High Level Structure: The Basis of Management System Standards

In 2022, the High Level Structure will celebrate its tenth anniversary. As the basic structure for management system standards, its uniform definitions and identical structure make it easier to apply different standards. In this BloQ article, we take a closer look at the High Level Structure and its advantages.

Advantages of the High Level Structure for Companies

More clarity in the standards jungle: the large number of industry and sector-specific standards and definitions meant that the content of standards was becoming increasingly confusing for all those involved. What was needed was a solution that would enable simple integration of the various management system standards. With the High Level Structure, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) therefore introduced a uniform basic structure. It enables companies to save time and costs, as they can reconcile their various management systems much more efficiently.

The High Level Structure itself was developed as an internal ISO process description and not for direct application in the company. Nevertheless, there are many advantages for users of the management system standards based on it – quite apart from the simpler integration of different standards. For example, there is a better understanding on the part of the employees, since standard requirements are formulated similarly across the various management system standards. In addition, the auditing of management systems is significantly less expensive and faster due to the High Level Structure. This is especially true when companies are certified in several areas at once.

The High Level Structure Is Structured as Follows

The main objective of the basic structure is uniformity – across all areas. The High Level Structure provides for identical standard sections, uniform article numbers and chapter headings for all management system standards. It comprises a total of 10 sections, which are now specified in all ISO management systems. The chapters at a glance:

  1. Scope of Application
  2. Normative References
  3. Terms
  4. Context of the Organization
  5. Leadership
  6. Planning
  7. Support
  8. Operation
  9. Performance Evaluation
  10. Improvement

While the basic structure has not introduced any new topics per se, it does place particular focus on individual components. Sections 4 to 10 in particular are relevant to certification. These are also the sections that are compatible with the PDCA cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act). Here, the individual chapters are assigned to the respective phases of the cycle: “Plan” covers chapters 4 to 6, “Do” 7 as well as 8, “Check” 9 and “Act” section 10.

Today, the most important standard in quality management, ISO 9001, is also structured and published according to the High Level Structure. With the revision ISO 9001:2015, the uniform basic structure was adopted – thus it was the first management system standard to benefit from the advantages of the High Level Structure.

The Way to an Integrated Management System (IMS)

As mentioned, there is one elementary advantage that the High Level Structure offers companies: different management system standards can be integrated more easily thanks to the uniform basic structure. Methods that serve to fulfill requirements from the individual areas are simply combined. This enables companies to make more efficient use of synergies and their resources.

In addition to quality management, management system standards from the areas of environmental protection, occupational health and safety, energy management and information security are also taken into account. If companies no longer view these management systems in isolation, but holistically, they pursue the approach of an integrated management system. In other words, they combine several focal points in a central system. Although it is possible to integrate standards into a holistic system without the High Level Structure, the many advantages offered by the basic ISO structure mean that this can be done much more quickly and with less effort.

Such an integrated management system ultimately enables leaner as well as more efficient management. It also reduces the risk of silo thinking – after all, we all know it when someone only has his or her department in mind … But there are also very practical advantages for companies: reduced costs, less bureaucracy, optimized processes and less maintenance are just a few of them. The development from individually considered management systems to the IMS thus pays off for companies in many ways.

The Harmonized Structure replaces the High Level Structure

By the way: in May 2021, the so called Harmonized Structure replaced the High Level Structure. This means that from now on the Harmonized Structure will be used for the development of new and future revisions of existing ISO management system standards. The core elements of the HLS remain the same for the Harmonized Structure. Essentially, the change is about some clarifications and nuances that have been introduced.

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