Environment / Quality / Safety
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Many companies face requirements to conduct management system internal audits. And many probably consider it to be one of those “necessary evils” of doing business. In reality, an internal audit can be a great opportunity to uncover issues and resolve them before an external audit begins. An internal audit can sometimes even enable more improvements than an external audit because it allows the company to review processes more often and more thoroughly. So what, exactly, goes into an internal audit?
What Is an Audit?
First, conducting a management system internal audit encompasses all of the efforts to gather, accumulate, arrange, and evaluate data so that there is sufficient information to arrive at an audit opinion. According to the ANSI/ASQC Standard Q1-1986 Generic Guidelines for Auditing Management Systems, an audit is:
a systematic examination of the acts and decisions by people with respect to Q/EHS issues, in order to independently verify or evaluate and report conformance to the operational requirements of the program or the specification or contract requirement of the product or service.
Internal audits should be carried out to look for areas for improvement and best practices. In an internal audit, the auditor is evaluating, verifying, and reporting conformance or non-conformance in terms of related documentation. The auditor assesses systems, processes, and products against the related documentation:
- Systems are compared against company directives and requirements.
- Processes are compared against procedures, process charts, and work instructions.
The auditor examines where and how “operational requirements of the management system” are described. This is done by reviewing each policy, procedure, work instruction, checklist, and form looking for each “actionable item” listed within.
The auditor will go out into the workforce and ask the prepared questions to various employees. Based on the responses given, the auditor may need to ask follow-up questions to get a clear understanding of how an operation works. Questions asked by auditors are generally open-ended to give the auditee the opportunity to elaborate. The auditor’s goal is to give the employee the opportunity to think prior to answering and to follow the audit trail wherever it leads—within or outside of the department.
In order for an internal audit to support improvement steps, the auditor will seek tangible evidence. For example, work instructions require that inspections are completed every day, but the checklist shows that no checks have been performed for the last week. Tangible evidence may include taking a photo copy of the checklist to document this issue.
Evaluating Internal Controls
During the audit, the auditor is looking for internal controls that regulate an operation. There are seven steps in evaluating internal controls:
- Observe the Operation: The auditor needs to understand what processes and systems to review, where they are located, and who is responsible for them.
- Identify Constraints: The auditor will identify constraints to the extent possible, such as:
- Scattered information
- Internal opposition
- Process not capable
- Process not in control
- Unavailable information
- Evaluate Risk: The auditor will assess the importance and risk of internal controls not detecting and preventing non-conformances. The auditor will ask personnel being audited and management if there is anything more that could be done to identify and control risk.
- Evaluate the Internal Control Structure: Usually extensive internal controls exist, operate properly, and maintain/improve the process; however, this may not be an accurate assumption. Controls may not exist, may be weak, or may control and measure unimportant variables. It is very important for the auditor to resist assuming that the way an existing system has been set up is the correct way to do something. Auditors should challenge how and why something is being done to encourage system improvements.
- Test the Effectiveness of the Internal Control Structure: Gathering evidence is the process of collecting data and information critical to support a decision or judgment rendered by the auditor.
- Evaluate Evidence: Once evidence has been gathered from interviews, observations, or records, the auditor must distill and summarize the data into useful information for the company. The evidence is then reviewed to determine whether systems and controls are working effectively.
- Issue an Opinion: When all is said and done, the auditor must issue an opinion of conformance or non-conformance. In a deficiency finding (non-conformance), the audit report will clearly state that there is a variance between what is and what should be. All evidence findings should be listed to support this conclusion.
Clarify Issues and Non-Conformances
Upon completion of an audit, there may be times when clarification of an issue or concern will be warranted. This is when the auditor may go back to the department head and review the current understanding of the audit results. The department head should have ample time to discuss and clarify any issues of concern.
Any outstanding issues that warrant a non-conformance report should be discussed to ensure that the company understands: 1.) why the issue is considered a non-conformance, and 2.) what may need to be done to rectify the situation. It is important to also discuss all positive findings from the audit to leverage best practices.
By using an internal audit to actually improve operations—and not just as another requirement to fulfill—companies can realize significant value through:
- Meeting regulatory/certification requirements prior to the external audit
- Improving operational controls and processes
- Enhancing overall management system effectiveness