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Columnist Jack West

Photo:  Jack West


Transform Quality Auditing

Getting more out of internal audits




When quality professionals think about quality audits, it’s usually in terms of providing assurance that requirements have been met. After all, that’s the basic purpose for having an audit program. Almost certainly, compliance issues will arise when a quality management system is new. But organizations with fairly mature quality management systems should expect requirement conformity. So should these organizations dispense with quality auditing?

With mature quality management systems, it’s common to hear top managers question the value of the audit process. Of course, they admit that some value lies simply in knowing that the system functions smoothly, but that’s seldom a satisfactory justification. This is because they’re looking at auditing in much the same way as their third-party registrar’s auditors.

Thinking about internal quality audits only in terms of conformity isn’t adequate for a variety of reasons:

Such audits merely duplicate the work of external auditors.

They focus on what’s required now rather than on future needs.

They don’t add adequate value to justify continued support by top managers.

These audits focus only on finding current problems for corrective action and often overlook situations that conform to requirements but have great potential for future failures.


Quality leaders must think about their audit programs more broadly. Although an internal audit should never surrender its role of ensuring conformity, as conformity improves a good program can take on new and potentially more valuable roles. Registrars’ auditors can’t go beyond conformity because then they’d run the risk of appearing to act as consultants or overstepping ethical boundaries. Internal auditors, however, have fewer constraints. They can delve deep into processes and look for major opportunities for improvement.

Leaders and internal auditors alike must start thinking about their audit programs as important drivers for improvement. However, a change in thinking alone isn’t sufficient. The internal audit process can be a powerful tool to drive improvement, but such results don’t occur by chance. A new charter, with new objectives, is needed for the audit program. Most important, a new kind of auditor is needed--one with different training.

If the audit program’s focus is changed to make it a driver of improvement, then organizations must select only the best and the brightest of their people to serve as auditors. This tends to maximize the quality of thought in such actions as identifying best practices, seeking out opportunities for improvement, assessing dedication to customer satisfaction or understanding the nuances of the organi-zation’s processes. Second, using the best people as auditors sends the signal to the organization that auditing is an important activity.

Along with a change in thinking about the audit process, the objectives must be changed as well. In addition to verifying conformity with requirements, audit objectives should include the following:

Seeking opportunities for improvements to products, services and processes

Identifying best practices so they can be replicated elsewhere in the organization

Determining how well the organization focuses on and serves customers’ needs

Looking for risks of future product or process failures and identifying opportunities for preventive action

Determining if the organization’s activities align with its quality policy, quality objectives and overall mission


These represent big changes for some organizations. Quality leaders can’t implement such changes without top managers’ full support and involvement. For example, if a new strategy involves finding and sharing best practices, a support structure might be needed to facilitate the transfer of the identified knowledge from one part of the organization to others. This means that top management must formally establish the new objectives for the audit program and clearly understand what resources will be needed to enhance value.

Those who have mature quality management systems should reassess how their audit programs add value. It’s very likely that opportunities abound for reaching organizational goals by refocusing internal audits.

This article is based on chapter 8 of the book Unlocking the Power of Your Quality Management System: Keys to Performance Improvement, by John E. (Jack) West and Charles A. Cianfrani (ASQ Quality Press). A short video program titled Internal Auditing Basics, by the same authors and published by the International Forum for Management Systems Inc., is available as a training aid for internal auditors.

About the author
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. He is chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO TC 176 and lead delegate for the United States to the International Organization for Standardization committee responsible for the ISO 9000 family of quality management standards.