The High Level Structure (HLS) was introduced by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to give management system standards a uniform structure and similar core content. The aim behind this is to improve the alignment of different ISO standards by means of a cross-standard structure.

The HLS also serves as a guideline for the development of future standards, so that in the long term all ISO standards for management systems will contain the same overarching structure, common core requirements and common terms and definitions.

The rules for the High Level Structure and the core contents are available in the Annex "Harmonized Approach to Management System Standards" (Annex SL) of the current ISO/IEC

Directives as public information available at ISO: Download Annex S

Definition of High Level Structure

The High Level Structure (HLS) is a guideline for the development of new standards, which brings the structure and requirements of ISO management system standards to a common denominator and thus harmonizes them. With the HLS, ISO also pursues the goal of ensuring the uniform use of core texts, terms and definitions. Above all, however, the common basic requirements promote the integration of management systems in a company.

This keeps the management system lean and efficient, while still effectively meeting all the needs and expectations of interested parties. Other keywords include: Context of the organization, leadership and commitment, process orientation, and the risk-based approach.

The structure of the HLS

The High Level Structure has a strong focus on top management and the context of the organization (Chapter 4 and Chapter 5). The basic structure always consists of ten chapters:

  1. Scope
  2. Normative references: both sections contain standard-specific wording and define the objectives
  3. Terms and definitions: Reference to the general terms presented in Appendix SL and any terms specific to the standard.
  4. Context of the organization: understanding of internal and external matters, the needs and expectations of relevant interested parties, the management system and its scope of application
  5. Leadership: top management responsibility and commitment, policies, organizational functions, roles, responsibilities, and authorities
  6. Planning: measures to manage risks and opportunities, quality objectives, and plans to achieve them
  7. Support: necessary resources, competence, awareness, communication, and documented information
  8. Operations: operational planning and governance
  9. Performance evaluation: monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation, internal audit, management review
  10. Improvement: nonconformity, corrective action, and continuous improvement.

The subchapters of individual standards vary by topic around the subject-specific content of a standard. For example, the ISO 9001 quality management standard has more subchapters under Chapter 5 than the ISO 14001 standard for environmental management systems.

Chapters 4 to 10 are of particular relevance for the certification of management systems, not least because the PDCA cycle and thus the continuous improvement process can also be found here.

Important to know: HLS and PDCA

The chapters of the High Level Structure are based on the PDCA cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act. The following chapters are assigned to the individual PDCA phases:

  • Plan: Chapters 4, 5 and 6
  • Do: Chapters 7and 8
  • Check: Chapter 9
  • Act: Chapter 10

Which standards follow the High Level Structure?

All modern ISO management system standards are based on the common basic structure - High Level Structure. These include the ISO standards for
Quality management: ISO 9001
Environmental protection: ISO 14001
Occupational health and safety: ISO 45001
Energy management: ISO 50001
Information security: ISO 27001

Integrated management system with a common structure - the evolution

With the publication of the ISO 50001 energy management standard at the end of August 2018, the last of the big five ISO management system standards was also equipped with the High Level Structure (HLS). This basic structure also establishes uniform basic texts for the core requirements of management systems as well as common designations and basic definitions. In this way, different systems should merge more easily and become one integrated management system.

When the information security standard ISO 27001 appeared in 2013, it was the first of the more significant ISO standards to be based on HLS. However, it is only since the major revision of ISO 9001 (quality management) and ISO 14001 (environmental management) in 2015 that the common basic structure has become known to a wider range of users. In March 2018, ISO 45001 (occupational health and safety) was added, and in August 2018, ISO 50001 (energy management).

Today it can be said that with the common basic structure, the High Level Structure, an integrated management system is significantly more efficient. The innovations have proven their worth, and without reservation: organizations whose management system - for example, according to ISO 9001 - is built on the basis of the High Level Structure have a noticeable advantage in the integration and implementation of further, topic-specific requirements.

Advantages and benefits of the High Level Structure

The application of several standards in an integrated management system becomes much easier, for example in the combination of quality management and information security. This is especially true if the fundamental requirement of all applied sets of rules is met: namely, the full integration of the respective standard requirements into the existing management system and thus into the general business processes of a company.

Here is an overview of the main advantages:

  • The uniform structure and the use of identical core texts, terms and definitions make it easier for users to understand a standard.
  • Thanks to the standardization, further management systems can be integrated more quickly into an existing system; in most cases, ISO 9001 forms the starting point.
  • With HLS, the introduction of several management systems, for example quality, environment, information security, becomes much simpler and more efficient. Duplication of work and effort in documentation are also reduced.
  • With an integrated management system, audits (internal and external) can be carried out more easily, or according to several standards at the same time, and synergies can be used.

Does an integrated management system with a common structure have disadvantages?

Although the relevant management system standards ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 27001 and ISO 50001 already had certain common features in terms of structure and content, it was not until HLS that a structure was created that makes it much easier, if not possible at all, to integrate the requirements of different sets of regulations right down to the last corners of a company. This is particularly evident in the case of occupational safety and health with the High Level Structure in ISO 45001.

If a company uses an integrated management system with a common structure, this does not result in any disadvantages - neither from the uniform structure nor from the terminology. There is also no requirement that the terminology must be used in the documented information of a company.

In ISO 9001:2015 , you will find two informative annexes. While these do not contain requirements, they are recommended.

  • Annex A: Clarification of new structure, terminology and concepts.
  • Annex B: Other international standards on quality management and quality management systems.

DQS - Auditing your integrated management system with added value

Companies with an integrated management system based on the High Level Structure pursue the goal of avoiding interface problems and duplications, bundling resources and utilizing synergies - in other words, taking a holistic view of their operational processes. And that's exactly how our auditors audit.

The combined, simultaneous certification of an integrated management system offers numerous opportunities thanks to the cross-thematic approach. For example, a DQS audit not only identifies potential for improvement, but also contradictions between the different subject areas.

It is important to us that you perceive our audit not as an audit, but as an enrichment for your management system. Our claim always begins where audit checklists end. Take us at our word!

Ute Droege

DQS expert for quality management systems, long-time auditor and experienced trainer for ISO 9001.