Standards, whether ISO or not, are essential because they offer guidance for ensuring your organization’s products and services consistently meet customer requirements. But standards alone aren’t enough. To ensure processes and systems are complying with requirements, audits are needed.

Audits are not easy. Some colleagues may view audits as a necessary evil. Some may view them as just another thing to do. Hopefully, no one will see them as a waste of time.

Whether you’re scheduling an audit or conducting the audit, there are plenty of things to keep in mind. Ensuring there is a process for establishing objectives and targets should be top of mind.

“By identifying the key goals of the organizations,” states Andy Hofmann, president and general manager, ICS Certification Services Inc., in “Performance Validation Through Audits” (a presentation at the 2009 ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement), “the auditor can then observe to what extent the management system permits the achievement of these goals.”

Getting top management engaged is a common call when addressing anything quality-related. While it might be very difficult to get top management on board with Six Sigma or another quality initiative, Hofmann suggests that a little bit of observing and research can go a long way in increasing management engagement.

“By selecting key projects that management has identified for improving the business, the auditor can double the value added. Senior management will receive the information it needs concerning the implementation and maintenance of its key process changes. At the same time, the auditor will be able to demonstrate coverage of the appropriate management systems standard.”

By focusing the audit on improving business, the audit process is no longer a necessary evil, just another thing or a waste of time. The audit process adds value to the business. The audit, as audit expert Dennis Arter stated in a recent interview with ASQ TV, helps ensure you have the right controls in place. Controls combat risk (reducing risk will make any executive happy) and the audit checks to see if your organization’s controls are defined, applied, work properly, and continue onward.

Making the audit work

In reading the literature available on conducting an audit, it becomes apparent there is one obvious reason an audit does not work: poor planning.

In the same interview with ASQ TV, Arter offers tips to the auditor preparing for a successful audit. To relieve stress an auditor should:

  • Know the audit’s purpose. Answer the question, “Why are you doing the audit?” Understand what the goal is and how the audit is tied to the business.
  • Know the audit’s scope. Recognize that an audit cannot examine everything. Concentrate on a few areas and the audit will make more of an impact.
  • Assemble a team. Audits are rarely conducted by one person. Make sure you have a team well in advance of the audit date(s).
  • Secure authorization. Do not assume that because the audit has been discussed in meetings and/or emails, it is authorized. Secure authorization before beginning to plan and prepare for the audit.
  • Select the criteria. Identify the criteria you will use to audit the activities.
  • Pinpoint the processes. Similar to clarifying the scope (#2), you cannot possibly examine every process and activity. Identify specific processes and activities while—once again—tying it back to business plans.
  • Write it all down. Compile a plan and share it with auditees.
  • Study the processes. Learn all you can about the activities you’re going to audit.
  • Create a checklist. Make a customized, detailed list of questions you’re going to ask the auditee.

Arter also has ideas to help minimize stress for those being audited. Auditors should:

  • Provide a copy of the audit schedule ahead of time.
  • Have an informal conversation well before the audit to start building a relationship.
  • Provide a copy of the detailed audit plan one month prior to the scheduled audit.
  • Give auditees a copy of the detailed checklist questions so they can do their own self-audit ahead of time.
  • Develop a more detailed schedule of audit events at the beginning of the audit. (This can be coined the audit “opening meeting.”)

 Secure necessary authorization and buy-in prior to the audit. Make sure the goals of the audit are tied directly to business needs. Manage your time wisely and be prepared for the unexpected during the audit. Through planning, you give your audit a chance to be a value-added process for your organization. Through planning, you can teach colleagues to stop thinking of audits as anything but a positive experience.