In article #5, we discussed the benefits an organisation can gain by enabling its people to identify quality issues. In an efficient and effective management system, what should follow on from that is for the responsible people to take prompt action.
Prompt. Now there’s an interesting word. What does it mean? On the same day? Within one week? One month? It reminds me of a marvelous old Cornish expression. When working as a Project Manager on building sites in Cornwall, it was commonplace to be promised that something would be done ‘directly’. It was never made clear whether that meant right now, directly after the person finished what he was currently doing, or perhaps directly after he returned from a 2-week holiday. It was open to interpretation – and so is the word, promptly. With reference to its use in ISO 9001, we might interpret promptly as being ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’. That works for me.
Inform the responsible person
OK, so having enabled people to raise issues, how do we ensure that prompt action is taken? Well, the first step is to inform the responsible person. Your system needs a method of helping people to identify who is responsible for various things, and an efficient way of communicating issues to them.
In some organisations, any ‘nonconformances’ or other quality issues are reported to the ‘Quality Manager’, who then forwards them to the person responsible. That option offers the benefit of clarity. Everyone in the organisation knows where to report quality issues – they go to the ‘Quality Manager’. Only the one person needs to work out where specific responsibilities might rest. However, that option does have several disadvantages:
- It requires double-handling
- It creates a bottleneck – possibly slowing down the flow of information
- It creates a point of risk – the whole system depends on one person. If they leave the organisation or are absent for any length of time, the system could fall in a heap
- It may contribute to an unthinking culture. One where people might consider ‘I don’t do quality, that’s someone else’s job’
A more sophisticated option may be to allow individuals raising action to assign them straight to the person who will arrange / take the necessary actions. For that to happen, they will need to know who is responsible for what types of issues. Some simple business rules may need to be established. For example;
- If it’s a customer complaint, refer it to the Customer Service Manager
- If it’s a technical problem, refer it to the Operations Manager
A logical place to list at least a summary of roles/responsibilities might be in a documented procedure for control of nonconforming product / corrective action. A widely-available organisation chart can also be an invaluable aid in this regard. Of course, there will be times when people that raise actions just don’t know who they should assign them to. In which case, it’s good to have an alternative available – like the ‘indirect’ option mentioned above of referring them to the Quality Manager.
Awareness of the importance of prompt action
Technology can help to ensure that the message gets transmitted quickly. However, to be most effective, the technology also needs to be supplemented by an organisational culture that supports and encourages prompt action.
People need to have an appreciation that quality issues are not some esoteric exercise that can be addressed if any time remains after their ‘real work’ is done. Quality needs to be considered as an integral part of day-to-day business activities. That appreciation should not be taken for granted, but needs to be fostered by quality ‘champions’ in the business and endorsed by senior management. It is part of a general quality awareness that might need to be included as part of induction, toolbox talks, team meetings etc. That appreciation and awareness can be reinforced by the prompt handling of quality issues being included in a person’s KPIs (key performance indicators) or other form of performance review.
Ensuring that the action is taken
There may be many genuine reasons why some actions are not taken promptly. There may also be many excuses. To overcome the genuine reasons, there are some practical steps that an organisation can take:
- Ensure that only serious and practical issues are considered. In the early stages of implementing a quality system, there is often a burst of enthusiasm in raising issues. Unless care is taken, this can swamp the capacity to deal with them. Any resulting inactivity can quickly extinguish that initial enthusiasm. To achieve a happy medium, people should be made aware that any suggestions for improvements need to be practically achievable, and managers may also need to be given the discretion to close out an action by informing the person who raised it that resources are not currently available to implement it. Of course, there needs to be a balance here, and people need to feel confident that a reasonable number of issues are being addressed.
- Adequate resources must be made available. For any number of issues to be addressed, the relevant managers need to have the appropriate resources made available to them. In the short term, this may mean an increase in costs, but providing the quality issues addressed are those that have the most effect on efficiency and other key business metrics, the process can quickly become a positive contributor to the bottom line.
So, let’s now turn our attention to what we might call ‘enforcement’. In some cases, all that may be needed is a gentle reminder that an action is outstanding – or even overdue. In the past, one of the key roles of the ‘Quality Manager’ has been chasing up people, nagging, and cajoling them. Thankfully, that task is becoming increasingly automated - with software generating to-do lists and automated reminder / escalation processes. This allows quality professionals to spend more time on pro-active measures instead.
Whether handled by software or human intervention, arrangements need to be in place to escalate actions that are not taken within a reasonable period of time. Your organisation should decide on a policy for escalation – including how many ‘grace’ days are allowed before escalation. The Quality Manager may still perform the task of reviewing progress on actions, and making follow-up checks to ascertain their success in addressing the issues raised.
Changes for the new standard
- Removes requirement to have a documented procedure on corrective action.
- Includes new requirement to record the nature of nonconformities identified.
- Lists more options for dealing with nonconformities
- On discovering a nonconformity, there is an explicit requirement for organisations to determine whether other similar nonconformities actually exist, or could potentially exist. That could lead to more widespread actions being taken.
- Requirements are defined in ISO 9001:2015 clause 10.2 Nonconformity and corrective action
* Note: Based on the Draft standard
Taking prompt action on quality issues raised will help to improve commitment to, and participation in the system – as well as maximising the benefits achieved from those actions.