Understanding ISO: ISO 9001 Quality Management

What does it mean?

Totem Sustainability Founder Ian Dodd gives the low down on ISO 9001 and what it can do for you and your business.

Quality managers, who needs them? Always telling you what to do and not understanding the way the organisation ’really’ works? Unfortunately, this is a complaint I hear all too often, and it’s a sure sign of an ineffective quality management system. Either the operatives don’t understand why they have to perform work in a particular way because it has not been clearly communicated, or the quality manager is not working with the operatives to understand the most effective approach to carry out work. Either way you’re probably heading for a nonconformity. There are lots of articles out there which talk about the benefits of ISO 9001 and its history, so I’m going to cut to the chase. ISO 9001 helps you achieve the following aspirations:

  1. Efficiency: Produce more using less, minimising waste maximises profit.
  2. Organisational Improvement: A better business means happier employees, happy employees are more productive employees.
  3. Customer Satisfaction: Better products and services means happier customers, happier customers means more business.

For most companies these are fundamental to their success, aspirations to work towards. Even still, I often hear the following:

“We’re too small, we don’t need it.”

Technically this is a correct statement. No organisation ‘needs’ an ISO 9001 management system, but it helps. It prompts you to consider things you may not have and it demonstrates to customers that you are serious about them, and if you aspire for your small company to become a medium company, ISO 9001 is a great place to start.

“We’ve been in business for 20 years and haven’t needed it.”

This may well be true, but it doesn’t guarantee you be in business for another 20 years. ISO 9001 helps you plan for the future, consider the risks and plan mitigation. It’s an investment in your future and your legacy.

“We don’t need a standard to tell us how to run our business.”

This is not the intention of the standard. We think of it as a framework which you can apply to the way you already run your business. It adds value, giving you more insight into what is, and is not, working, which you wouldn’t have been able to identify before. It helps you to become the best version of your business.

Many organisations are now requiring their contractors to have ISO 9001 before they’ll consider them for a contract. Typical examples of industries where this is becoming increasingly required include automotive, aeronautical, construction and property development, healthcare, food and government bodies. Even if these don’t apply to your organisation, it simply gives you an advantage over competitors who don’t have certification.

How does ISO 9001 help achieve efficiency, improvement and customer satisfaction?

All ISO standards are now developed following a consistent framework called Annex SL. This breaks the standard down into key areas around which requirements relevant to the objective of the standards are developed. For ISO 9001, the sections can be summarised as follows:

Context of the Organisation

Understand your business better. The first step in making any improvement in life is always to understand your current situation. In this section you’re expected to define the scope of your management system, what’s going to be covered and where. You’ll also look at issue affecting your organisation and the interested parties which can influence you. You can then plan, appropriately, what needs improvement and how best to achieve it. It also leads to an improved knowledge of customers, your market and your organisational aspirations, creating the foundations from which to grow.


Imagine you are a pilot flying a plane. You can control the plane, but you don’t know if the runway is clear, how much other flight traffic there is or if your gate is free. All this information comes from the control tower. The control tower doesn’t need to know how to fly the plane, but everyone can do their job better if there is good communication between the two. It’s no different for a management system. In many organisations the management systems are run by directors, but in others an individual is appointed to run the management system on the behalf of top management. In these situations, it is critically important that the top management are engaged with the management system to ensure it is serving their strategy and vision. If the control tower isn’t communicating well with the plane it might land on the wrong runway. Therefore the standard requires top management to be involved in external audits (in part, often by attending the opening meeting and demonstrating through interview that they communicate appropriate information to the individual responsible for the implementation of the management system) and for the organisation to have policies which demonstrate the top management commitment to the standards ongoing implementation.


Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. This simple saying is so true and sums up the planning section of ISO standards. For ISO 9001, this involves assessing risks to your business and planning how to address them if they come to pass. However, it goes further by prompting the organisation to think about, document and track opportunities too, so your organisation can maximise their business potential. This information is then used to develop the organisations quality objectives. We suggest these are structured similarly to SMART(ER) targets and can be used to monitor the performance of the organisations management system. Finally, it prepares the organisation to respond to changes, whether these are internal or external, and how the management system needs to be updated to
accommodate these.


This is quite a big section, but effectively it is focused on helping you to understand and manage your organisational resources. This includes people and ‘stuff’ (buildings, equipment, services, documents etc.), but also how and what you are going to communicate, and what information you need to keep documented.


This is the section where you finally document what you ‘do’! The section is broken down into activities involving planning products/services, setting/agreeing requirements, design and development, managing external providers, product/service delivery, checking your products/services meet your expectations, and stopping inferior products/services from reaching clients.

In previous versions of the standard you were required to create documented procedures. While this is no longer required, we still recommend this as the best way to document your operations. This may be in a simple written procedure or a flow diagram, or both. Whatever is best for your organisation. Documenting this sets out how you expect your employees to deliver your products and/or services, increasing consistency, efficiency, quality and customer satisfaction. It also provides opportunities to build in performance measurement which can be incorporated into appraisals and business performance reviews.

Performance Evaluation

How do you know what you are doing is working if you don’t measure it? The standard requires organisations to approach this on three fronts:

  • Monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation: The key area identified in the standard for monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation is customer satisfaction, but it could also include production rates, delivery times or defect ratios.
  • Auditing involves formally reviewing how procedures are being implemented to ensure they are fit for purpose and/or they are being followed.
  • Management Review gets all the individuals responsible for the management and implementation of the management system to discuss what is working, what isn’t and how the system can be improved.

These actions help you to either confirm what you are doing is working and helping your business grow, or identify that it is not working and prompt you to change your approach. Without evaluating your performance you might not change until it is too late, or miss out on new opportunities.


Finally, the standard wraps up with a section called improvement. This is effectively the intended output of the standard, all the previous sections are setting your organisation up to help you improve. This is described on two fronts. Firstly, ensuring that any nonconformities are addressed and corrected, and corrective actions implemented to minimise the possibility of the same nonconformity occurring again. Secondly, that the organisation shall continually improve, meaning that it will constantly seek new ways to improve the suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of their management system.

Interested in ISO 9001? We hope this summary of ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems helps you better understand the intended purpose of the standard, and the expectations of your organisation if you choose to pursue certification. If you need any help with implementation, we’d love to hear from you, we have a range of packages and implementation options to suit your needs.

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