Horacio Martirena, IRCA technical assessor, explores the challenges auditors face when ensuring adherence to one of the fundamental changes introduced by ISO High Level Structure – clause 5.1 leadership and commitment

Clause 5.1 leadership and commitment, taken from ISO High Level Structure (common to most ISO management system standards) , looks at how top managers act as leaders and how they demonstrate their commitment. Top management is defined as a “person or group of people who directs and controls an organisation at the highest level”.

The characteristics of a leader and their degree of commitment is under continuous scrutiny by the employees. Therefore, auditors will have to interview top managers and workers at all levels, to cross-check the information. This is quite a challenge.

When planning an audit, start with the top management (usually the general manager or CEO). Clause 5.1 says top management shall demonstrate leadership and commitment with respect to the XXX management system by: 

  • ensuring that the XXX policy and XXX objectives are established and are compatible with the strategic direction of the organisation;
  • ensuring the integration of the XXX management system requirements into the organisation’s business processes;
  • ensuring that the resources needed for the XXX management system are available;
  • ensuring that the XXX management system achieves its intended outcome(s);
  • communicating the importance of effective XXX management and of conforming to the XXX management system requirements;
  • directing and supporting persons to contribute to the effectiveness of the XXX management system;
  • promoting continual improvement;
  • supporting other relevant management roles to demonstrate their leadership as it applies to their areas of responsibility.

(Note: “XXX” stands for the management system subject matter, i.e.: quality, environment, anti bribery, food safety, IT services, etc.)

The word “ensure” means that responsibility may be delegated, but not the accountability. So, how can “ensuring” be audited? Try by asking questions such as:

  • How do you communicate the policy and objectives, and how do you check if they had been understood by all personnel?
  • Could you please show me how you ensure the consistency with the strategic direction of the organisation?
  • How and when do you check if the management system is achieving the intended outcomes?
  • Do you communicate the results of this check (positive or negative) to relevant personnel?
  • How do you check if there are procedures used by the personnel that are different to the management system procedures?

After, ask people at different levels if top management is demonstrating leadership and commitment. Ask whether they see them walking around the company regularly, if they speak to people at all levels, and if they respond swiftly when incidents occur? Finally, audit the top management again to check consistency with the results.

It is not uncommon to see a difference between what an organisation says and what it actually does. The employees learn rapidly to distinguish the speech from the actions. These contradictory messages are the perfect trigger for distrust in senior management, apathy and cynicism. This affects the management system’s ability to achieve its expected outcomes. It is vital that leadership and commitment are addressed when implementing a management system meeting the requirements of most ISO management system standards.