Off-the-shelf management systems. Love or loath them?

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As consultants you may think we would be against purchasing off-the-shelf systems.  In fact we believe they have a place & can be incredibly useful, but there are limitations.  We help you decide whether they will be useful to you.

Where can you buy them?

The internet is teeming with companies and individuals that offer electronic download of template ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems, ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems, OHSAS 18001 or AS 4801 Safety Management Systems or ISO 17025 management systems.  Just do a Google search and see what you can find.

How do they work?

Well there are some pretty basic options to some rather clever ones out there.  From basic word processed files that you edit to suit your requirements to advanced databases that populate documents based on your answers to a string of questions.  The word processed option should give you complete control and flexibility, but means that generating your documents can be much slower.  The other extreme can be very quick to produce, but can leave you with little control over content (except your editable fields) and in the worst cases customisations can be either impossible or have to be implemented by the supplier.

What are they like?

We find that some off the shelf systems are well structured and well written and some are not so good (like consultants)!  Word processed documents are fine, but then you still have to work out how you are going to share and control that information within the company.  Online database systems can be great and can have some great features such as automatic change notifications, search engines and hyperlinking, but in some cases require editors to have specialist skills or in the worst cases require the supplier’s assistance in order to update.

However no off the shelf system can meet all your requirements.  We’ll come onto this later (or skip to limitations of off-the-shelf systems).

How much do they cost?

In Australia systems seem to cost anything from several hundred dollars to several thousand, but if you are buying an off-the-shelf management system why not look internationally as the standards (except AS 4801) are international standards and I am sure that you will find them cheaper in countries where the cost of living is not so high.  However make sure that you get to see examples of their work before you pay any money.  The last thing you want to do is pay someone for something that is so badly written you’ll have to rewrite it yourself.

So why would anyone want to use a consultant?

From our perspective a consultant won’t necessarily cost you more, but what you get is exactly what you need and no more.  We come to your site and develop a system around your needs.  For instance if you don’t do design we can exclude that from your ISO 9001 Certification.  If you already have a process that is working we can include that in your system.

What are the major limitations of off-the-shelf systems?

The major limitation of them is that they will never be an entire system.  This may sound like an arrogant statement for us to make, but think about it.  How could you download a complete management system that will address all your environmental aspects, your safety risks and your quality requirements when every company is different?  How could a system for a market research company also meet the requirements of a company drilling for oil?  It can’t, so when you buy these systems what you get are very generic, high-level management documents that will never on their own get you through certification.  You will still need to develop some of your own procedures.  And if you knew what to document and had the skills and the time to write procedures wouldn’t you write the entire system?  We believe so, which is why a proportion of our customers have paid for these downloaded systems only to abandon them and get us to do the job properly.

I’m still considering downloading a management system.

If you are still considering it, then to give you the best chance of success, we recommend you use the following as a checklist for selecting your supplier and then review the next section to see if you have what it takes to complete the task:

  • they can provide samples of their work
  • they can provide references from happy customers
  • they are experienced and suitably qualified to provide the guidance they offer

4 criteria for the successful development of a management system from a template

Do you meet the criteria we believe are required for the successful development of a working management system from an off-the-shelf template system?  Check below to see if we think you have what it takes:

  1. a good understanding of the requirements of
    • the relevant standards
    • the law
    • the requirements of certification
      (although Certification Bodies will usually help)
  1. the time and motivation to complete the task
  2. able to break tasks down into logical steps
  3. the ability to write procedures clearly and concisely, in sufficient detail to meet requirements, whilst keeping maintenance to a minimum. If you need help with this one you might want to read this article How to write a procedure


A word from the Managing Director: “We aim to establish long term, mutually beneficial working relationships, helping organisations grow and avoid the pitfalls that many fall into. Too many organisations feel their certification is a burden. We want to help organisations realise the business benefits of certification apart from meeting a statutory or customer requirement”