Understanding the difference between an effective internal audit program and just doing inspections

By Debby Newslow, President, D. L. Newslow & Associates, Inc.
Published June 12, 2012, FoodSafetyTech.com

In today’s world of management systems, customer audits, third party audits and tougher regulations, many ask for assistance not only in setting up an effective internal audit program but in understanding the difference between an effective program and just doing inspections. Having an effective internal audits is very important for a sustainable, compliant, and value added management system.

Top management must be committed. Management commitment must be evident throughout the process. Ensuring the provision of required resources for an effective internal audit process is a challenge for most management systems. It is critical that top management communicates through its ranks that the internal audit program is important to the system and that findings are fact-based observations, not a tool for discipline. The audit is an assessment of the process, not the people. Findings must NEVER be used for disciplinary action.

Each department team must take ownership of compliance rather than waiting for an audit to find out that something is wrong. The audit team is an independent set of eyes that sees what those close to the process miss - not because of neglect or a lack of concern, but because they are too close to the situation. The statement that we do not see the trees for the forest truly applies. In discussing effective internal audits, a few key principles stand out. The first, of course, is having a trained team that understands the concept of auditing and its role in the process. This team needs a leader who plans the audits, leads the team, and acts as a technical resource with a strong understanding of the organization, its processes and the focused standards. This leader, known most frequently as the Audit Program Owner, must have the right resources to create and manage an audit schedule appropriate for the organization. The Audit Program Owner must also have the responsibility and authority to report to the Top Management Team (may be a member of the team) on the status and effectiveness of the audit program.

Although there are many parts to an effective internal audit program, this article focuses on a frequently overlooked aspect of an effective audit program: ensuring that each auditor is accompanied by an area representative (guide) during the audit. This is critical to an effective audit. It is essential that a responsible representative (guide) from the area being audited accompany each auditor for the entire duration of the audit, and that audits never be performed without such a guide. It is very important that this person sees what the auditor sees, because he or she can provide information vital to the overall audit scope. It is essential that we not leave anything to interpretation. Remember that the audit process is only as effective as the relationship between the auditor and auditee. This concept may be one that is the most strongly challenged by department management. Let us review some audit situations and their outcomes with and without the area representative (guide). Keep in mind that the auditor is independent of the area being audited. Consequently, if an area representative is not present, those being audited may not truly understand the auditor, and may feel that they don’t need to allocate much time or be concerned with the audit results. Conversely, by design, the auditors are evaluating a process unfamiliar to them and may need some orientation.