I always find audits a nerve-wracking time, and a first audit for a new standard or facility is doubly so.
It’s a mix of waiting for the exam result that lets you know whether all your efforts have been enough to pass and appearing before the interview panel for that dream job!
Whether it’s for BRC, Tesco or any other GFSI standard, an audit combines the stress of giving what you hope are correct answers, with the sweaty, breath-holding anticipation of that pass or fail outcome.
Over my years in the food industry, I’ve learned a few tricks to help with these anxious moments, and greatly increase the chance of a successful audit outcome.
Preparation is the key, and this can NEVER be done in a short timeframe (especially overnight), so there’s no exam-type cramming.
Preparation is the key and this can NEVER be done in a short timeframe, so there’s no exam-type cramming.
There are, however, 6 precautions one can take that will smooth the way and help in ensuring your first audit is a successful audit.
1. Know what auditors are for, what they do, and how they work:
Auditors are there to ensure the system you have developed complies with the standards you are implementing and that you are doing what you say you are.
It’s their reputation on the line. If they give the OK and your processes later cause some catastrophic occurrence, they may come under fire as much as you will.
An Auditor’s work is also subject to review and approval BEFORE you gain certification. This scrutiny is both welcomed and unwelcome, and because of these assessments, an auditor may seem tough.
Understanding the reasons why auditors behave the way they do is akin to remembering how you viewed homework back in school. You know your work is going to be thoroughly checked for mistakes by the teacher before they accept it. If you fail to meet the requirements of the homework, you won’t pass. It’s as simple as that.
Auditors are like teachers because they work only on fact and hard evidence.
Auditors are like teachers because they work only on fact and hard evidence. So, make sure you can back up everything you tell them, as the punishment for failing to comply is far worse than detention.
It’s also important to understand things from the auditor’s perspective.
Good auditors will help to the limit they can, as long as their help doesn’t compromise the integrity of the audit and allow businesses to gain certification when they shouldn’t.
They want you to succeed, so treat them like a teacher and work together to pass.
2. A Committed Team:
The attitude your business has towards its quality and safety systems shines through, and auditors are experienced enough in industry to know when things are not what they seem.
We regularly see companies place an emphasis on production units, leaving them vulnerable to failed audits because of the lack of concern for keeping evidence.
This comes from the top down, and successful audits require a commitment to the quality system.
Successful audits require a commitment to the quality system
This is the reason management commitment is usually the first section of any system and can make the difference between lowered profit due to returns and complaints. And let’s be honest, if it wasn’t important, why would we spend all that time cleaning up before an audit?
Commitment also requires that the system you are using is followed each and every day, on all products, regardless of whether they are for the customer that requires the system.
Auditors want you to succeed, so treat them and the audit as a helpful event rather than a drain or a test.
Auditors want you to succeed, so treat them and the audit as helpful rather than a drain or a test
If you are the owner or senior manager, be there during the audit as much as you can to show your interest and commitment to ensuring compliance to the standard.
Auditors are experts in their field. Use their knowledge and be prepared to take careful notes. Treat the audit as a learning, co-operative exercise and put your ego aside so you can have an open mind.
Treat the audit as a learning, co-operative exercise and put your ego aside so you can have an open mind
It’s important to remember that this is a co-operative process. Don’t be afraid of questioning or respectfully challenging their perception of how you handle things. This also shows your commitment and interest in doing the right thing for your business, and that you do not just blindly follow what others say.
3. Know your targets and gaps:
Scouts have two mottos, ‘Be Prepared’ and ‘Do Your Best’.
These are also great cornerstones of advice for your first audit.
To be prepared means you are always in a state of ready, body and mind, to do your duty, and doing your duty is doing your best.
To be prepared means you are always in a state of ready, body and mind, to do your duty, and doing your duty is doing your best
For your audit, your ‘duty’ is to comply with the standard in both written word and action. While to be ‘prepared’ is to know the scope of your operations, what it can do and what it can’t do. For help with this, you can source a self-assessment checklist, preferably for the system you will be audited in. Clicking here will show you an example of a HACCP checklist from the auditing body, BSI.
If it is a new machine, process, or factory, it is a good idea to have the whole operation running with all machines commissioned (with records of corrections) and show them in operation, even if it’s only running some dummy product.
Show your record system in operation, even if some aspects are missing. Train your people in the answers to why they do what they do from a safety and quality perspective, as well as their part in the process.
Train your people in the answers to why they do what they do
It is also a good idea to match your system to the standard you are auditing against in advance so that there’s no confusion about which section of your program covers which element of the standard.
Remember to ensure that you have your records reviewed, that gaps are identified, and that Corrective and Preventative Actions are documented. Being on the way to continuous improvement gives an auditor more confidence that you are committed, know what you’re doing, and are using the system correctly.
Continuous improvement gives an auditor more confidence that you are committed
Finally, make sure that you have ALL specifications and registers completed and available to check against. This includes Raw Materials, Finished Goods, Tests and acceptance criteria, registers of contractors, Specifications, Hazards, and Controls.
The more you know and understand your capabilities, the better prepared you will be.
The list can seem endless, and yet, the more you know and understand your capabilities and products, the better prepared you will be.
4. Knowledgeable People:
People are a vital part of a well-maintained company, and each person who has anything to do with the safety or quality of a product needs to be competent in the area they work.
This means that they need to know what part of the standard applies to them, which records they should be filling out, and most of all, what to do when something goes wrong.
Training records need to be filled out and presented as evidence of this competency, but you can be sure that the auditor will ask them questions as well, so don’t fall into the trap of last minute training for your staff.
Don’t fall into the trap of last minute training
I would always recommend that you have a copy of any standards you work with and ensure that at least one senior person, but preferably more, knows the standard and how it applies to the system and your business.
Remember, it is a company’s job to prove to the auditor that it complies. It is not the auditor’s responsibility to ask the right questions to reveal whether a company complies or not.
It is not the auditor’s responsibility to ask the right questions to reveal whether a company complies or not
Auditors collect evidence through Observation, Records, and Questioning, so you must ensure that you have everything necessary to help the audit.
Evidence must be relevant, current, and ready to hand. This means that the evidence is available immediately and directly applies to your factory, processes, and product as they happen in real-time!
Too often, I see companies use the old “we’re waiting on the lab results” excuse which only hurts their chances. This answer doesn’t provide any evidence to support you. Auditors can only pass based on what is presented to them.
If you don’t have your evidence to hand, an auditor may see this as you not being prepared or committed and will be less inclined to grant certification in your favor.
It is important to be vigilant and proactive in collecting your evidence.
Sure, it takes time and money, but that must be compared to the cost of having to get the auditor back because there wasn’t enough evidence to give you your accreditation. It shouldn’t be a choice.
6. The Professional Auditee:
Even though the whole company gets behind your audit, is prepared, and everyone knows their stuff, one person needs to be assigned the role of Professional Auditee.
It’s their job to influence the audit, coordinate the resources needed, answer questions with a systems focus based only on what actually happens, and also to guide the auditor during their premises tour.
The Professional Auditee is the prime Auditor contact and the one who is going to be in the firing line, so it’s vital that they have the full support of management and staff.
The Professional Auditee is the prime Auditor contact, the one who is going to be in the firing line, so it’s vital that they have the full support of management and staff.
This person knows where everything is and has familiarity with how the system works. If you have in–house quality, it’ll most likely be them.
If you have outsourced quality, then a consultant will not be there all the time and a Senior Manager should take this role in order to show commitment from the business.
This could be either the Owner / Manager, or whoever is in charge of making sure the system is implemented in production.
The main point is that it needs to be someone who is on-site the whole time and has the authority to make changes.
Ultimately, this all goes back to demonstrating commitment. If you leave this role to a consultant, the auditor won’t be confident that you can handle the demands of the system when the consultant is not at your premises, which is most of the time.
Bring it all together
Business is all about investment and return. Too many operators focus only on counting materials-in vs. materials-out and don’t value the impact on their reputation, returns, and bottom line that a well-managed and integrated system which is actively pursued can have.
Too many operators don’t value the impact that a well-managed and integrated system can have
Your first audit is daunting and stressful, so when time and resources are devoted in advance of the audit, the process becomes less challenging. A successful audit is about strategizing not just for the audit itself, but for your everyday process.
Leaving audit preparation to the last minute will devote time and resources that could be better focused elsewhere. By actioning your steps early, you can ensure that you are always ‘on’ for the next challenge.
That is the key to successfully surviving the process and coming out the other side.