Non-conformities and continual improvement

Non-conformities and continual improvement

One of the main reasons for having a management system is to help you do things correctly. But sometimes things don’t go as planned; mistakes happen, there are unforeseen problems, or someone lets you down. What you do to put things right (and make sure the problem does not happen again) is a real test of the management system and a key part of continual improvement.

Non-conformities (commonly referred to as ‘NCs’) are failures to fulfil a requirement. That requirement could be laid down in a standard, it may be a requirement within your own processes, a legal obligation, a voluntary commitment, or something specified by a customer. Not meeting those requirements represents a problem, often one pointed out by an auditor or an irate client. So, it’s easy to see NCs as negative and to be avoided, maybe even covered up. But a positive approach to them can pay dividends.

Dealing with NCs has two key stages – the immediate need to control and correct the problem, and then understanding why it happened so that similar problems can be prevented in future.

Controlling and correcting the problem is just that. Take appropriate action to stop it getting worse and doing what you can to fix it. So, a customer is unhappy that the quality of a job was not as specified? Take action to redo the work or bring it up to scratch. Someone has spilled a liquid, presenting an environmental or safety hazard? Contain it and clean it up appropriately. Mostly this is common sense but can also be a time when your customer complaint process or emergency preparedness plans swing into action.

The bit that sometimes gets missed, and is really important for continual improvement, is to investigate and eliminate the cause. So, why wasn’t the quality as required by the customer? Was the specification not confirmed? Was it not communicated? Were the people or equipment used not up to the job? Keep asking questions until you get to the root cause – the underlying reason why something went wrong. Why was the liquid spilled? Because the container wasn’t put away. Why wasn’t it put away? Because no one knew where it should go. Why did no one know? Because the planned toolbox talk didn’t happen…. And so on. When you have identified the root cause, you can evaluate the risk it poses and take action to prevent the problem recurring again, or a similar problem happening elsewhere.

It’s also important to follow up on the actions taken. Were they actually effective in resolving the issue? Don’t just assume – review the effectiveness to make sure.

All management systems should retain documented information about NCs, including action taken, investigations into the cause, and follow-up reviews. Typically, this is kept in some form of spreadsheet or log, perhaps called a nonconformity log, corrective action register, or improvement log. But it may be held in individual reports or entered into specialist software, depending on the nature of the organisation and the number of issues being managed. It’s useful to be able to track NCs (along with other incidents, ‘near misses’ and improvement suggestions), so that a full picture is established, and trends can be monitored.

Some standards also have specific requirements. ISO9001 requires that complaints are specifically included. ISO14001 needs there to be mitigation of adverse environmental impacts. ISO45001 is the most prescriptive, specifically referring to root cause investigation, the involvement of relevant workers and follow-up reviews of risk assessments, amongst other stipulations. But as long as you take a thorough and positive approach to NCs, managing them can drive continual improvement whatever your certification.

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