Let’s put the requirement to “continually improve” in context. There is no requirement that everything can or should be improved all the time – that is just impractical. Conversely we can’t assume we have a capable continual improvement process just because there may be evidence that some things are better than they were – that could easily be just good fortune or an accident of circumstance – either way it’s not repeatable. That brings us the real nub of the assessment …
Have we got a controlled, repeatable, PDCA driven continual improvement process?
First we need to understand where it all starts. We said earlier that it is unreasonable to expect everything improve all the time, so what should be improved? Well the answer’s simple, priorities, that’s what. First and foremost we really need to see our continual improvement process fed with a small number of key priority areas (identified at senior level), which in turn should be smartened into our “Quality Objectives” (clause 5.4.1). This provides a basis for step 2 …
Saying it doesn’t make it happen
OK, so far so good, but (returning to one of our favourite themes) saying it (specifying an objective) doesn’t make it happen, so the next thing we want to see is a plan (5.4.2 a). Call it a project plan, implementation plan, quality plan, control plan, it doesn’t matter. But this plan performs the important function of mapping out the route for improvement, identifying stages, milestones, responsibilities and resources. It increases significantly the chance things will actually get done. Once we’ve got hold of the plan, we can ask the very relevant question “So tell me, how’s it all going?” … time for step 3
How are we doing?
Now, if the next step is in place, answering that question should be easy, because progress needs to be monitored and measured in a reliable way. Depending on what the improvement actually is, progress could be monitored and measured in a variety of ways, bringing in a range of ISO 9001 clauses. Measures could involve customer supplied feedback (8.2.1), internal audits (8.2.2), process measurement (8.2.3) or inspection results (8.2.4). Ultimately these measures, if they are in any way worth their salt, should enable us to evaluate “How we are doing” … now to close the loop … step 4
Last but not least, we come to the “A” in PDCA – Management Review (5.6). This review asks more than “How are we doing?” – it goes on to ask wonderful questions like “Should we keep doing it?” “Do we need to change the target or our plan?” “Have priorities changed?” and “Are we ready for some different objectives?” This closes the PDCA loop and (should) continually give birth to new objectives as time passes. Basically we should see objectives being set, achieved and closed-off over time, with new ones taking their place. If that’s not happening, we need to find out why