How to achieve continual improvement of your EMS according to ISO 14001:2015

One of the main principles behind implementing an Environmental Management System (EMS) using the requirements of ISO 14001 is the need for continual improvement within your EMS. However, it is sometimes confusing to figure out the best way to work toward continual improvement and gain the benefits that this gives to your organization.

Why continual improvement?

First, it is important to understand again what is meant by continual improvement and why we want to work toward this in the EMS. The term continual improvement is used to identify the need to systematically improve different processes within the EMS in order to provide improvements overall. It is unreasonable to expect that every process within the EMS will be improving all the time, so continual improvement is used to plan, monitor, and realize improvement in some processes that have been identified for improvement.

While there are many ways that continual improvement can be planned within an EMS, two of the main processes identified in the requirements of ISO 14001 are the use of environmental objectives and risk-based thinking. Through the proper use of these two processes you can see great benefits from continual improvement in your EMS.

How do environmental objectives work toward continual improvement?

Environmental objectives are intended to be planned improvements to your EMS processes, a main contributor to continual improvement. Here is an example of how this might work within an EMS:

  1. An office creates an objective to reduce their usage of paper within the office environment, to reduce the need for these natural resources and reduce the recycling requirements created by the paper.
  2. A target of 35% reduction within 6 months is set for this objective.
  3. A program with the following activities is started to achieve this goal:
    • Force all computers and printers to use double-sided printing within 1 month.
    • Install software on all computers to better view documents on the screen rather than printing within three months.
    • Install software so that incoming faxes are saved as online PDF documents, which are emailed to the recipient rather than printed for review.

Through applying the resources to accomplish this environmental objective, EMS improvement is achieved through fewer natural resources used and less waste being created, even if it is destined for recycling. For more information, see: How to Use Good Environmental Objectives.

How does risk-based thinking work toward continual improvement?

Like the use of environmental objectives, the application of risk-based thinking can also improve the processes of the EMS. In ISO 14001:204 the preventive action process is used when you identify a problem that could occur in a process before it happens. When you identify a problem that could occur, and correct the process before the problem can happen, you are once again improving the EMS. In ISO 14001:2015 preventive action has been removed, but the concept of risk-based thinking has been incorporated to identify risks before they happen. Here is an example of how risk-based thinking could work:

  1. A waste water treatment process is tested for chemical composition and treated before release to the municipal sewage system. It is discovered that there is a risk that errors could potentially happen with the treatment. This could lead to legal non-compliance and contamination of the sewage system should the error occur.
  2. An investigation into the risk finds that the root cause of this potential problem is that errors could be made with this process due to the manual nature of the treatment, which is dependent on an operator making the correct measurement to treat the waste water.
  3. It is decided to address this risk and action is taken to install a system that performs an automatic chemical composition test and adds the correct amount of treatment to the waste before disposal. This eliminates the potential error.

Some continual improvement is also seen with the corrective action process; however, the problem has already occurred with a corrective action. This is still improvement, but it occurs after an environmental incident has occurred and is less preferable to identifying the risk and addressing the problem before it happens. For more information, see: The role of risk management in the ISO 14001:2015 standard.

Continual improvement: Your benefit from EMS implementation

It is not necessarily clear from the beginning, but continual improvement is the biggest benefit that you get from implementing a successful EMS. By making improvements, you not only reduce the environmental footprint of your organization, which is good for both your company and the world, but you can also see a financial return on investment from some of these activities.

When you reduce the natural resources used, such as the paper reduction initiative mentioned above, you also reduce your costs and improve your bottom line. This is not only a win for the environment, but also a win for your company and its future success. Why not use continual improvement to make your organization better and reap the benefits?

To ensure that you meet the standard’s requirements, visit our  ISO 14001:2015 Internal Auditor online course.

Advisera Mark Hammar
Mark Hammar
Mark Hammar is a Certified Manager of Quality / Organizational Excellence through the American Society for Quality and has been a Quality Professional since 1994. Mark has experience in auditing, improving processes, and writing procedures for Quality, Environmental, and Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems, and is certified as a Lead Auditor for ISO 9001, AS9100, and ISO 14001.