Are Your Corrective Actions Really Fixing Your Problems?

Corrective Actions

Many highly successful companies are actively looking for trouble and are pleased when they find it.  These companies know that you can’t improve if you don’t know what to improve.  They establish various work feedback loops, encourage their managers to observe work in progress, and reward their workers for pointing out problems and opportunities for improvement.  These companies don’t feel threatened by bad news but embrace it as an opportunity to learn and improve before incidents occur.

Proactively looking for potential problems, in addition to audits, inspections, incident investigations, and regulatory issues, can naturally generate hundreds to thousands of corrective actions yearly for some companies.  Managing such a large number of corrective actions is obviously a very significant challenge.  In a previous article, I suggested that every company needs a system to help them manage their corrective actions effectively.  Such a system should include:

  1. A single database to capture all corrective actions
  2. An identified owner for each action
  3. Due dates for each action
  4. Assignment of a priority (e.g., High, Medium, Low) for each action, and
  5. Routine review of the corrective action data

Root Cause

Once you put a system together, however, you still need to assure that the corrective actions you include in that system are actually fixing your problems.  Issues arise from many different sources and it’s critical that the corrective actions assigned to those issues address root causes.  It’s still quite common to see corrective actions that merely address symptoms or proximate causes.  I can’t count all the times I’ve seen “cautioned the employee to be more careful” as a post-incident corrective action.  Such actions are at best superficial and make no attempt to get to the why of a specific “operator error.”  Actions that merely address symptoms will lead to “Whack-a-Mole” safety where the same problems recur over and over again because you haven’t addressed systemic root causes.  Ideally, all corrective actions are reviewed by individuals trained in root cause analysis to help ensure that the actions actually fix identified issues.  This article will conclude with a suggested process for reviewing corrective actions that also engage the workforce in the safety effort.

A Deeper Look

A robust corrective action management system can help drive continuous improvement in a variety of ways.  While getting to the root cause is essential, the following list provides a few additional examples of how such a system can help drive safety improvement overall:

  1. Identifying duplicate actions.  When you have many issues to deal with, nearly identical corrective actions are often identified.  In addition, one or more corrective actions may adequately address multiple issues.  An effective review can purge your system of redundant items – and redundant closures.
  2. Identifying generic issues that apply company wide.  Problems in one area of your company may also reside throughout the company.  Effective review ensures that such issues are identified and that fixes are universally implemented.
  3. Identifying lessons learned.  We should learn from our mistakes – and our successes.  Corrective action review can identify and share those learnings with a broader audience.
  4. Elevating significant and generic issues to appropriate levels of management.
  5. Verifying effective action closure for significant issues.
  6. Assigning corrective action owners to unassigned issues and resolving ownership and due date disputes.

The above is just a partial list of the different ways a corrective action management system can help in the safety effort.  It does, however, require trained people to implement.  Some companies give this responsibility to their safety staff.  I much prefer, however, trained employee/management working groups.  Such groups foster engagement and give workers a sense of control over the safety of their work.  Sharing responsibility for fixing problems with those that must deal with them in their daily work is also a great way to move safely out of its silo.  I’d call this a win-win.

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Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations.

Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferencesHe is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma, and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.

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