The case for continuous (compliance) improvement

An examination of how a cyclical approach to compliance offers benefits for operations by setting the foundation for strategic continuous compliance

by Mary Foley

Fans of lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, kaizen, and quality management already know the drill: Continuous Improvement is the concept that small, measurable steps — Plan, Do, Check, and Act — can be applied to any process in a cyclical way to improve it. These steps ensure the process is documented, executed, measured for efficacy, and improved upon — with that improvement itself in turn then documented, executed, measured and improved upon. And … repeat.

Continuous improvement as a concept has been around for decades, harkening back as far as the grandfather of quality, Deming in the 1940s and 50s, who attributed it to his predecessor Shewart in the 1920s. And it’s not a new concept in EHS management either, appearing in ISO 14000 and 45001 — the international standards for corporate management that guide organizations to minimize the negative impact operations have on the environment, to comply with environmentally-oriented requirements, and to “continually improve” on how they do both.

To learn more about how continuous improvement applies to EHS compliance, check out the recent whitepaper by Enhesa and its partner Bureau Veritas, Reinforcing EHS regulations with continuous compliance. And to see what lessons compliance can learn from strategic continuous improvement programs on quality teams to guide a new, more proactive strategy for continuous compliance improvement, read on.

The strategic impact of continuous improvement

EHS teams can learn from the lessons hard-won by their quality counterparts in the organization. These experiences can be applied to EHS compliance and, in fact, can be quite transformative: as evidenced by the impact continuous improvement has had on quality teams. So what can EHS teams learn from this transformation to accelerate their strategic impact throughout the company?


Design-out risks

Discovering how to “get ahead” of issues and “build in” quality well before issues arise was one of the key impacts of Continuous Improvement. Companies that once approached quality with a “have-to-do” approach to incident management — i.e. find what broke and fix it — began applying “Plan, Do, Check, Act” to instead take a proactive, strategic approach to quality that ultimately saved both time and money.


Reduce costs and maximize investment dollars

It’s costly and time-consuming to find and correct quality issues after they’re experienced in the field, where processes are more rigid and high levels of investment have already been made in the status quo. Additionally, retraining, retooling, and redesigning can equal many times the costs of scrap and waste. The same costs applies to any unresolved issues — be they with quality or compliance.


Get proactive

Working more proactively via continuous improvement helped companies get ahead of problems, where they could “design out issues”: improving products and processes using information they learned from past failures and then checking to be sure the fix had worked. The ever-cycling “improvement loop” — also referred to as “closed-loop quality” — helped companies get more proactive, find where resources were leaking out by way of scrap, waste, and rework, and streamline change processes to accelerate time-to-market while reducing both quality issues and the cost of poor quality — all strategic advantages to be sure.

What can compliance learn from quality?

Continuous improvement helped to transform quality management into a corporate-level initiative. It helped companies ultimately reduce the scourge of product recalls on their brand, ensure product and process reliability and safety, reduce operational risks, and demonstrate increased value to shareholders.


Measure progress

Speaking of demonstrating value, applying measurement — the “Check” step of Plan, Do, Check, Act — lets companies demonstrate quantitatively that continuous quality improvement is working: delivering measurable value they can both rely on and, pardon the pun, keep continually improving on.


Move away from a break-fix mentality

In a similar way, companies that may be engaging in a reactive, “break-fix” approach to compliance can apply the concept of continuous improvement to EHS management. With regulatory requirements always in flux — new ones emerging and existing ones changing — it can be difficult for companies to know what regulations they’re responsible for in different jurisdictions — especially when they’re operating in numerous countries around the world.


Know the costs if you don’t

Just like the costs of poor quality, the impact of non-compliance can be severe: fines and penalties; blocked market access; costly product changes and process redesign and retraining; and a suffering brand reputation with customers, shareholders, and the public.

As companies learned from the transformation of quality with continuous improvement, getting ahead of issues is not only more profitable, it’s more responsible. Fewer issues mean a protected public, safer products and processes, healthier employees, and a better-protected environment. Getting more proactive with quality or compliance improvements isn’t about what must be done — it’s about what’s best to do.

Driving toward continuous compliance improvement

A proactive view of compliance means understanding what you’re responsible for globally, knowing where every facility around the world stands in relation to local regulations, acting to improve on that standing to ensure compliance, and learning which responsibilities are changing next to ensure ongoing compliance.


Small steps to ensure compliance today

In “Plan-Do-Check-Act” terms, getting a proactive view of compliance involves small, measurable steps that, added together, help companies:

  • Plan for compliance today by knowing the worldwide regulations the company is required to comply with
  • Act to be sure every facility is empowered with the knowledge to gain and maintain compliance at the local level
  • Check on current compliance status as well as what’s changing next
  • Do what it takes to get ahead of those changes and implement improvements worldwide — and repeat


A view of the future for tomorrow

As with continuous quality improvement, continuous compliance improvement can help companies get ahead of potential costs and other risks by seeing changes that are coming before they emerge as laws — allowing companies to adjust well in advance of costly “break-fix” compliance and avoid both the risks of non-compliance and the high costs of change.


Know — and state — the difference you’re making

Proactive compliance, like proactive quality management, can help companies control for both external risks from fines and blocked market access, and internal risks like costly changes — post-launch — to products, processes, and employee retraining to regain compliance when it’s been lost.

Where to start

How do companies get there? What’s required to transform from the way it’s done today into a proactive approach to compliance management that anticipates regulatory changes and drives continuous improvements? The recent whitepaper by Enhesa and its partner Bureau Veritas, Reinforcing EHS regulations with continuous compliance, recommends practical steps to achieving a continuous compliance approach.

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