Smile, You're Being Audited
External audits are important, and external audit programs such as those associated with third-party certification and/or registration schemes can complement an internal audit program. Although internal auditors have more in-depth knowledge about the company, external auditors generally have broader knowledge based on their experiences with many other organizations.
So what does it take to get value from an external audit?
• A good auditor
• A good attitude
• An honest corrective action
Getting a good external auditor is often the most difficult of the three because companies usually have no real choice. Although it may be difficult to find a good auditor, you can certainly complain to the auditor's boss if you get a bad one. You should expect your external auditors to be professional, well mannered and focused on the task at hand. Sometimes we're faced with incompetent auditors or with auditors with "pet requirements" who can't be objective. Other auditors won't accept innovative approaches to achieving conformity with the required standard.
If there's a problem with auditor competence or behavior, the audited organization should take action immediately. If it involves a third-party auditor, call the registrar's office and discuss the situation frankly with a top manager.
Then there are our own attitudes toward audits. We all know of organizations that are so caught up in their own methods that they can't see the virtues of an auditor's findings or recommendations. Often we view external audits as abnormal interruptions of our daily routine. It's true that audits take up our time and resources, but in many cases they're just one of the normal costs of doing business. If we adopt a more positive view, we can see audits as opportunities to get other people's perspective on our methods. If the external auditor is competent and the personnel in the audited organization keep their minds open, the audit process can be a useful and valuable experience.
A little preparation can go a long way toward making an external audit a positive experience. This doesn't mean a rush effort to fix all the nonconformances that haven't been addressed during the previous six months. Elaborate preparations shouldn't be needed; in the best cases, no preparation at all is necessary. But it can be useful to ensure that you have all the normal materials auditors may want to see readily available. Remind everyone that auditors will want to see operating procedures, tools and measuring devices, and records. Everyone should be reminded that the audit team will ask questions about the procedure for corrective action or how nonconforming material is identified. Everyone should understand that it's important to answer auditors' questions honestly and factually.
Finally, and most important, take the audit findings, observations and comments seriously and do something about those that matter. First, look at each issue as a real problem with your system. (After careful consideration, you might reject this method, but it is the best place to start.) Look at the potential consequences if you don't address the true cause of the issue. Look at the process or processes involved. Determine what needs to be done to change the process or processes so that the problem or issue will not recur. Forget about simple audit-finding responses such as, "We retrained everyone" or "We changed the work instruction to tell them not to do it again." Instead, find the real source of the trouble and fix it. Training and procedural changes may be needed, but only after you've determined what's wrong with the process, and devised and implemented a true corrective action.
All of this takes time and the type of work that should be applied to real problems. Some audit findings or observations might not pass the test of being real problems. Auditees need to learn how to explain this type of situation in their audit replies.
External audits by third parties and customers aren't going away. Take action to make yours beneficial.
Note: This article is based in part on How to Audit the Process-Based QMS by John E. (Jack) West, Charles A. Cianfrani and Dennis R. Arter (ASQ Quality Press, 2003), and How to Deal with External Auditors--a Basic Guide for Employees, a training video by Charles Cianfrani and Jack West.
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. From 1997 through 2005, he was chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 176.