Quality Magazine

Manufacturing Excellence: The Art and Sense of Good Audits

April 30, 2010


Imagine you are stuck on a highway with a flat tire, and the emergency repair guy tells you everything is fine and leaves. Today’s quality management system auditors do the same thing. They say that the quality management system works fine even though the business is limping with a flat foundation and poor processes.

A well-performing system requires effective checks and balances. A dependable and well-performing car has built-in sensors and displays for unexpected performances. Even a simple car incorporates warnings before a breakdown.

One can see that when we feel there is a need, we do the right things. We know that a poorly performing automobile can be unsafe so we design the necessary proactive detection systems so the driver can take care of nonconforming conditions.

The company that builds the car many times over does not have the necessary checks and balances. In an automotive company there may be many poorly performing cars, even poor designs, but still there is no warning system. We know that a car being built is not unsafe to people physically, but it can be dangerous financially to the corporation. Where were the warning signs that led to our current fiscally dangerous performance?

Internal audits are the sensors built into a quality management system that are supposedly designed in the corporate engine to give warning signs of poor operational performance. The audits can be used to give warning signals when the profitability of a corporation is sliding. Corporations need better dashboards monitoring the corporate engine.

One of the problems with the internal audits deployed today is that they are designed to pass third-party audits. Imagine if your car’s dashboard was designed to give good information to the auto technician even though it does not work properly. When our car gives an indication of questionable performance, we magnify that to the technician so he can fix it because the squeaky wheel gets the oil.

The problem is there are no squeaks for poor corporate performance so no one changes the oil or does the necessary maintenance. How can we design squeaky internal audits? Design an internal audit system to make noise when there are noncompliances to help keep the corporate engine running like a well-oiled machine.

To design a good internal quality audit system, one must clearly define and communicate the intent of the audits. It must go beyond simply fooling the auditors. The goal must be to identify opportunities for improvement, give warning signals and highlight emergencies.

Sensors in your car work all the time, not just once a year. Can you imagine if your car’s sensors for tire pressure, airbag functionality, headlights and fuel level were designed to work only once a year? We would not buy such a car. Yet, often internal audits are conducted once a year right before the third-party audit. It certainly erodes the confidence in the quality management system, and corporate performance most likely will slip.

The fact of the matter is that the corporations do perform below par without any warnings. Even if the sensors are there, the dashboard is either hidden or damaged.

For an effective and value-added audit, in addition to the right intent, the audit frequency must be weekly on a formal basis, and continue informally through the culture of checks and balances.

Every employee must become a sensor for detecting questionable performance. Trained internal auditors must conduct audits with a higher sensitivity toward poor performance and use a reporting system that does not bury the information. They must be given horns to honk if the quality management system is not working as it was intended.

We have seen the consequences of failing to do so. Company after company fails quarter after quarter, but audits indicate they are doing well, and third-party auditors keep certifying the quality management systems with flying colors. We keep designing more advanced quality management systems while we have not yet learned to use the first version.