What Snakes and Ladders means to a top environmental standard

What Snakes and Ladders means to a top environmental standard

In the game of Snakes and Ladders, the goal is to move up, helped or hindered by these two icons representing vices and virtues. It's an appropriate metaphor for the changes being considered in the revision of ISO 14001, the environmental management standard.

A "ladder" change would enhance a user’s move to better environmental management, whereas a "snake" change merely would add bureaucracy and cost, discouraging existing and future users and undermine the value of this framework from the International Organization for Standardization.

Did you even know that ISO 14001 is up for revision? Well, it is. Profound changes are being tabled in the international forum. ISO 14001, the standard for environmental management systems, has been in play since 1996 with only one revision in 2004, which was largely cosmetic.

Reviewing a standard normally occurs every five years. Timing on revising ISO 14001 was pushed back to align the process with ISO’s other flagship standard, ISO 9001, for quality management.

However, this time radical core changes are being considered. Of concern to some negotiators is that the user community seems unaware of the fundamental changes being proposed. For example, ISO has introduced a new framework with the intention that all management system standards will use it. To conform to the High Level Structure (HLS), standards developers have been asked to use an identical clause structure and text, and to enhance consistency through the use of common terms and core definitions.

The purpose of the High Level Structure is to help efficiently manage multiple interests where the user decides to integrate more than one standard into their business process. The theory is that the High Level Structure can enable better management control over areas, such as quality, safety, risk, energy and, of course, the environment.

It sounds like a reasonable idea, doesn’t it? The devil is in the details, however, and some standard users already have said “No” to the HLS for one standard, ISO 16949, the automotive industry’s adaptation of ISO 9001. They perceive that the HLS won't improve the performance of the global automotive supply chain. The "virtue" of their standard, their core values if you will, would be undermined by the fragmentation introduced by the HLS. At least three other standards have opted not to use clause 9 of the HLS.

Other concerns raised by some "in the know" view the HLS as a step backwards from the systems concept of Plan, Do, Check and Act, or PDCA. There will be added costs. At the least, users with an existing environmental management system will have to reconfigure their documentation.

Will this add value to users? Will it only add value to those that have adopted multiple systems, as long as they don’t use the quality standard for the automotive industry, ISO 16949?

Image by Eric Edelman, via Fine Art America

Other propsed changes are directly tied to the subject matter of an environmental management system. Unquestionably, some will add requirements to ISO 14001. Three questions rise to the forefront. Will these additional requirements enhance environmental performance? Will they help users address opportunities for a more robust, credible and reliable environmental management system? Will these changes attract more users to ISO 14001?

One failing of ISO standards to date has been that, by and large, small and medium-sized enterprise has not adopted either ISO 14001 or ISO 9001. Therefore, ISO is unfortunately perceived as a 1 percent solution, meaning that only the big companies with deep pockets can afford it. So its "vice" is the perception that it is a "just for some" opportunity. The ISO community holds the number of certificates held as our indicator of success (see table below). When global adoption of ISO 14001 (and ISO 9001) is less than 1 percent of the market, shouldn’t our primary goal be to make sure the revision delivers a better and more user friendly standard?

To help users get a better handle on the proposed changes to ISO 14001, a pay-per-view, on-demand webinar is available on GFTG TV. Participants get access to the High Level Structure from the ISO Directives, and a link to clause 4 of the requirements, which are captured verbatim in a European law. Now is a critical time in the revision process for users to get involved. Globally, users have over $18 billion invested in the start-up of their ISO 14001 systems. Will the benefits of change be worth the cost?

Users need to start asking some hard questions. If these changes bring better environmental performance and avert another Deepwater Horizon, that’s a move up the ladder, right? If these changes broaden adoption, that also would be a move up the ladder. To date, based on the number of certificates held, when a certificate does not equal the number of companies, governments and NGOs involved, the game board has stayed small. Some users have as many as 150 certificates or more. ISO has failed to attract the more than 143 million legally constituted small businesses in this world to embrace better management of their environmental relationship using the standard. Getting even 10 percent of them involved would be another move up the ladder, and a significant one. It would also greatly expand the size of the board.

But if the HLS undermines the value of ISO 14001, if it drives existing users away, if it fails to attract small business, it could be a fast slide down the snake’s back to ground zero. No one wins if you have to start the game over. 

Watch "The Revision of ISO 14001: What’s In It For You?" Engage in a critical conversation on the revision of ISO 14001. Tweet #14KRev

Image by Eric Edelman, via Fine Art America