ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1 – Leadership and Commitment

an open notebook with assorted business symbols and captions in black, such as “leadership”, “encouraging innovation” and “communicating with others”

The latest article in this series gets up close and personal with ISO 9001 Clause 5.1, or more specifically, to ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1 – Leadership and Commitment.

We’ll take a look at what it is, and where it fits in the greater scheme of the ISO standard. But first, let’s briefly set the scene with regards to the ISO 9001 standard.

In December 2021, the International Organisation for Standardisation (the main ISO body) reported “over one million companies and organizations in over 170 countries certified to ISO 9001:2015.  What’s more, this number continues to increase year on year, for many and varied good reasons.

But there’s one not so small catch… ISO 9001 might just be the most confusing document in business history!

The good news is this series of articles and accompanying free factsheets are purpose designed to:

  • Cut through the jargon
  • Debunk the myths
  • Make smoother sailing of your journey to certification

Without further delay, let’s examine ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1 – Leadership and Commitment – in closer detail.

What’s the Purpose of ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1 – Leadership and Commitment?

In the most simplistic terms, this clause exists to do pretty much what it says on the tin – ensuring senior management demonstrates leadership and commitment to the quality management system (QMS).

In terms of who ‘leadership’ refers to, it might include your Chairperson, Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director, General Manager, Executive Directors, Manging Partners. You get the drift. It’s basically the ladies and gents at the top of the organisational structure.

You can demonstrate your leadership and commitment by:

  • Taking an active role in engaging, promoting, and communicating within the business
  • Monitoring performance and effectiveness

Bear in mind that ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1 can be applied in practice in many ways. It depends on various factors, such as the size and complexity of your business, your management style and your organisational culture.

What About the Commitments in ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1?

In the 2008 version of ISO 9001, there were just four items referencing the commitments top management needed to demonstrate. But things have moved on considerably since then. In fact, the latest version of ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1 holds leaders to eleven different commitments.

Before we progress through the list of commitments, you might notice several start with the word “ensure”. It’s a repeated reminder that your leadership team needs to corroborate and verify everything, even when there isn’t any hands-on involvement with the tasks in question. In essence, things can be delegated, but the buck stops with the leadership team in terms of reviewing the outcomes.

Here are the 11 commitments as stipulated in ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1:

1. Be Accountable for the QMS

Listen up. It’s NOT the responsibility of a management representative, the Quality Manager, the Shift Leader or anyone else if things don’t work out as expected. That’s why this powerful requirement challenges business leaders to take ultimate responsibility for the outcome of the QMS.  

This commitment underlines the importance of top management taking a proactive role in the implementation and continual improvement of the QMS. For these purposes, the management review process is a key tool for guaranteeing this happens.

a heap of scrabble tiles on a desk with a row spelling out accountable alongside a pair of glasses in an open case

2. Ensure the Quality Policy and Quality Objectives are Established and Consistent with the Business Strategy

This commitment has dual requirements, so let’s break them down: 

  • Quality policy and objectives – Firstly, senior management needs to make sure there are quality policy and objectives in place. These documents are fundamental. So, it’s likely top management are hands on in their development and maintenance.
  • Alignment with strategic direction of the business – Secondly, the quality policy and objectives must align with the overall strategic direction of the business.  Say you’ve got a five-year business plan. You can align the two, by ensuring the management system supports the business in achieving its broader objectives. In addition, your quality policy and objectives should also be compatible with the context of the organisation.

3. Ensure the QMS is Integrated Within the Business

Your QMS isn’t just a certificate on the wall and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, only to be dusted off when it’s audit time. On the contrary, your QMS processes should be interwoven throughout your business and in its DNA. The importance of this commitment can’t be overstated. In fact, an auditor will want to see evidence of your processes in action. So, beware! If there’s any lip service going on, they’ll spot it.

4. Promote the Process Approach and Risk-Based Thinking

In Clause 4.4 – Quality Management System and it’s Processes, we looked at the process approach, and an effective way to document the processes required by the standard. To recap, the process approach refers to end-to-end management of activities across every touchpoint of a process, rather than just performing part/s of it.

The additional part of this requirement in ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1  is risk-based thinking. In other words, it’s a systematic application of information, knowledge, and actions to address any areas of uncertainty, which can mean potential opportunities besides threats.

a pair of hands at a desk holding a tablet with risk on it surrounded by a coffee mug a plant and a pile of opened letters

5. Ensure Sufficient Resources for the QMS

Once again, it’s over to top management to provide the necessary resources, which might include but isn’t limited to:

  • Personnel
  • Training requirements
  • IT requirements
  • Outsourced consultants

6. Communicate the Value and Benefits of the QMS and Why it’s Important to Comply

This definitely isn’t up for delegation, because it’s down to top management to add gravitas by putting your weight behind the QMS. It says to the team “Our QMS is important to us and the business, it should be important to you, too”. This means leading from the front and walking the walk, besides talking the talk.

After all, a demonstration of involvement with the QMS goes a long way. This might mean:

  • Having a hand in corrective actions
  • Analysing customer feedback
  • Participating in internal audits
  • Sharing the results of management reviews with the business

7. Ensure the QMS Achieves its Intended Results

A QMS requires significant investment, in terms of both time and money. So, there needs to be a benefit to the business, whether it’s enhanced customer satisfaction, greater profitability or a more engaged workforce.

To this end, monitoring its impact on your objectives is a surefire way of benchmarking the QMS and justifying ROI.

8. Show Leadership through Engagement, Direction and Support

Yet another commitment of ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1 that needs to be fulfilled by top management alone. So, how does leadership through engagement, direction and support work in action? Well, it could mean serving as a project champion in an area where improvements are needed, and encouraging others to get involved with improvement teams. 

On top of that, senior management should also directly oversee the employees who are engaged with the continual improvement of the QMS. Management reviews are a persuasive way to demonstrate this.

a compass drawn in black on rustic woods with a group of white paper chatterboxes and a single bright blue one

9. Encourage Improvement Activities

It goes a long way if senior managers are able get directly involved in the improvement activities. But what if first hand participation isn’t an option? Top management need to constantly maintain a bigger picture overview of improvement activities within the business, in order to communicate support and promote the efforts of those involved. 

10. Provide Support and Guidance to Other Managers

This commitment urges top management to support other managers, on a departmental and / or regional basis for example, to follow suit in their own specific areas of influence. This might include monitoring and supporting managers to make specific decisions around great conformity to requirements, or to drive improvements.

11. Effective Leadership and Commitment

It can’t be overstated that top-down commitment nurtures engagement with the QMS. You can promote investment across all levels by helping employees understand their individual and shared contributions. It will serve you well, by better placing you to consistently achieve your objectives, by working together as a cohesive team.

Two Most Commonly Asked Questions About ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1

Question – “The Managing Director has assigned the Operations Manager as top management for the quality management system. Is this ok?”

Answer – No. Top management refers to the person or people who lead the business at the highest levels, within the defined scope of the QMS.  This responsibility can’t be delegated.

Question – Do we have to keep a record of how top management show compliance with all aspects of this clause?

Answer – ISO 9001:2015 doesn’t require you to retain documented evidence of this. But it’s worth bearing in mind an auditor will want to speak with top management during audits. If an auditor has any doubts, they might even speak to other staff to confirm leadership commitment. So, it will become evident if senior management haven’t fulfilled their duties. ISO 9001 Clause 5.1.1 is a compelling tool for mitigating any potential issues in this area.

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