Adonna Blasko, Marketing Manager, Pilgrim Quality Solutions
It takes a substantial amount of planning and effort to carry out an internal audit, but the outcomes can improve your processes, the performance of your department, and your outlook. As you’ll soon see, undergoing an internal audit can be a learning experience regardless of your skills or expertise within the organization.
Now, here’s a slight disclaimer: As part of a marketing department, the processes I touch and work through are not directly related to product safety or risk. However, our marketing internal audit was a necessary preparation to drive our entire organization toward our ISO 9001:2008 certification. The tips that follow are not solely relevant to marketing, or to any particular process or department, but reflect a broad overview of what I learned through participating in the audit process.
While an audit has many steps, taking part in an audit may only require your participation in a few key areas. My participation required a formal interview, and responding to findings. These are two small pieces to the overall process.
Anatomy of an Internal Audit
It helps to frame the experience within the context of an overall audit plan. While my experience participating as an individual in an internal audit was a single bite of pie, a single department’s audit is only one piece of the pie. The overall organizational audit plan is the entire pie, and baking this pie once each year (let’s say Thanksgiving, for example), would be the cycle for having an audit plan each year.
You may use last year’s recipe as a starting point, but tweak your ingredients to have a better pie next Thanksgiving. Similarly, last year’s audit plan and schedule can provide the basis for the following year’s plan, but there will still need to be a new audit plan. As you scale out to think of internal audits as an ongoing, yearly process, you can gain a better understanding of how much time, effort, and planning are involved in the internal audit process.
Before we get to my tips, let’s take a peek at a snapshot overview of the internal audit anatomy for a single department audit:
- Notification of the audit sent.
- Internal audit time scheduled.
- Internal auditor selected.
- Processes to audit selected. Often this is synced with any regulatory requirements, to prepare each audited department to match its appropriate regulations and be compliant when the next external audit occurs. In this case, key marketing processes for launching a quality management software solution were audited.
- Desk assessment (Auditor)
- Selected procedures reviewed in-depth.
- Interview questions planned.
- Subject Matter Expert (SME) selected and assigned to an interview.
- Execution (Auditor & Auditee)
- Opening meeting to define the scope and purpose of the audit. For example, processes A, B, and C will be reviewed.
- Review of procedures and corresponding documentation (quality records or production records).
- Closing summary—auditor briefs the department on the results. Communicates recommendations, strengths, weaknesses, and verifies for accuracy or asks for disputes.
- Draft report sent to verify accuracy.
- Report is finalized, and nonconformities are issued.
- Auditee commits to a timeline to correct any nonconformities.
- Effectiveness is assessed and verified. Any outstanding issues are escalated, if necessary, depending upon the quality system.
- If all nonconformities are implemented satisfactorily, the audit is closed.
Having an outsider review your documented procedures can highlight weaknesses or failure points you need to consider. As you can imagine, having your work processes questioned and holes poked is not a comfortable situation. It can take some time to mentally prepare to receive constructive criticism and feedback, and to reframe your perspective of your processes in order to continuously improve them.
Here are my tips to survive an internal audit:
1. Evaluate your reality to anticipate weaknesses.
Your procedures are about to be combed through in depth. Do you know going into this process where some of your weak areas are? Spend some time thinking through your processes. If you find that your documented procedures or even your work instructions no longer match the actual steps you follow, you can anticipate a wave of work coming your way to correct this (after your audit). You might recall a time where your process no longer worked as expected and needed to be altered. From my experience, a key marketing procedure needed to be revised, and steps that were no longer necessary were removed as result of our internal audit.
2. Review your own processes with an eye on outsider comprehensibility prior to the interview.
You may be able to anticipate areas that need to be verbally explained to an outsider, but this should not be the case. Your SOPs should be written in a way to eliminate confusion and make sense to any department outsider. Any terms will therefore need to be clearly defined.
The audit results (or auditor’s findings and comments) can provide feedback to help you clarify your processes for department outsiders and future regulatory audits. This may also help when your team has new members who need to be trained on these processes.
Our internal audit highlighted some confusion between feedback and approval. Since all approvals should be documented, this was an area we needed to clarify.
3. Change your perspective.
Auditors are trained on conducting audits and aligning processes to regulatory requirements or industry standards to help your processes achieve higher quality outcomes, and ultimately, produce higher quality products and services. This does not mean they are experts in every area of business. Keeping this in mind can help you understand that the auditors’ goal is to align your processes with a particular regulation or standard. They want you to be compliant, but your assistance and collaboration may be necessary to align your department as such. Only you (and your team or employees) are experts on your actual tactical business areas.
During the interview process, aim to be receptive to the line of questioning from an internal auditor. This will help identify ways to more closely align your processes to high-quality standards, and thereby achieve your continuous improvement goals. You may find that you’re too close to your processes to clearly define the procedure, and therefore your written procedure does not give a high enough overview of the steps.
4. Get your team involved.
Talk to your team. They will likely be involved in implementing any necessary changes to address nonconformities. First, is everyone up-to-date on their training requirements? Have they read and signed off on all document-based training where your department and its procedures are concerned? As a result of an internal audit, document-based process or training requirements may need to be revised and revisited, and it can be helpful to fine-tune these processes with the assistance of those who are directly involved and hands-on with the processes.
It can also be necessary to remind yourself (and your team) throughout an internal audit how the auditing process can help minimize your overall risk. It gives everyone a starting point, and a documented path toward improvement before an external audit can identify a problem.
5. Share what you learned.
When it comes to documented procedures, multiple people can be involved, including individuals from other departments. After working through your interview, findings, and responses, you are sure to have learned a few things about your strengths and weaknesses. Be sure to share these successes and opportunities for growth with the rest of your cross-functional teams. They may be in need of a perspective change themselves. It may even help those teams when they review their own procedures and receive an internal audit notice.
That’s a Wrap
While participating in an audit is not as fun as it “audit” be, it helps move the needle toward meeting continuous improvement goals. Do you have any tips for internal audits? Please share them in the comments.
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