible for driving the system.

For this to work, the goals and the ambition levels must be clearly established and agreed amongst the management team, the process owners, the experts and the system owners. Avoid the trap of aiming for a higher ambition level than what has been agreed on, as this only creates frustration and undermines motivation in the long run.

In summary, the latest ISO standards include some new elements that add an extra dimension to how an organization is managed, but the key message is this: keep it simple. Allow your organization to learn slowly, and take the time to fully understand the value of risk management and lifecycle thinking.

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