Sustainable ISO 9001 for Small Businesses
Future-Proof Your ISO 9001 Quality Management System

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The rewards that small businesses can gain from ISO 9001 certification are wide-ranging and include both operational and marketing benefits. However, it's important to realize that the implementation process does require an investment of time, money and effort, and the initial certification isn't the endpoint if you want to keep those benefits long-term. Updates in the ISO 9001 standard, changes in the business environment, and the availability of key personnel can all impact on the continued sustainability of your ISO 9001 certification and underlying quality management system. If you don't think ahead, these issues can create a mountain of woes and frustrations for those businesses that rely on ISO 9001 certification for their continued success.

Prepare for changes to future-proof your ISO 9001 system

This article explores ways for organizations, especially small companies, to future-proof their ISO 9001 quality management system, make it easier for them to adapt to changes, and maintain certification long-term.

The Challenges of Maintaining ISO 9001

Three key issues can pose a challenge for all organizations seeking to maintain their ISO 9001 certification but are often amplified for smaller organizations because of the scarcity of resources.

Changes in the ISO 9001 Standard

The ISO 9001 standard changes regularly. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) revises the standard every six to eight years "to keep it current and relevant for the marketplace." Since the publication of the original ISO 9000 series in 1987, ISO 9001 has been revised in 1994, 2000, 2008, and most recently in 2015. Some of the updates contained minimal changes, whereas others reorganized the structure and introduced numerous new and modified requirements.

As requirements change, ISO 9001 certified companies need to update their documentation and processes during a three-year transition period and have their compliance verified through an audit.

The effort an organization requires to transition to each new standard effectively is influenced by how they've applied the previous standard to their processes. Companies who develop their quality management system with a focus on business improvement and keep future updates and organizational changes in mind find the changeover process straightforward, requiring only minor cost and effort.

Those who don't, require considerably more time and resources to update their systems, processes, and documentation - often resulting in failure to retain certification.

Competition for Resources

Maintaining ISO 9001 certification requires continual internal efforts, expenses and periodic (typically annual or semi-annual) "surveillance audits". When business conditions get tough, management will usually look at ways to cut expenses and will zero in on areas that don't provide clear benefits and positive outcomes.

Cuts to the quality budget can impact on the effectiveness of the ISO 9001 system and result in a downward spiral. Without adequate resources, the processes of the quality management system will suffer and its benefits can reduce or disappear. A cycle of diminishing benefits resulting in reduced funding will render the ISO 9001 system ineffective and make certification unsustainable.

Reliance on Too Few Key Personnel

When an organization relies on one individual or a small group of people to manage all aspects of ISO 9001, it poses a risk to the long-term sustainability of the system. Staff turnover is a fact of business.

If the knowledge and expertise about how your ISO system operates reside solely within the Quality Manager, a discrete Quality Department, or even worse, an external consultant, there is a high risk to the sustainability of your ISO 9001 certification. If they depart, it can have a devastating impact if you don't have a robust succession planning and knowledge management process in place. This is true of any size organization but is especially pertinent to ISO 9001 at small businesses.

Strategies for Future-Proofing ISO 9001

1 Streamline Your Documentation

We recommend you adopt a "simplified" approach to your documentation and document control procedure. If you make your documents too complicated, the cost and effort to maintain them will outweigh any benefits of creating them in the first place.

To simplify your documentation, we recommend you:

Only document those aspects that are useful to run your business effectively.

Keep your numbering and identification system simple and don't link documents to specific clauses of the standard. That way, if the standard changes you don't have to amend every document in your system.

Don't mention specific clauses of the standard within your procedures.

Use pictures, flowcharts, forms and checklists instead of long-winded pages of text. People are more likely to read and understand a simple diagram or visual representation than thousands of words.

Write your documentation in clear language that reflects the vernacular of your organization and industry rather than using "standard speak." It's not only more user-friendly but also won't put you in the bind of updating when ISO 9001 changes terminology.

Mention positions or job titles for responsibilities rather than names of individuals.

Use flexible and customizable document templates that you can change to reflect your business, rather than those set up to rigidly follow the standard.

Using these tips will ensure your documentation supports your company's operations and requires minimal effort to maintain, even when the ISO 9001 standard inevitably changes again.

2 Focus on Benefits Rather Than Compliance

Simplifying your ISO 9001 system is the best way of minimizing associated costs. However, every time the economic cycle wanes and tough budget decisions are required, it will become necessary to justify expenses. To do this, you need to understand, measure and demonstrate the benefits gained from your quality management system.

For example, many small businesses should be able to gain - and measure - the following benefits:

reduction in costly errors and waste

lower warranty claims and repairs

increased customer satisfaction

productivity gains

increased sales

access to new markets

Implementing the following recommendations will make it easier to sustain your ISO 9001 system in times of difficult economic conditions:

Define the potential benefits of the ISO 9001 system

Develop goals, quality objectives and plans to achieve them

Monitor associated performance measures

Regularly communicate progress and success

You might find our free guide explaining how to identify and leverage the benefits of ISO 9001:2015 useful for this step.

3 Get All Your Employees Involved

Getting all of your employees involved in the quality management system is a critical - though often overlooked - factor in sustaining ISO 9001. This principle is particularly important when adopting ISO 9001 at small enterprises.

When everyone is already busy, and there's not much fat in the system, the temptation to have one person responsible for certification, while everyone else gets on with the 'real business' can be strong. However, take that person out of the picture for any reason, and your organization will experience challenges in maintaining your ISO 9001 certification.

To make your ISO 9001 quality management system (QMS) robust and sustainable:

Recognize that your QMS is not just the Quality Representative, Manager or Department's responsibility. You should ensure as many people as possible understand the requirements of the standard, how the business has applied them, and how they apply to each individual's role and work area.

Disseminate knowledge and expertise about how your QMS works and supports your business through training, education and your communications plan.

Have a succession plan for critical personnel so your QMS will still function and thrive in their absence.

Regularly communicate progress, improvements and positive outcomes that result from the QMS to keep your team motivated and enthusiastic about their involvement. People want to know "what's in it for them" and how their efforts have contributed to success.

Leverage your internal audit program and get more people involved as both internal auditors and auditees. It's one of the most effective ways of spreading knowledge and expertise across your business.

We've identified some useful strategies to help you get your employees involved with your QMS in a free guide.

4 Build Continuous Improvement into Your Business

Continuously improving your business is fundamental to sustaining your business as well as your ISO 9001 system long-term. Utilizing a well-designed ISO 9001 quality system in your day-to-day operations can be the ideal driver for ongoing improvement.

Key to success is fully integrating your quality management system into your daily business operations rather than keeping it a a discrete entity. Follow these tips:

Use the information and data generated by your QMS such as internal audit findings, management review outcomes, corrective action reports, and risk assessments to support decisions at all levels of the organization.

Communicate the reasons for proposed changes, the supporting evidence and projected outcomes, including performance measures (i.e., how you will know if the initiative has been a success) to those who will be affected.

Utilize the pertinent tools of your ISO 9001 system (document control, training and education processes) to promulgate the changes and ensure all relevant personnel are informed and up to speed on what they need to do differently.

If everyone throughout the organization understands why changes need to occur, what they will mean for them, and then experiences the resulting improvements, the continuous improvement process driven by your QMS becomes part of their normal routine.

When the standard inevitably updates, transitioning to the new requirements will be part of this routine.

5 Expand the Role of your QMS by Adopting ISO 9004 Guidelines

Once you have the basics of your QMS in place and you've achieved certification to ISO 9001, you might consider adopting some of the recommendations contained within ISO 9004.

The guidelines contained in the ISO 9004 standard serve as complementary information rather than requirements for you to retain certification. They do, however, provide excellent advice on the use of improvement methodologies and build on the framework established by ISO 9001 itself. Think of them as "things to consider" that might help your organization improve even further.

As ISO 9004 is completely optional, you can pick and choose the parts you consider most useful to enhance your business and help you on your journey to sustained, long-term success.

6 Take Your Time

When the ISO 9001 standard inevitably changes, you don't need to rush to update your processes and documentation. We recommend that you start your upgrade approximately half way into the three-year transition period.

If you have followed our strategies above, if your ISO 9001 system is helping to build the business, it's likely you won't have to change much at all, AND it will be easy to justify the resources required. Careful consideration of how to apply the new requirements (rather than rushing) will ensure your QMS continues to improve, remains sustainable, and supports your long-term success.


Nothing is as constant as change, and that goes for maintaining your quality management system and ISO 9001 certification. New standards, downturns in the economy and changes in key personnel will all have an impact. Dealing with that change can prove a challenge for organizations who don't acknowledge and plan for it.

However, if you simplify your QMS documentation, focus on realizing all the potential benefits rather than on compliance, involve all your employees, and build continuous improvement into the way you operate you will cope with each transition and challenge with less effort and resources and create a more sustainable business long term.


9001Simplified has been helping clients to adopt a sustainable approach to ISO 9001 for over 15 years. We understand the importance of maintaining your ISO 9001 system long-term and know how to cope with changes on multiple fronts. Our "simplified" approach acknowledges that change is inevitable and all our tools, templates and training courses are designed with this in mind. When the ISO 9001 standard gets revised, 9001Simplified offers upgrade packages that minimize your update efforts. Our customers receive these upgrades for free or for a minimal charge.

If you're struggling with an unsustainable ISO 9001 system that doesn't cope well with change, feel free to get in touch and see how we can assist. Or take a look at our most recent upgrade package if you missed the transition deadline to ISO 9001:2015.


    What concerns do you have about maintaining ISO 9001 long-term. Let us know in the comments below (all relevant, respectful feedback is welcomed per our guidelines).

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