Auditing the Auditors
They may be a hassle, but audits can provide valuable insights and ideas for your company.
During the fourth quarter of this year, it seems that everyone and their brother have scheduled audits at my company. Some are for certifications such as ISO 9001 and AS9100. Others are customer-driven, as the cloud of Covid has at least partially lifted and after a three-year hiatus customers are able to travel to meet their suppliers. I have always hated audits; however, I also have learned that they can be a powerful tool when incorporated into the business planning process.
First, a disclaimer: I truly hate audits, for three basic reasons.
First, those conducting the audit – especially certification audits – have no clue what you make, the manufacturing challenges faced in producing the product, or industry-specific acceptability standards related to the product that you must meet. These auditors just follow a flat checklist and try to jam the proverbial square peg (your facility) into a round hole (their certification program).
Second, related to the first, is that auditors too often ask dumb questions that have no bearing on what or how you produce product or the quality of product you produce. One example from several years ago occurred during a customer audit when the “experienced” auditor asked, “Why don’t you just plate the inside of a drilled hole instead of leaving plating on the entire panel?” ‘Nuff said.
Third, more often than not, there is no reason for the audit. The audit wastes all their time and ours to validate that a company knows how to manufacture the product they produce.
With that as background, I have found that despite the above, audits can be useful if put into the context of a planning tool. Having different eyes looking at your facility, its processes, and deliverables validates that you know what you are doing and enables a company to create a punch list of “opportunities for improvement.”
During certification audits, the auditor might not know anything about your industry, product or processes, but they have been in a wide variety of manufacturing facilities in a broad cross-section of industries that include large corporations as well as smaller companies. While querying the auditor about best practices they have seen – and the type of environments they were observed in – will provide many inputs that are not applicable to your company, it also will result in many inputs that could be very applicable and should be considered when planning improvements. Most will not be the type of input that causes an “aha!” moment, but many will be useful to tweak a process to improve efficiency or make it more robust.
Customers that audit your facility typically have audited many companies in your industry as well as a bunch of your competitors. When a customer audits your facility, engaging them to discuss best practices and observations can again provide some fodder for thinking about what could be implemented to improve your facility. No auditor will name the company they saw some process in, but they will provide input of the environment and size of facility they observed a process in. Again, many inputs based on an auditor’s observations of best practices will not be applicable to your situation, but some will be gems to consider.
No idea, good or bad, can be investigated unless someone has the presence of mind to write it down. During an audit, typically the person doing the writing or documenting the event is the auditor. Regrettably, most of those being audited are simply supplying inputs, documents and responding to the auditor’s questions. This is regrettable because the inputs and ideas discussed are often not written down for future consideration. Yes, a big idea discussed will be remembered, but little inputs that collectively add up to an implementable improvement instead get forgotten by all.
As with any type of business, some basic protocols should be incorporated into the audit plan before an audit is performed at your facility. Clearly, the auditor will drive the agenda, but those being audited should be made aware that they also should ask questions. When an auditor makes an observation or questions why your company is doing something, ask the auditor what alternative ways have they observed other companies doing the same or similar activity, and do not be afraid to drill down to determine whether the environment in which the auditor observed an alternative method is applicable to your environment.
After the audit, besides discussing the auditor’s findings and recommendations with your team, spend time with those involved to discuss what your team observed or learned that might be applicable to improving your company. Ideas that initially appear to have merit in pursuing should be assigned to the appropriate person to explore, investigate and report back to the team, optimally with an implementation action plan.
Yes, I still hate going through an audit, but over time I have learned that as intrusive as they may be, good information can be gleaned from the auditor that can lead to inputs and ideas that should be incorporated into the future business planning process to improve the business. By doing this, the time spent during an audit is no longer wasted time, but time well invested in the planning process.