Beware the Mechanical IMS
I ‘ve long wanted to write about integrated management systems (IMS) regarding quality, environmental responsibilities, and occupational health and safety. I just never got around to the topic until recently, when I became aware of a couple of major “failures” of such endeavors. Although I won’t mention the organizations involved or the specifics of either case, some lessons learned have become obvious to me. Without proper objectives and controls, such systems may be doomed to failure, or at least to mediocrity.
With an IMS, an organization develops a single, integrated system for managing all three disciplines (and perhaps others) in conformity with the relevant standard for each. As I’ve pointed out for years, such a system offers a number of benefits:
• Many of the functions and processes needed to comply with ISO 9001 are similar to those required to comply with ISO 14001, concerning environmental management systems, and OHSAS 18001, covering management systems for occupational health and safety. By integrating these processes, the organization avoids operating redundant processes to fulfill each standard’s requirements. A key example could be the area of document control, where a single control process could serve all three disciplines. There is also the probability that a properly designed, integrated system will require fewer people than separate systems, and offer significant cost savings.
• It may also be possible to have the organization’s certification body or registrar conduct integrated audits of the system, thus reducing the costs of certification.
• If the system is designed properly, it will be stronger as an integrated whole than as separate systems for each discipline. Top managers are more likely to support a single integrated system than two or three separate efforts.
So what’s the problem? I think the notion that an integrated system is more efficient (i.e., costs less to operate and certify) has been oversold. In some cases, organizations have looked more at how to eliminate redundancies and achieve economical certification than they have worked to achieve the synergistic effectiveness that’s possible. This is what I’ve called the “mechanical” method of implementing an integrated management system: just look for the areas that are common, eliminate redundancies, and take advantage of the fact that the applicable management systems standards (e.g., ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and OHSAS 18001) are compatible and designed to be used together.
This approach may leave key activities untouched. For example, objectives and the methods for measuring the system’s effectiveness in achieving them are often ignored. The mechanical approach can achieve cost savings, but it’s not likely to achieve a system that’s effective in meeting the organization’s objectives in all three areas. What’s needed is to fully understand the objectives to be achieved and to develop a system with clear process interactions to meet those objectives. Most important of all is setting the initial objectives for the integrated system. Saving money is a valid objective, but if the organization is to be successful, cost shouldn’t be the dominant goal. More important objectives are those related to improved product quality, environmental performance, and performance in the occupational health and safety areas. Strive to achieve a system-development plan that improves performance in all three areas while making the management system simpler, easier to implement on a day-to-day basis, and less expensive to operate and maintain.
If you’ve developed an integrated system or are contemplating doing so, ask yourself these questions:
• Do we have clear objectives for each of the areas to be included in the IMS?
• Are our objectives focused on improvement in each area to be included?
• Are the objectives for each area clearly aligned with our overall business objectives? Or better: Can we demonstrate how achieving the objectives for each area will improve the organization’s financial performance?
• Is the management system design focused on achieving the objectives for each area?
• Does the integrated system include those technical activities necessary to ensure a state of control for each of the disciplines?
If you answer “no” to any of these questions, you have work to do. Often it’s easy to become so involved in system design ¾ e.g., writing procedures, developing flowcharts, conducting training, and other “mechanical” activities ¾ that organizations lose sight of the objectives. Let’s face reality: Outcomes matter, and building a system that’s focused on anything else is at best wasteful and may be sheer folly.
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor, and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. From 1997 through 2005 he was chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 176 and lead delegate for the United States to the International Organization for Standardization committee responsible for the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards. He remains active in TC 176 and is chair of the ASQ Standards Group.