Correction, Corrective Action and Preventive Action: A Differentiation

Corrective action is when I fix a problem and the customer is happy, right?  While this may be the way most folks view it, actually there’s a lot more to it. In 2005, ISO added an additional word into their vocabulary list to help clarify it: “Correction” as opposed to “Corrective action.” In 2008, they added this clarification into the ISO 9001 standard. So, what’s the difference? A Correction is when you fix the thing that went wrong (the nonconformity) This is the immediate action to keep customers or management happy: rework the product, replace the thing that’s not working right with one that does, or edit the document requiring accurate information. A Corrective Action, then, is described in 8.5.2 of the ISO 9001 standard as something done to “prevent recurrence.” This is the thing you do to ensure the nonconformity never happens again. It also requires some strategic thinking. Therefore, it is crucial to always identify causes of nonconformities before defining and implementing a Corrective Action.
In actuality, effective corrective actions require a five-step process.
  1. Nonconformity is identified,
  2. Immediate Correction fixes the problem/product,
  3. Root Cause Analysis identifies the weakness within your quality management system that initiated the problem,
  4. Corrective Action is implemented to prevent this problem from recurring anywhere in your QMS again, and, finally,
  5. Corrective Action Review (after an appropriate time delay) to determine if the corrective action effectively prevented repeat nonconformities of that type (in any product, for any customer).
A Preventive Action, on the other hand, has no relation to an actual nonconformity. ISO 9001:2008 states a Preventive Action’s function is to prevent the occurrence of potential nonconformities. This means nothing bad actually happened. While many of the follow-up steps are the same, what initiates a preventive action is very different. Preventive actions are improvements in the system to ensure detrimental system gaps are addressed before a nonconformity occurs. That’s the heart of proactive improvement. Preventive actions are a separate requirement of ISO 9001--so be sure to document the improvements implemented. Do your employees participate in a culture of trouble shooting potential issues before they occur or are you firefighters--putting out fires after bad things happen? Consider using Root Cause Analysis and true Corrective Actions and true Preventive Actions to seek and address issues before they become nonconformities.