Take the Fear Out of Audits
Audits don’t have to be big, scary events. Done right, they can help a company improve.
May 1, 2013
Complying with a quality management standard can yield improvements for a company. Source: TÜV SÜD America Inc.
Complying with a quality management standard can yield improvements for a company. But before a business can get certified, they have to get audited. And this is a word that tends to scare people. But auditors say that manufacturers can prepare for audits in a way that helps all involved parties. Hiding things in the ceiling is obviously not the best way to prepare for an audit. But what should companies do to prepare? The article will offer advice for internal auditors and explain how to audit a process, as well as clear up some common audit misconceptions.
The common audit advice is to plan ahead for an audit so employees know what to expect, especially for those who have never gone through an audit before. It helps people know where records are located and what questions they are likely to be asked. After all, it is a stranger coming into your facility, says Denise Robitaille of Robitaille Associates, and “Not everyone has same level of comfort with stranger asking them questions.”
And, though it may seem like common sense, remind everyone that honesty is important. Don’t try to hide things from the auditor. One, they will probably figure things out on their own, and two, the idea is to help the business improve. If you simply set up a façade of quality processes, it won’t help anyone.
But, too much preparation isn’t good either. Sometimes the most nervous people during an audit are those that have recently had extensive preparation meetings. Furthermore, companies should be following their quality management system so they shouldn’t need to have a mad dash in the weeks before an audit. Ideally, the audit should just be a regular day at the company.
In fact, Clark recalled a company he worked with where the audit was just another day. Only a few key people at the organization knew of the audit, and the rest of the employees just went about their regular work. While surprise audits might sound about as fun as a surprise root canal, it helped keep the company on track without the disruption of audit prep. Since they had so many different standards in place, it made the most sense just to treat the audit as nothing out of the ordinary.
Other experts echo this idea. “In an ideal world, there should be no preparation. The system that an organization has should be able to be used on a daily basis,” says Sidney Vianna, director of aviation, space and defense services with DNV Business Assurance. “Like college, if we study for the quarter or semester, there’s no marathon studying before the finals.”
If companies have automated systems, this can be easier, says John A. DiMaria, product marketing manager, BSI Group America Inc. While some companies are able to work with Microsoft products like Word and Excel, it can be difficult to track data as the company grows. “It’s like trying to do your own taxes,” DiMaria says, “whether filing an EZ form or if you own 12 properties and have 10 kids.”
As the business needs become more complicated, DiMaria says many companies transition to an automated system, which can help smooth out the business processes.
And preparation differs for internal and external audits. Internal audits can be thought of as preparation for the external audit, a higher-stakes event with outsiders coming to evaluate your business processes. But they shouldn’t just be thought of as a dress rehearsal for the “real” audit. Internal audits can be a great way to help improve a company’s processes, with everyone on the same side working together.
“It is my belief that internal audits, if well conducted, could be one of the best tools to drive improvements in an organization,” says Vianna. “Internal auditing is a big wasted tool in the industry. Companies do these internal audits just to satisfy the requirements… It should be something top management demands to see business benefits from, and demands to see opportunity for improvement for each and every audit. It’s a very small group that gains benefits.”
So how to be part of the small group that gets them right? The first step is to select the internal auditor. “One of the things I consistently say in my training courses,” Vianna says, “is that the most important thing for anybody to be a good auditor, internal or external, is communication. Communication skills are paramount. If I cannot communicate with the people I have to interface with, I will be a lousy auditor.”
In addition to communication skills, the internal auditor should be someone who is able to actually look critically at the organization, rather than simply take it easy on their colleagues. Though this may seem like a nice thing to do, it won’t help the organization improve. And it won’t be of help when the external auditor discovers these issues. So examine the business processes and see how they could potentially be improved.
Finally, it is important to follow through. If the internal audit raises questions about corrective action issues, be sure to correct these issues.
Praveen Gupta, director of the IIT Center for Innovation Science and Applications, says internal audits can provide value, if done correctly. “Internal audits are really the most powerful tool management can use to effectively address the company’s issues,” Gupta says. “Internal audits are the eyes and ears, and tell them what’s going on.”
Vianna adds that internal auditors should focus on the higher impact areas of the business: “Very few companies pay attention to that. They basically just audit the same departments to the same schedule. They might be overkilling some departments that are very stable or less critical in terms of customer satisfaction. What I try to make these people realize is they have to understand business processes and how those business processes affect quality.”
Most people don’t think of audits of a conversation, but that’s ideally what they should be. In fact, according to Merriam-Webster, the word audit comes from the “Latin auditus, act of hearing, from audire.” The parties involved should listen to each other, and plan to get results. It is not an inquisition.
As Clark explains, the original auditing term came from the maritime industry, in which someone would audit the ship’s manifest to be sure everything was there that was supposed to be. Though audits have since moved to dry land, the basic idea of verification remains the same. Is the company doing what it says it is doing?
So don’t be afraid of audits—but do take them seriously. Robitaille says that people may eventually get over their fear of audits only to become nonchalant about them. “Some will go from fear to ‘Oh, this is no big deal, this doesn’t matter,’ but that’s not much better,” she says. “There is not much benefit if they think it’s no big deal.”
“The best companies to audit are those that are implementing ISO 9001 for the right reasons,” says Randy Daugharthy, director of business development for Bureau Veritas Certification North America Inc. “The fun companies to audit are those that really embrace the idea of quality improvement.”
Daugharthy has seen companies that don’t exactly make the quality policy a part of their business process until audit time. He recalled one company that wrote the quality policy on candy bars to help everyone memorize it. But when he arrived, he found only about half of the company knew the policy. It turned out that the extra candy bars had been eaten, so not everybody got the message.
So, while it is important to have documents in place, these are not the only things to consider. “The records are really the end of the audit trail. It’s not just a documentation audit,” says Daugharthy. “It’s people running the process. It’s more about the people than I think most people think.”
So you’ve prepared for an audit and done the internal audit. Your work is actually just starting. “The most important thing is what happens after the internal audit happens,” says Joe Pinto, PRI’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “The key is to be sure you are working your way through the nonconformances, and have enough time to make sure internal audit corrections before the real audit starts. Internal audits are useless if you don’t follow through.”