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Two Hidden Gems of Continual Improvement
By Craig Cochran

With a pair of basic actions, you can lead your organization to true long-term improvement.

Quality system practitioners are undoubtedly beginning to wrestle with the issue of how to satisfy ISO 9001:2000's continual improvement requirements. The primary requirement--to continually improve the effectiveness of the quality management system--seems easy enough to meet, but it's also very narrow. What about continual improvement of the entire organization's effectiveness, as opposed to just the quality management system's effectiveness? What about long-term competitive advantage? Aren't these the sorts of results that organizations should really strive for? The good news is that there are plenty of actions that will lead to continual improvement of both the quality management system and overall organizational performance. A couple of simple actions--we'll call them the two hidden gems of continual improvement--will lead to both kinds of improvement. Best of all, both actions are straightforward and intuitive.

Use your corrective and preventive action system correctly

The correct application of a corrective and preventive action system is one of the opportunities organizations most often overlook. Revitalizing this system will go a long way toward driving continual improvement.

The first action organizations can take to get the most out of their corrective and preventive action systems is to actively investigate the root causes of problems. And this means uncovering the real root causes, not simply restating the symptoms. True root cause investigation requires discipline, time and analytical effort, all of which are in short supply in most organizations. Personnel may not even understand what the term "root cause" means.

Two measures can get organizations moving in the right direction in this regard. The first is to reject responses that don't indicate that true root cause analysis has taken place. If a response seems suspect, it probably is. Root cause responses that might indicate a lack of analysis include "management oversight," "employee error," "failure to follow procedure" and "unknown." These responses are not guarantees that root cause analysis was neglected, but they are reasonably significant hints. Remember to be diplomatic when sending corrective or preventive actions back to the responsible parties.

Second, training may be required to encourage better root cause investigation. One option is to hold a short course in root cause analysis and problem solving. This course could easily be designed and presented in-house, but there are also plenty of course providers who would be happy to do it for you for a fee. Topics might include:

What exactly is a root cause?
What are the techniques for determining root causes?
What are typical steps for problem solving?
What analytical tools are appropriate at each stage of problem solving?
How do you conduct an effective meeting?
How do you manage team dynamics in a problem solving environment?

Introductory training of this kind could easily be carried out in eight hours or less but would be a huge investment in your system's effectiveness. Remember, root cause analysis and problem solving aren't competencies that most people develop without training and a lot of practice.

Another tactic is to revisit the way your corrective and preventive actions are recorded and tracked. How user-friendly is the system? If your organization is using a paper-based system, the corrective action reports (CARs) and preventive action reports (PARs) should each fit onto one side of a single piece of paper. The longer and more complicated the form is, the less receptive people will be to using it. Also consider the number of approval signatures required. Do you really need more than one or two signatures? Additional signatures can add days to the processing while contributing little or nothing to the effectiveness of the actions being taken.

An electronic system is a viable option for many organizations. Any company with an e-mail system can easily use this medium to transmit corrective and preventive actions, even if the system consists of nothing more than attaching a file to an e-mail message. This also makes the system more usable for suppliers, subcontractors and others outside the organization. The simple act of transmitting CARs and PARs as e-mail attachments will save days over the old method of sticking them in interoffice envelopes and hoping they don't get buried on somebody's desk.

The scope of the corrective and preventive action system should also be reviewed. Is your organization applying the system as broadly as possible? There may be opportunities left unexploited. Make sure that the following categories are at least considered within your system:

Processing problems
Internal nonconformities
Late deliveries
Internal audit findings
Customer complaints--internal and external
Warranty claims
Customer returns
Supplier and subcontractor problems
Management review (especially for preventive actions)
Other forums where data is analyzed (especially for preventive actions)

Some organizations use a two-tiered approach to corrective and preventive actions. Specifically, individual problems are recorded and investigated in a separate system, only to become official corrective or preventive actions after the same problem has occurred multiple times, impact on the customer is found to be significant or problems exceed a certain predetermined dollar amount. This approach is fine as long as the criteria makes sense and is rigorously enforced. Remember, ISO 9001:2000 requires that actions be appropriate to the effects encountered, so make sure there's a logical match. Not conducting an investigation combined with not taking action is unsatisfactory regardless of how the organization structures its system. Registered organizations should also check with their registrars, as some have more conservative interpretations of when official corrective and preventive action must be applied.

Verification of actions is one of the final steps in all corrective and preventive action systems; it's also one of the most important steps. Who should be tasked with verifying actions? People who can verify actions must fulfill two basic criteria: They need to have enough independence to review the actions in an objective manner, and they must have a basic technical understanding of the issues underlying the actions. This doesn't mean that the person verifying the action has to be an expert; it only means that he or she must be able to grasp the technical effects of the action. If we're dealing with a document control problem, the technical aspects will probably be relatively minor. If we're talking about retrofitting an extruder screw in order to improve the plasticity of a synthetic polymer, the technical aspects might be more complicated. Use common sense.

Once it's determined who will be verifying the actions, what should verification prove? At a minimum, three types of evidence should be sought:

Evidence that the action relates to the identified root cause
Evidence that the proposed action was actually implemented
Evidence that the action was effective in preventing recurrence of the problem. This, clearly, is the most important detail to verify. Typically, this type of evidence might take some time to compile, requiring that actions remain "open" longer than expected. It's better that actions remain open and ultimately lead to true prevention of recurrence than be closed in a hurry and achieve only nice, clean records.

Finally, broadcast the successes of your corrective and preventive action systems. If the systems have worked especially well in investigating and solving a problem, let everyone know about it. Make sure to give credit to the individuals who were involved, too. When the systems are shown to get positive results, personnel are more inclined to use them as improvement tools on a regular basis. The ultimate goal is to develop a corrective and preventive action system that works so well it becomes an "institution"; you will have reached this point when nobody is able to even imagine not using the system to help drive the organization's success.

Simply by making sure their existing corrective and preventive action system is working correctly, most organizations will find they have an abundant source of evidence showing continual improvement.

Get personnel at all levels involved in initiating improvements

People are what distinguish average organizations from great ones. The difference is not so much in the caliber of personnel, but in the degree to which the personnel are used to their full potential. One way of exploiting the full range of human creativity and resourcefulness is to give personnel a voice in recommending improvements. This can be achieved in a number of ways, but one of the most typical is through a suggestion system.

Suggestion systems have almost become clichéd by now. They have come and gone (and come again) in most organizations, and they are known by a dizzying array of names and acronyms. However, the basic structure of such a system is simple:

Provides a means for personnel to propose improvements (typically a form)
Evaluates the inputs
Implements the practical ideas

Unfortunately, suggestion systems normally have a useful lifespan of two years or less because employees start getting the notion that their ideas aren't quite as valued by the organization as they had originally believed. After having personally managed a corporationwide suggestion system for more than six years, I have assembled a list of key factors that make the difference between a system that works over the long haul and a system that is doomed to failure:

Ask personnel to focus on issues from the standpoint of what the customer (internal or external) is concerned about. Focusing on the customer will help keep inputs from straying too far into the realm of the absurd.
Acknowledge all input--even the crazy ideas. Acknowledgement doesn't have to be anything more elaborate than saying: "Hey, we got your suggestion. Thanks a lot. Unfortunately, cost and practicality won't allow us to put shag carpeting in the production area as you've suggested, but we appreciate the idea. Keep the ideas flowing." Personnel usually don't mind having their ideas turned down if there's a reason for it. Nobody, however, likes his or her ideas to disappear into a black hole.
Clearly define the scope of the system. Successful suggestion systems are usually fairly narrow in scope: ideas, problems or potential problems related to an employee's job, processes, equipment or tools that can eventually affect the customer. This means that personnel problems, policy disagreements, rumors, grievances, philosophical issues and the like are not considered. While these can be important issues, they aren't appropriate for a suggestion system.
Make the system simple. The form shouldn't be more than half a page long or have more than four spaces (name, date, department, idea/problem). If the issue is more complicated, invite personnel to attach whatever additional information is necessary, but don't impose a lot of bureaucracy on the user at the onset. Don't make the evaluation process complicated either: It usually doesn't take a huge committee of experts to separate the practical ideas from the impractical.
Keep first-line supervisors involved. Supervisors must believe that they are part of the system instead of being circumvented by it. This can be achieved by simply making the appropriate supervisor the first point of contact with an idea. The supervisor can then prescreen the suggestions for inappropriate issues and will feel involved in the program. Supervisors will subconsciously (or consciously) kill the system if they feel it compromises their ability to supervise or trumps their authority.
When the issue requires problem solving, get the employee involved in the solution. Often, the person who submitted it knows the most about the problem and its variables. Employees are also the most affected by the issue at hand, so they're highly motivated to get results. Be careful, though, about involving employees who aren't comfortable with being involved or trained in the required methods and tools. That's not to say everyone has to have a Ph.D. in problem solving, but they certainly need to understand what brainstorming is before they're asked to participate in such a session.
Keep personnel apprised of the progress of their ideas' implementation. Many ideas and solutions are long-term in nature. Some might even require capital expenditures. In most cases, people don't mind waiting for results as long as they know that progress is being made and the issue hasn't been dropped.
Inform management about the big successes. If the system isn't supported at the top, it won't matter who else cares about it. The best way to keep top management's support is to show them the benefits. The more dramatically and frequently this is done, the better.
Offer sincere recognition for the implemented ideas. Recognition doesn't mean cash and prizes; it simply means a genuine and public word of thanks from someone representing upper management. Obviously, the higher the level of management providing the validation, the more effect the thanks will have. One very effective method is to hold a special recognition luncheon for everyone and then recognize personnel in front of the group. However, don't go down the road of offering cash and prizes unless the organization is prepared to deal with the disgruntled employee who believes his or her wonderful idea was worth at least as much as that of the other employee who received a much bigger prize. With cash and prizes as incentives, the system might quickly become an unmanageable monster.
Periodically remind everyone that the system exists. At least once a year, everyone should be retrained on the scope and procedures of the suggestion system. People have short memories, and there are always newfangled programs vying for our attention.
When appropriate, link your suggestion system to your corrective and preventive action system. This makes sense because problems that are worth addressing at all are worth addressing in a structured, documented manner. Linking the systems also serves to strengthen both of them because it helps personnel understand how they relate to one another.

Both of these so-called gems--correct use of corrective and preventive actions and getting all levels of personnel involved in initiating improvements--are quite basic, but their simplicity and ease of application make them especially appealing. If both initiatives are implemented, organizations should find that they have a ready source of continual improvement that helps drive success over the long term.


Craig Cochran
Craig Cochran
About the Author:
Craig Cochran is a project manager with the Center for International Standards & Quality, part of Georgia Tech's Economic Development Institute. He's an RAB-certified QMS lead auditor and the author of Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques and Formulas for Success and The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line, both available from Paton Press. CISQ can be reached at (800) 859-0968 or on the Web at www.cisq.gatech.edu.
The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line
Continual improvement is not optional. It is a condition of survival. Every organization must have systematic methods for making smart decisions, attacking problems, improving its products and services, and repelling competitors. Anything less than a systematic, disciplined approach is leaving your future in the hands of chance. This book presents a range of practical methods for driving continual improvement throughout the organization. The starting point is leadership, with a clear definition of mission, strategy, and key measures. These themes are then carried throughout the enterprise, informing everyone on the issues that matter most to survival and success. Strategic approaches for the deployment of metrics, review of organizational performance, effective problem solving, internal auditing, process orientation, and cultural development are also described in detail. Practical tools and examples are provided at every step of the way, enabling immediate implementation of the concepts. This book is more than a guide to continual improvement; it is a guide to leading and managing any organization.

Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques and Formulas for Success
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Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques and Formulas for Success
Customer satisfaction is the single most important issue affecting organizational survival. Despite this fact, most companies have no clue what their customers really think. They operate in a state of ignorant bliss, believing that if their customers were anything less than 100-percent satisfied they'd hear about it. Then they are shocked when their customer base erodes and their existence is threatened. The key to competitive advantage is proactively gauging customer perceptions and aggressively acting on the findings. The techniques for doing this don't have to be difficult, they just have to be timely and effective. This book explores a range of practical techniques for probing your customers' true level of satisfaction. Tools and specific instructions for use are described in detail, enabling the organization to get started immediately. The tools range from very basic to highly sophisticated, providing a path for organizations to follow as they progressively become more familiar with the unique drivers of customer satisfaction. This is the perfect reference for organizations that want to continually improve and outpace their competition.





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