Tackle Internal Audits
December 1, 2009
Now, more than ever, organizations are skipping required internal quality audits. Registrars will say that getting audits performed as scheduled has always been a challenge for organizations. However, with increased layoffs and budget cutbacks, there are fewer trained internal auditors to perform audits, and those who are assigned to perform audits, often, are too busy to do a thorough job.
When audits do get completed, the time allocated to do the audit is limited. Many times, the audit is performed just prior to the registrar’s visit, and resulting audit findings are not value-added to the organization. Internal auditors think that registrars will not notice the hastily completed audit checklists or weak audit findings-but they do. When an internal audit program has not been maintained, quality management system certification is at risk.
Finding Time for AuditsPerforming internal audits is no longer a priority when organizations are in survival mode. However, when management does not support a robust internal audit program, it may cost the organization money. The most common problem with layoffs is that remaining workers end up performing tasks for which they have had little or no training or experience. When this occurs, the likelihood of errors increases greatly. Work errors result in process inefficiencies, defective product and customer returns. Internal audits often identify mistakes made because of ineffective training.
Cost-cutting measures may result in sudden procedure changes or the elimination of steps. Unfortunately, these changes are not always thought through and inefficiencies result as workers create alternative methods or ignore critical processes.
Many preventive action measures such as process performance measurement and corrective and preventive actions also are neglected which contributes to the rise in costly quality problems. Internal audits identify cases where procedures and other requirements are not followed.
When internal quality audits are not performed or are performed haphazardly, it is likely that errors and inefficiencies will not be caught until costly mistakes are made. When quality problems do arise, the problems are quickly excused by all concerned because of the recent layoffs and cutbacks. Unfortunately, customers do not accept excuses for poor quality and service.
Regular internal quality audits reinforce the need to comply with requirements. Without the regular reinforcement that internal audits provide, workers may take shortcuts or improvise with inconsistent outcomes. Workers sometimes assume that complying with requirements in procedures, work orders and other instructions is no longer essential when audits are not conducted. This is akin to drivers speeding when they assume that police are not around to catch them. By not insisting on maintaining an effective internal audit program, top management is making a costly error.
EvaluationRe-evaluation of the internal audit program relative to the current needs of the organization is essential.
1. First, the audit schedule should be evaluated. The audit schedule should prioritize processes to be audited based on the critical nature of the process relative to customer satisfaction, as well as the instability of the process. More time should be allocated to auditing processes which have been most impacted by personnel changes and other cost-cutting measures. Many organizations audit processes too frequently and the audits produce little actionable data. However, fewer and more thorough audits typically provide more meaningful audit findings.
2. Audits should be scheduled well in advance of the registrar’s visit to allow ample time to correct deficiencies. Audits must occur as scheduled because schedule noncompliances send a message throughout the organization that internal audits are not important.
3. Auditors should be careful not to cite lack of training as nonconformances. Auditors should identify the problems resulting from noncompliance with requirements. The need for training should be determined by the manager if the manager identifies lack of effective training as a root cause.
4. In addition to re-evaluating the audit schedule, audit resources shall be assessed. There should be a sufficient number of skilled auditors to perform thorough audits of the quality management system. Skilled auditors should be able to identify problems and opportunities for improvement that will enhance the organization’s profitability.
Scheduling auditors should be realistic and take into account day-to-day demands of the business. When auditors are expected to perform audits and say, simultaneously get orders out, both the audit program and productivity suffer. Audits which have been shorted or performed to simply produce paperwork which appears to satisfy the ISO 9001 requirement for internal audits, or audits performed by unskilled auditors, waste the organization’s time and talent.
The Right TeamFew people have all the skills needed to perform effective audits. Assigning audit teams, with complementing skills, oftentimes is an effective solution. Some auditors are more skilled at documenting audit results and some may be skilled interviewers. When paired as a team, audits often are more thorough and better documented. It is essential that audit findings are clearly documented to ensure effective corrective action.
When skilled auditors are not available to perform value-added audits, the organization should consider outsourcing the auditing with a professional. Audits performed by an experienced and certified professional often are more cost effective than performing audits with internal personnel. Effective audits can be performed in less time than it takes lesser skilled internal auditors to perform. Contracted internal auditors, typically are not concerned with the internal politics of the organization nor do they accept excuses for deviating from requirements. Professional auditors objectively evaluate processes for opportunities for correction and improvement based on the organization’s objectives and procedures.
It is common for contracted auditors to identify issues that have been overlooked in the past, or could jeopardize the organization’s certification if not corrected. An auditing professional should be able to present audit results so that everyone in the organization can understand what needs to be done to correct and prevent nonconformances.
Contract internal auditors should be certified by a professional auditing agency such as RABQSA, IRCA and ASQ and be experienced in auditing many different types of organizations in various industries. In addition to providing an effective internal audit, the auditing agency should be able to provide other advice to assist organizations with maintaining their quality management system.
Correcting weaknesses with the current internal audit program will prevent costly problems, enhance productivity and keep the organization from losing its quality management system certification during tough economic times. Q