Plan-Do-Check-Act: The Perfect Strategy for ISO 14001 Certification Success

A notebook on a desk, opened at a Plan-Do-Check-Act circular flow diagram, surrounded by a laptop, mobile phone, pen, plant and cup of coffee.

ISO 14001 certification provides a framework for continuous improvement of environmental management systems. And the basis of the approach is founded on a four-phase concept known as Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA).

The PDCA model is an interactive process that drives continual improvement. And it can be applied to your entire environmental management system (EMS), besides each individual element.

It’s a systematic approach to environmental management. And the levels of documentation involved equip you with powerful quantitative and qualitative data. This empowers you to make better business decisions and that contribute to your long-term success.

But let’s define ISO 14001 certification first, before we take a closer look at PDCA and how it works.

Getting started towards ISO 14001 Certification

A management system is a structured framework to help you manage your –

  • Risks
  • Processes
  • Resources

ISO14001 certification covers all of these elements. But it also includes an additional one –

  • Environmental protection

It’s a standard that sets out a best practice framework for environmental management. But additionally, it also puts some reason behind the rhyme. It does this by giving you the flexibility to adapt it to your business objectives. This makes it a more accessible and engaging proposition, no matter what size your business is, where you are, or what sector you operate in.  

ISO 14001 certification requires you to demonstrate a systematic approach to managing your environmental impacts, regardless of your business characteristics. But it doesn’t stop there. It’s a continuous process. And once you’ve put the initial processes and procedures in place, you need to review and improve your system on an ongoing basis.

And there’s a tried-and-tested guiding principle to help get you on track, and to keep you there.

The principal of continual improvement

The PDCA cycle helps you to laser focus on continual improvement, whether you’re the MD steering the direction of the business, or a team member who’s responsible for a specific task.

It’s the operating principle of all ISO management system standards, including ISO 14001 certification. And by following it, you can effectively manage and continually improve your business effectiveness.


Defining your policy

You’re unlikely to get the best out of an EMS if your leadership team aren’t fully committed. So, they need to be involved from the onset, to –

  • Define the business’ environmental policy
  • Determine the scope
  • Assign responsibilities and authorities for the relevant roles

Identifying environmental aspects

During this part of the process, you identify the potential environmental impacts of the activities, products and/or services which you can control or influence. So, think about the impact that each component of your business might have on the environment, across the entire end-to-end product or service life cycle. (Click here to read What is an Environmental Aspects and Impacts Register? where we go into more detail about preparing an aspects and impacts register.)

Objectives and targets

A core requirement of ISO 14001 certification is to establish, implement and maintain measurable and documented environmental objectives and targets which are consistent with the aims of the environmental policy.  To this end, the comprehensive documentation and measurement, including pre-determined indicators for gauging your progress at every step of the process, are the best ways to plan to achieve these requirements.

Keeping compliant

Meeting with ISO 14001 certification standards requires you to identify and assess all relevant legislation. A savvy way to approach this is to incorporate your compliance obligations at the initial planning stages, alongside your significant environmental aspects, and your other priority risks and opportunities.


Resources and responsibility

As you set about bringing your management system to life, you might want to appoint a member of the team to take responsibility for reporting on performance monitoring. Ensuring that you’re meeting the standard is key to its success. So, it’s crucial that you make the necessary resources available, however you ultimately decide to do this.


Communication is at the heart of implementing and upkeeping ISO 14001 certification. For this purpose, a robust internal and external communication framework is non-negotiable.

Competence, training and awareness

ISO 14001 success is ultimately down to a deep understanding of the management system, coupled with the roles that employees play in its deployment. To this end, it can be game-changing to conduct training courses and/or workshops to engage your employees, and to inspire them to meet the requirements and mitigate environmental impacts.

Operational control

Smooth running operations are the result of a series of checks and balances that ensure the smooth running of an activity.  There are various operations that need to be controlled in each and every business. So, you’ll need to implement suitable procedures and performance criteria to meet the requirements of the standard.

Emergency readiness

The very nature of environmental impacts dictates that you need to have plans in place for confidently responding to any emergency situations and incidents. These plans should be tested, for example, with a fire drill or mock spillage response.

Documentation and control

Documentation control is a core theme of most management systems. It’s no different with ISO 14001 certification. The standard identifies which documents and records need to be maintained, and how they should be controlled and updated.


Monitoring and measurement

After identifying environmental impacts, your business will need to assess against the processes you put in place to monitor and measure them. This might sound complex. But, it’s not the arduous task you might imagine, as long as you’ve got all the necessary documentation to record your performance.

Evaluation of compliance

It’s already been touched on that meeting and keeping on top of legal requirements is essential. And so, too, is the evaluation and documentation of your performance against these criteria.

Internal audits

You need to plan and conduct regular internal audits to ensure that your business stays on track. These audits need to be impartial and objective. And you can find out more about them in our How To Conduct Internal Audits blog post.

Management review

The aim of ISO 14001 certification is to deliver continuous improvements to your business. So unsurprisingly, management reviews are a fundamental part of meeting the requirements of the standard. These should be scheduled and recorded in order to –

  • Identify successes
  • Earmark opportunities for improvement
  • Pinpoint and deploy any changes that need to be made



The final clause of the standard is titled “Improvement”. And that equates to an EMS framework that’s constantly bending and flexing, because it all comes down to this…

By regularly and repeatedly revisiting your impacts and objectives, it’s as close to watertight as you can get to ensuring that your system stays relevant to your business. And the more relevant your system is, the more value you get from it.

Nonconformity, corrective and preventative action

After all, things don’t always go as intended in business. But, having a relevant system keeps you prepped and ready for any occasions when non-conformity occurs or comes to light.

So, it’s advisable to think about corrective AND preventative actions, in line with the severity of the issue, in terms of: identification; investigation; evaluation; recording and reviewing.

Identify improvements

The EMS framework provides you with all the information and processes you need to identify areas of improvement, prioritise them and implement them. And once you’ve got everything set up, it’s a case of rinsing and repeating, with a continuous Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle that rotates rather than starts and finishes.

Using the PDCA cycle in your EMS

The application of the PDCA cycle is massively beneficial for improving the overall success of your EMS. It also drives you to greater effectiveness in protecting the environment and avoiding adverse environmental impacts.

After all, environmental protection is the reason for ISO 14001 certification in the first place, though it entails many and varied benefits to your business, too.

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