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Energy Management Systems: is Continual Improvement Perpetual?

09 November 2017

One of the questions we get asked often now regards what happens when the cost of improvement initiatives outweighs the benefit and as such improvement may not be possible. Find out here.

There has recently been a gear amount of discussion regarding what were claimed to be new requirements that were added to ISO 50001 via the ‘back door’. The most significant of these was that “you will now have to demonstrate improvement in energy performance in order to be certified.”

There is a separate news item on our website that gives a full response from NQA regarding this issue and our definitive position as certification body. The requirement for continual improvement in energy performance has always been a requirement within ISO 50001 -  In clause 1 - Scope it states:

“…. to follow a systematic approach in achieving continual improvement of energy performance including energy efficiency, energy use and consumption.”.

However, failure to demonstrate this improvement at an assessment would now mean that a major non-conformance is issued.

One of the questions we get asked often now regards what happens when the cost of improvement initiatives outweighs the benefit and as such improvement may not be possible. In other words “Is Continual Improvement Perpetual?” To answer that, let’s remind ourselves of what is required by ISO 50001:
Establishing an EnMS requires you to:

  • Develop and implement an energy policy

  • Identify your main energy uses

  • Set energy objectives and measurable targets

  • Implement and operate programmes to meet these objectives and targets

  • Check and take corrective action as required

  • Review your system continually and improve energy performance.

Continual improvement therefore ensures you remain alert for new opportunities as they arise and exploit all areas where energy savings can be achieved. But is this possible?

It has often been said that with continual improvement, you are always closer to the beginning of the journey than to the end. The quality pioneer Walter Shewhart described continual improvement not as a tool or technique as such; more a way of life or at least a cultural approach. This led to his and Deming’s development of the Plan-Do-Check-Act model on which all our management systems are based. The repetition of the PDCA cycle, with each cycle producing improvement, leads us to the term 'continual improvement'.

However, when applied to energy management systems and in particular energy performance this raises the issues detailed earlier regarding cost/benefit.

We need to remember however that this requirement relates to energy performance and not absolute energy use. ISO 50001 describes energy performance as:

“measureable results related to energy efficiency, energy use and energy consumption.”

This of concept continual improvement already existed in the current standard, but now that work is underway on revising the standard, the draft revision provides greater emphasis by requiring organizations to demonstrate continual improvement through formal monitoring and measuring actions, accompanied by relevant variables for comparison purposes.

This issue is not therefore going to go away in fact it will have a much higher profile in the revised standard. So, can this improvement go on for ever?

There is, as you might expect a variety of opinions on this issue. The writers of the standard, ISO Technical Committee 301 certainly think that this improvement is never ending as they are giving it enhanced status in the revised standard. As NQA’s Principal Assessor I have a slightly differing view in that I believe that as long as the trend is towards improvement with maybe some occasional explainable dips in performance that this is acceptable.

Remember the standard uses the term continual and not continuous. These two words are not the same. Continuous improvement means never ceasing and the analogy I use to describe this is walking up a smooth ramp. Continual improvement takes the form of climbing a set of stairs. The direction of travel is upwards however we may occasionally pause and climb a step at a time. This is the way I think of improvement. It is not a smooth transition and there may be pauses and even some downward movement at times. So long as this lack of progress is explained than this should not cause problems.

This brings us to the main crux of the issue - the use of performance indicators. ISO 50001 requires that EnPIs are used to demonstrate performance and associated trends. Many of the organisations that I have assessed and have run into problems of demonstrating lack of improvement but can fully explain the reasons have used indicators that are too simplistic. Simple indicators such as kW/Kg of product do not take into account normal variations in production levels, variations in materials, weather, changes in customer requirements etc.

Many drops in energy performance that I have seen are related to changes in customer requirements. For example one textile company found that their customer changed the moisture content of the wool from 15% to 12% requiring a longer drying time and subsequent higher energy use. They used the above simple kW/Kg factor which showed a drop in performance. By adding in an additional variable - in this case moisture content then performance would have at minimum remained level.

Getting the right indicators only allows you to smooth out any predictable variations but does not guarantee never ceasing improvement. This can only be achieved through changes in working practice, use of new technologies and increased innovation. This is where most people foresee difficulties in years to come. 

It has been said to me that the logical conclusion to perpetual improvement in energy performance is that eventually we will have to operate using no energy at all. That is clearly not possible nor is the aim of the standard. Currently, the 2011 version of the standard treats all energy sources as equal and a kilowatt is a kilowatt however it has been produced. It is my hope that the revised standard will allow for improvement to be demonstrated via the use of renewable kilowatts rather than carbon based energy.

I too share the concerns as to how continual improvement can be demonstrated year on year for ever! It is my view that continual improvement to its logical completion at zero energy use is unachievable. I would hope that the writers of the new standard will make allowances for more sustainable generation as a way of contributing to required improvements but there will still be the need to show improvement in other ways.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that within the defined terms used in the current ISO 50001 standard, continual improvement cannot be perpetual and I ask the writers of the revised standard to bear this in mind and allow a more flexible approach to how improvement can be demonstrated.

In the meantime we need to ensure that the EnPIs we use are flexible enough to be able to take into account know variables and that where there are unaccounted for variations that may show a temporary ‘blip’, this is explained and certainly in the case of NQA, we will look favourably on such situations  and aim to treat them accordingly.