The two main elements of a Quality Management System (QMS) are corrective action and preventive action, which concentrate on achieving continuous improvement as well as customer satisfaction. People often face issues in differentiating between the two terms. Corrective action essentially refers to the steps taken to remove the cause for a nonconformity that has been detected, as well as its recurrence. On the contrary, preventive action refers to the removal of a possible nonconformity and its occurrence.  In these definitions, nonconformity signifies the failure in conforming to some certain given standards or requirements.

It is important to understand the difference between corrective action and preventive action when developing a new quality management system on the basis of any quality standard. In this article, we will explain how these two terms differ from one another.

Definitions and meanings

Corrective action

Corrective action refers to solving an issue that has already occurred. It signifies the actions taken to deal with any nonconformity that has already taken place. It considers the critical nonconformity that involves some level of risk, for which an action needs to be taken so that it does not occur again.

The basis of corrective action is that a nonconformance is present, which has been found through different sources that may be internal or external. It caters to major issues, safety concerns, recurring problems or situations in which change is sought by the customers in function, fit or form. The action gives rise to several benefits, such as solving the issue, improving the degree of transparency, establishing a benchmark for subsequent developments and changes in the quality management system. The action taken is recorded to make sure that the issue has been identified and rectified so that suitable controls can be developed to prevent it from arising again in the future.

Corrective action involves the following steps:

  • Determine and record the key reason for the emergence of the nonconformity.
  • The entire system is then scanned to ensure that such nonconformity does not occur.
  • Assess how the nonconformity could affect the product or service before it is detected.
  • Take relevant action according to the seriousness of the situation.
  • Establishing a comprehensive follow-up to ensure that the correction is effective and there are no chances of the defect reoccurring in the future.

Preventive action

Prevention action refers to the action that is based on the likelihood that the non-conformity will occur. In other words, it is the action taken to remove the possibility of a certain adverse event from occurring in the future. Here, the stress is on reinforcing the process so that the nonconformity does not occur and on documenting this procedure. Preventive action consists of making predictions about the problem that may be experienced and developing plans to face these problems.

Preventive action assumes that proper control and supervision should be a part of quality management systems so that the issues can be predicted, identified and eliminated before they take place. It identifies the possible discrepancies within the product or services before they occur so that different measures can be taken to avoid them. These discrepancies can be determined by carrying out an analysis of the trends, performing internal audit, assessing customer feedback, workers involvement, etc. This is done so as to streamline the business operations and decrease the risk of issues being experienced in the future.

Prevention action involves the following steps:

  • Take proactive measures to prevent possible nonconformities from occurring by using information obtained from different sources to identify, evaluate and remove possible causes of nonconformance.
  • Determine the steps that should be carried out to avoid the occurrence of issues.
  • Carry out preventive measures and make sure they are effective.
  • Keep a record of actions taken and review them.

Difference between corrective and preventive action

The five major points of difference between corrective and preventive action are listed below:

1. Meaning:

Corrective action refers to the action taken to remove the cause of nonconformity and to make sure that it does not occur again. On the other hand, preventive action is the action taken to remove the cause of a possible nonconformity or any other undesirable event that may take place in the future.

2. Kind of measure:

Corrective action is reactive in nature because it concentrates on what has already occurred, while preventive action is proactive in nature because it focuses on what may happen in the future.

3. When is it carried out?

Corrective action is carried out after the defect has been identified, whereas preventive action is carried out before the defect has been identified.

4. Starting point:

The starting point for corrective action is the root cause analysis, i.e. determining the main cause for the emergence of the issue. In contrast, the starting point for preventive action is risk analysis and evaluation.

5. Prevents:

Corrective action is carried out to avoid a nonconformity that has already occurred from occurring again in the future, i.e. its aim is to prevent its reoccurrence. On the contrary, preventive action is carried out to deal with a possible nonconformity so that it does not occur at all.

Corrective vs preventive action – tabular comparison

A comparison of corrective and preventive action in tabular form is presented below:

Corrective action vs Prevention action
Action carried out to remove the cause of an undesirable event that has already occurred in the past Action carried out to prevent the occurrence of a potentially undesirable event in the future
Kind of measure
Reactive in nature Proactive in nature
When is it carried out?
After defect has been identified Before defect has been identified
Starting point
Root cause analysis Risk analysis
Reoccurrence of nonconformity Occurrence of nonconformity

Conclusion – corrective vs preventive action

In conclusion, it can be asserted that the basis of corrective action is a nonconformance that has already taken place, while that of preventive action is avoiding a nonconformance event from occurring in the future.

Corrective action and preventive action both concentrate on continuous improvement and are very important aspects of the quality management system employed within the organization. It is important that in both of these, some kind of system is used for recording events so that trends can be determined. In addition, it should be determined by businesses whether the actions being taken do actually have the required impact of decreasing nonconformities.