Responsibility and authority – their meanings in management systems

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There is a requirement in the standards for management systems that is written in just one sentence, but that is part of the fundamentals of these systems. This is the requirement regarding organizational roles, responsibilities and authorities. “Top management must ensure that responsibilities and authorities for relevant roles are assigned, communicated and understood within the organization”.

One sentence… the chance of not being understood in all its depth is great. Starting with the fact that it is often confused with the job descriptions – an activity of personnel management – ​​of HR. Which can be – and should be – integrated and complementary to the management system, but which, by itself, does not respond to what is being sought by the normative requirement.

Also, note that the word “position” is not used in the rules, but “role”; and relevant paper. That is, it refers to people whose activities interfere with the results and objectives planned for the management system in question – whatever the position they have.Next, let’s make it clear that there is a difference between responsibility and authority. And knowing this difference is essential.

Accountability can be understood as what a function is expected to do within the management system – its activities.

As an authority, it can be understood as what this function is expected to decide within the management system – its decision-making power – its functional autonomy. As for responsibilities, understanding does not pose major difficulties: things must be done and it is necessary that the people responsible for doing them know what, how and when to do it.

As for authority, the understanding is not so obvious. Authority is usually understood as headship or power of command. But not in the management system standards. At all organizational levels – strategic, tactical and operational – decisions are made. And taken in the execution of everyday tasks – on a day-to-day basis – and not just on a special occasion called “strategic planning”.

A seller who has the authority to accept an order establishes a contract with the customer. The same for the buyer, in reverse.

A quality control analyst who has the authority to approve a product can be the last barrier to any deficiencies in that product not going to the customer. The costs of external failures – returns and warranties – are always higher than those of internal failures – scrap and rework.

What about the production operator who has the authority to adjust his own machine, or the mechanic who releases a machine for production?We are talking about impacts on quality – which are always more explicit – but it is enough to use the same reasoning for environmental or occupational health and safety risks.

And yes, it is these roles that must make these decisions. They are usually the people who best understand what is being decided and who are closest to the place and time when the decision must be made.This is why management system standards make it clear that such authorities must be assigned the functions determined – by the organization’s management – ​​and communicated. Authority comes from whoever holds the power, and that is delegated.

And also why there is a determination that this attribution of authority is understood by whoever receives it: “it is you who must decide on this, do not wait for someone else to decide for you – they do not have the authority to do so and will not do so”.Once the importance of defining authorities and responsibilities within management systems is understood, it is possible to address two other fundamental requirements of the standards: competence and awareness.