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Columnist Jack West

Photo:  Jack West


Taking Corrective Action Seriously

Managers must promote problem-solving skills.



Quality professionals often say things like, “The audit program is the centerpiece of our quality system,” or, “Management review is the heart and soul of the system,” or even, “Customer satisfaction is the most important thing we manage.” We seldom hear that corrective action is as important as these items, yet only by continually correcting the causes of things that go wrong can we improve our ability to meet customer needs. Unfortunately, corrective action doesn’t even register on the radar screen when most quality managers think about “important” processes. One reason is that corrective action isn’t always the right thing to do, as in the following examples:

We already know the cause, so there’s no need to find it. However, we might be able to list several possible cause/ removal actions and decide if any of these actions will correct the cause in a cost-effective manner. If such an action exists, we should take it.

There’s no effective, efficient corrective action available. Perhaps the most economical action is too expensive to implement quickly. Perhaps we’ll need capital investment to update technology. Or we might simply decide that we have much higher priorities. Perhaps other quality problems face us that are far more important to our customers.

We have a very bad situation, but we don’t need to know or correct the cause. Sometimes disastrous things happen with a process we might never use again. In other words, we must deal with the nonconforming situation, although the cause itself is irrelevant. Suppose, for example, you take a once-in-a-lifetime boat ride down a swift river. If you fall out of the boat, your immediate actions must involve getting back in, not worrying about why you fell out in the first place. If you never intend to get on another boat, perhaps it’s better to forget the incident rather than spend time pondering why it occurred.

Because legitimate reasons can and do exist for not addressing causes, some organizations will go to great lengths to avoid solving critical problems. They look for excuses not to take real corrective action. But this isn’t the only reason corrective action is often ignored. Another is that most of us have long held a very narrow view of what defines corrective action.

According to ANSI/ISO/ASQ Q9000:2000, correction is an action to eliminate a detected nonconformity, while a corrective action eliminates the cause of a detected nonconformity or other undesirable situation. Many of us spent years in environments where the concept of correction was called “corrective action.” Yet for several decades, this term has more precisely meant “correcting the cause.” I still encounter people who really don’t understand the nature of true corrective action. It involves making changes to the conditions, processes, operations, etc., that cause nonconformities or problems. Corrective action corrects causes so the problems or nonconformities won’t recur. The issue isn’t that organizations don’t correct causes. They do, but many organizations don’t do it often enough.

However, some organizations have a different attitude about the concept. They think about correcting causes all the time. Employees are encouraged to study problems and propose (and if they’re authorized to do so, implement) changes that will eliminate these problem.

What should organizations do to achieve this attitude? First, they should create an expectation that all employees will work on rooting out the causes of problems. Everyone must have the tools to determine and correct causes. Organizations should also provide a structure for controlling changes and holding managers accountable for the results. More important, they should encourage everyone in the organization to think differently, to find and correct causes rather than come up with stopgap measures to keep production going.

In his A Study of the Toyota Production System from an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint (Productivity Press Inc., 1989), Shigeo Shingo describes this thought process with an analogy. He points out that implementing only stopgap measures is like using ice to relieve the pain of appendicitis; what’s really needed is an appendectomy. It’s quite a dramatic analogy because failing to get the appendectomy could result in death. Is failure to address real causes endangering the health of your organization?

Think about it.

Note: This article is based in part on chapter 7 of Unlocking the Power of Your Quality Management System: Keys to Performance Improvement by John E. (Jack) West and Charles A. Cianfrani (ASQ Quality Press, 2004).

About the author
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. He is chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO TC 176 and lead delegate for the United States to the International Organization for Standardization committee responsible for the ISO 9000 family of quality management standards.