It’s two days before the quality audit, and as the Texans say, “This isn’t my first rodeo.” My team has done an outstanding job to help me and the production team prepare. I’m at my desk looking over the auditor’s schedule and audit scope, and finalizing in my head the conversations I’ll have to reassure each production manager across the different departments.
There are three light knocks at my open door, a signal that an uneasy soul is about to enter my office. Having an open-door policy means I rarely hear a knock, let alone three. I guess the audit schedule will have to come second for the next few minutes. I look up to see the door frame filled with the sizeable bulk of one of the production supervisors. He does cast a big shadow due to his massive height, and he is as broad as he is tall.
“Hey Iain, a very good evening to you,” I say. “Are you here to ask me what the colors of my socks are?” It’s a little joke between us; he gets a giggle from finding out which colorful and humorous punk socks I’m wearing that day.
He smiles. “I’m sure you’ll make me guess like you always do, Paul,” he replies. “But I’ve got a question for you.”
“Shoot.” (This is a term I no longer like to use now that I’m in the USA because it may produce an undesirable outcome.)
“I know that you and the quality guys are preparing for this audit thing....”
“Yes, that’s right. I remember you being involved in the preparation meetings and reviews, which I am grateful for.”
“Well, I’m a bit worried, Paul”
I’ve seen this before, and armed as I am with my vast improvement Ninja weaponry, I’ve got an answer prepared. “Don’t worry, Iain, it’s an opportunity for us to learn about ourselves and an opportunity to improve. Please don’t see it as a concern. It’ll be over before you know it.”
“I know that, Paul. You said that at our last meeting.”
Oh wow, I think. That wasn’t the answer he was looking for. Now I really need to tune into his channel.
“Iain, please take a seat.” He sits down, wedging his massive bulk between the arms of the chair. “What would you like to talk about? And what is it about this audit that worries you?”
“The thing is, Paul, what exactly is an audit? I don’t think I get it.”
Well, dear reader, like me, you may have been asked this question during your quality professional career. If you haven’t yet, you will be, and it’s a good idea to be prepared with an answer. I thought I’d write down my views of an audit. If they help, perhaps you can pass them on as a sufficient answer to the question.
First, a note to all veteran and professional auditors: I will begin by oversimplifying your role and might express it in a way that you disagree with. I explain the process and your role in this way because I’ve found it helps those who are unfamiliar with auditing come to grips with it. All letters of complaint received will be answered in 30 working days.
In its purest sense, and audit is an activity where the real world is compared against a “standard.”
Really, is it that simple? Well, in my childlike view of the world, it is. The route or technique used to compare the real world against the standard can be complex and challenging; however, we should be mindful that an audit is just an exercise in comparison.
Let me give you an example: checking your child’s bedroom to see if it is “clean.” You ask your firstborn if his room is clean, and he says that it is. You check for yourself, and view a scene resembling the effects of a tornado tearing through a toy store. This is not clean in your opinion, because you have a different standard that defines clean. And so you point out to your child that the multiple dinosaur-shaped hazards lying in wait to trip you do not conform to the definition of clean. Congratulations: You have now conducted an audit.
In the business world, our standards can be specifications, procedures, requirements, or recognized conditions. Due to certain legal requirements—for example, tax laws—financial institutions, financial professionals, or accountants will put huge resources in place to ensure that the rules are followed. Should something arise out of this financial audit that would question the integrity of what you provided the auditors in your accounts, the consequence would be painful: a fine or jail time.
As with finance, the business world has rules, requirements, or specifications that define how an organization will produce a “quality” product or service for its customers. A quality audit is a confirmation that the quality requirements are being complied with.
Really, is it that simple? Again, yes it is, and like the financial world, quality auditors must have some level of recognized professional status. The International Registrar of Certified Auditors (IRCA) is a good source for information about auditor certification. I won’t go into depth here about audit training or provide a preference to certification; however, I would advise that you, along with your employer, do thorough research on the appropriate training or certification agency. There is no one magic bullet or easy answer for training or certification in general, but I will always recommend applying the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) process to your recognized need.
In the simple world that I live in, I see only four distinct types of quality audits: the internal audit, the supplier audit, the certification audit, and the customer audit.
The internal audit. Typically, this is where one department will visit another and check that department against the company’s or customer’s requirements. This is useful because it has a level of independence from the processes being audited. Internal audits usually are conducted by part-time auditors in your business, unless you are lucky enough to have a team of full-time, in-house auditors. I used to do internal audits a great deal when I was conducting lean Six Sigma projects. Before starting to improve any process, I would check if the process was at variance to what was defined. I can’t tell you the number of improvement projects I’d postpone on the grounds that the process wasn’t being followed.
The supplier audit. This is the audit I dislike the most. With this one, an “audit” is demanded of a supplier when it fails to deliver a quality product. If this happens to you, take a time out and work with the supplier on the root cause of the problem before deciding on an audit. Try turning it into a positive experience, and take your specifications with you to see how, through an audit, your supplier is working toward achieving your requirements. If planning a supplier audit, and if time is limited, I would advise not auditing their entire quality management system, and focus on the areas where you see issues. For example, if the components the supplier provides to you repeatedly have problems, and there are many dimensions to the problem, consider spending some time on the components measurement or inspection processes. I like to get a sense of a supplier’s maturity by auditing its investigation process, comparing its investigations and the robustness of its corrective actions. To me, this is an indication of the company’s ability to improve, and their worthiness to be a supplier. As a Quality Punk, that does make me a demanding customer.
The certification audit. This is the process where third-party auditors will visit your facility and look through your quality management system, and the internal audits that have been conducted within your business, to see if your organization meets the requirements of the standard to which you are seeking certification. In my experience, the third-party certification auditors are full-time professionals with extensive careers in quality auditing. These auditors are good for a reason, so during a certification audit, stay close to them. Stay close not to divert them or try to answer all the questions they pose but to learn from them. I like to remind these certification auditors that I’m paying them a vast amount of money for their services, and I want to get value for the money. I usually get a positive reaction to that request.
The customer audit. This is my ultimate favorite, but only if it’s planned correctly. If the customer comes to audit you against their requirements, this is gift. They are going to highlight where you need to improve to meet their expectations. I would happily receive 10 audit findings, rather than have one complaint leading to an unhappy customer.
So, after grossly oversimplifying every element of auditing, I fully anticipate a barrage of complaints highlighting my errors from professional auditors. But because an audit is a brief experience, I don’t want to labor the point; I just aim to get to it.
I’ve experienced many audits in my career, and in preparation for them all I took the same view: Treat audits as an improvement opportunity, as they typically are the “C” in the PDCA cycle. Think about the last audit you had or conducted, recognize the positive outcomes your business gained from it, and share that experience with a colleague. If we recognize the good that comes from audits, the next audit you prepare for may not run up against as much resistance.