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Paula Oddy

Management

Corrective Action Means Opportunity

The key to organizational improvement

Published: Tuesday, March 8, 2016 - 12:35

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As an auditor of quality management systems, I can tell you from firsthand experience that most auditees dislike corrective actions. Corrections are tied to findings of nonconformance; understandably, people generally want to emerge from an audit without any significant findings. But when you look a little more closely at what corrective action is, and what it can do for an organization, the perspective may change.

To understand why findings are important, it’s necessary to step through the corrective-action process to see how it plays out in a “typical” organization. I put the word “typical” in quotes, of course, because there really isn’t such a thing. Every sector and every organization is different, with its own issues and opportunities for improvement. An auditor must avoid simply implementing a kind of playbook for all situations and circumstances. With that said, there are indeed some general principles at work when we undertake this process.

Four steps to address findings

Let’s start with the nonconformance, a finding that is written to a specific issue of critical importance to the function of the audited enterprise. Once that issue is identified, the first task is to contain the situation immediately, cease the production or service procedure that has caused the issue, and where possible, recall any product that may have escaped the facility and ended up in the hands of vendors or the public at large.

Once the bleeding is stopped, you can then take the second step on the path to effective corrective action by beginning to address the root cause of the issue. It’s important here to understand what a root cause is, and what it isn’t. A root cause is NOT:
• A restatement or reframing of the problem
• A direct cause of the situation
• Local in nature

Instead, a true root cause is systemic and often partially or completely hidden from view. More to the point, correcting and removing the root cause of an issue (which is often the root cause of several issues) will not just mitigate the problem, but will eliminate it altogether. Proper root cause analysis should completely prevent the recurrence of the problem.

Root causes can be uncovered using a few discrete tools. The first and most effective (at least as far as I’m concerned) is the five whys. This is just what it sounds like, asking “why” repeatedly until the layers of the onion are peeled back and the irreducible root of the problem is uncovered. Five seems to be the magic number, but sometimes you need fewer, and sometimes more.

For maximum effectiveness, root cause analysis should be considered from two angles. First, one must understand all the physical procedures or processes in which the root cause becomes manifest within the operation. Second, and equally important, one must determine how the problematic situation got beyond inspection and was allowed to escape the facility. These two perspectives on root causes, generally referred to as “occurrence” and “escape,” both must be solved if true corrective action is to be brought to bear on the organization.

After the root cause of the situation is uncovered, the third step in the process is to determine the appropriate corrective action. Again, remember that these corrections should not be local in nature, although local solutions will inevitably spring from the broader correction. It is here where the scope and nature of the organization will be of paramount importance. Smaller “mom-and-pop” type companies may implement different corrective actions than, say, tier one suppliers within the automotive industry. An auditor must bear the context of the organization in mind when validating these corrections. There is no “one-size-fits-all” corrective action plan.

The fourth and final step is to verify the effectiveness of the correction, and to make sure that the root causes have truly been addressed, for good, and that all stakeholders know and are following revised procedures. The overall operational system of the organization must show evidence that the problem has been solved, and the auditor verifies this by walking the process and sampling the system for objective evidence at various points. Again (and this can’t be stressed enough), the system must be fixed, not just the problematic procedure.

Adding value and establishing excellence

The role of certification bodies such as Intertek, and auditors like me, is not to simply find nonconformances within our clients’ processes. Our task is to shine an impartial light on their business functions and help them eliminate ineffective and broken procedures. Our added value in the corrective action process is to ensure that they are operating at the highest possible levels of efficiency and performance excellence. If we do our jobs, and they do theirs, corrective actions will provide a feedback loop that will lead to ever-higher quality for industry everywhere.

To learn more about how to get the most out of your corrective action plans, I encourage you to see Intertek Academy’s training offerings. You can also watch the following video, in which I’m interviewed in depth about this topic.

Discuss

About The Author

Paula Oddy’s picture

Paula Oddy

Paula Oddy is the technical and quality management system manager at Intertek’s business assurance group. She has more than 25 years’ experience in the auditing and certification industry, with extensive quality management system experience with Entela and Intertek. Oddy is responsible for overseeing the technical review of audit files, qualification of auditors, and ongoing training. She holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from Grand Valley State University with a concentration in quality science from Grand Rapids Community College.